Let’s take a moment to remember what free agency was like for the Cleveland Browns last year. As you’ll recall, it certainly won’t take too much time to parse through the moves they made. This is mainly due to the fact that, well, there weren’t any.
Around this time last year, Cleveland watched as all of its marquee free agents fled to greener pastures. The Browns barely put up a fight to keep any of them, and were mocked league-wide for letting all of their home-grown talent flee.
Coming into this year’s free agency period, it certainly seemed like we were in for another round of disappointment. Outside of re-signing linebacker Jamie Collins, there seemed to be little activity surrounding the Browns. Fans began fearing this analytics-based front office just didn’t know how to make the moves necessary to pull Cleveland out of the dumpster.
Just a few hours into free agency, fans league-wide were desperately trying to catch their breath. Today was nothing short of a circus and, to the surprise of many, the Browns were a big reason why. Even more surprising was the fact most of the moves Cleveland made were met with a great deal of praise.
The team certainly got the day off to a strange start. Still needing to re-sign wideout Terrelle Pryor, the Browns instead acquired what most onlookers saw as a downgrade. Cleveland locked up receiver Kenny Britt who, despite coming off his best season as a pro, has had an uneven career. He’d be a great complement if the Browns can somehow bring Pryor back into the fold. If not, signing Britt doesn’t fix much.
From here, though, Cleveland started making the most of free agency by targeting one of its biggest areas of weakness – the offensive line.
First, the Browns re-upped guard Joel Bitonio, handing him a massive $51 million extension. After spending last season reeling from the losses of Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, Cleveland knew it had to fight to keep O-line talent this time around. Bitonio has been steady ever since being drafted by the Browns in 2014, and is seen by many as one of the league’s better guards.
Despite this, the work to repair the offensive line was far from over. Cleveland acted accordingly, bringing in two more free agents – center J.C. Tretter and guard Kevin Zietler. While the former fills an immediate need at one of the line’s most porous areas, the latter was easily the Browns’ biggest grab of the day.
Zietler was seen by many as not only the best lineman available, but also as one of the best free agents to be had in general. Pro Football Focus grades him out as one of the NFL’s top guards, and he should immediately slot into Cleveland’s line starting next year. You could argue the Browns paid a lot (five years, $60 million), but it’s a move which instantly improves a line which got four different quarterbacks injured last season.
If the team were done at this point, you would’ve called it a pretty solid day. It was Cleveland’s last move, however, which had everyone doing a double take.
The Browns traded for embattled Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, which immediately had people pointing and laughing. Once everyone took the time to evaluate the deal, though, the jokes turned to acclaim.
Cleveland got the Texans to add a 2018 second round pick in order to take Osweiler off their hands. This was the big prize the Browns were after, and they were willing to take on Osweiler’s cap hit to get it. Cleveland basically pulled off an NBA-style salary dump trade, and may not even end up keeping its newfound QB.
Instead, the Browns may deal him for another draft pick or just cut him completely. In piling up more picks, while also taking advantage of the enormous amount of cap space they had in their possession, they’re now prepped to make a run at a quarterback they really want – Jimmy Garoppolo.
It’s still unclear if such a deal can be made, but Cleveland has plenty of ammo at its disposal. With some saying the New England Patriots backup can be had for multiple second-rounders, there’s a chance the Browns could get their ideal quarterback without parting with their two 2017 first-round picks.
We’ll have to wait and see if that comes into fruition. As of now though, Cleveland has definitely made a bevy of solid moves. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, as this team is no finished product. That said, maybe, just maybe, the Browns finally understand how this whole free agency thing works.