Even though the Cleveland Browns have had an unusually high number of draft selections over the past three years, they haven’t been afraid to spend money in free agency either. Still, although they have over $80 million in cap space, the team must be careful not to spend too much, as large contract extensions are looming for players like Myles Garrett, Joe Schobert, and Baker Mayfield.
Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta has made his career on finding underappreciated talent, and that’s what the Browns need to look for this offseason. Sure, they have the money to spend on one or two high-priced players, but they need to find some sleepers to fill the holes on their roster. Here are three players that Cleveland should have their eye on in March.
3. WR Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
Williams earned less than $3 million this past season, but his next contract should pay him at least three times as much. As the third receiver for the Chargers, he caught 41 passes for 653 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers aren’t amazing, but when taken with the context that Williams plays in an offense that also features Mike Williams, Keenan Allen, and Melvin Gordon, they are solid.
Williams plays WR, so he could very well end up overpaid, but if he is allowed to take on a bigger role, he should thrive. At 6’4″ 205lbs with 4.48 speed, he is a red zone threat that can also stretch the field, and he is quite reliable.
Browns fans are already aware of his big-play ability, as he caught three passes for 118 yards and two scores against Cleveland, including a crazy 45-yarder where he wrested the ball from the grasp of three Browns defenders.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 14, 2018
If the Browns can add Williams for around $10 million per year, their recieving corps would become one of the better groups in the NFL. Williams, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, and Breshad Perriman provides a good blend of possession, speed, and, with Williams, size.
Bringing in Williams would not only add another good WR to the room, it would also open up the entire offense; defenses would be forced to devote less attention to Landry and the other players, and the threat of Williams on the outside would improve Cleveland’s run game. Rather than reach on a receiver in the draft, the Browns should sign Williams, and use the draft to improve their defensive line.
2. OLB Shaquil Barrett, Denver Broncos
Joe Schobert is one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers. He is the metaphorical glue that holds Cleveland’s defense together. He will be a staple in the Browns’ defense for years to come, but the same claim cannot be made about Cleveland’s outside linebackers. Christian Kirksey is a great leader and a fan favorite, but he is overpaid. Jamie Collins can be the best player on the field for one snap, and then the worst for the next ten. He is inconsistent and too often appears to lack effort. He will make $10 million next season and $12 million in 2020.
The Browns should look to upgrade from Collins, but that is easier said than done. LSU’s Devin White would be the perfect fit, but if he declares (which is up in the air at this point), he will likely be long gone by the time Cleveland picks at 17. The Browns could sign Anthony Barr from the Vikings, but they would just be restoring another overpaid linebacker.
Instead, the Browns should target a younger, cheaper option who may be less proven, but could end up as a great value. One such player is Denver’s Shaq Barrett. He has never been a full-time starter, splitting the role of Von Miller’s partner-in-crime with Shane Ray, up until last season, when fifth overall pick Bradley Chubb took over.
Barrett would be moving from a base 3-4 in Denver to a 4-3 in Cleveland, but as defenses become increasingly hybrid and nickel focused, his role may not end up changing much. He is a capable pass rusher, which is something the Browns lack outside of Myles Garrett and Genard Avery, who is a very similar player to Barrett. The Browns must determine whether Barrett’s pass coverage skills are adequate enough to make him a full-time linebacker. If the answer is yes, he could be a very compelling option to replace Collins, at around half the price.
Alternative options: Shane Ray, Kansas City Chiefs, and Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
1. EDGE Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions
There are plenty of premium pass rushers on the market this offseason, including DeMarcus Lawrence, Trey Flowers, and Jadeveon Clowney. However, even with all of their cap space, it would not be financially wise for the Browns to splurge on one of them. Doing so would put them at risk of being forced to cut key players once it comes time to re-sign Myles Garrett, or worse, being unable to keep him at all.
The better move would be to search for a low-risk high-reward option, and that could come in the form of Ziggy Ansah. He has been injury-prone throughout his career, missing 14 games in his six seasons, including seven last year. However, when he is on the field, he is a very productive pass rusher.
In 2017, he finished with 12 sacks in 14 games. Cleveland desperately needs someone to produce other than Garrett, as although he is a strong run stopper, Emmanuel Ogbah has been borderline nonexistent on passing downs. Rotating Ansah and Ogbah in and out depending on the likely offensive playcall would help to keep both players fresh, and reduce the risk of an injury for Ansah.
Ansah made over $17 million last season, tied for most in the league among 4-3 DEs with Lawrence, but due to his injury history, won’t be able to command that amount. In order to reduce their risk, the Browns should offer Ansah a contract, ideally one three years long with a team option for the fourth, that includes plenty of performance incentives as well as injury voids.
Locking down the edge opposite of Garrett will allow Cleveland to focus on improving the interior of their defensive line in the draft.
Alternative options: Dion Jordan, Seattle Seahawks and Allen Bailey, Kansas City Chiefs