5 best free agent signings in Cleveland Browns history
With as much flak as the Cleveland Browns franchise has earned from their questionable player personnel moves they have made throughout their team’s history, they have been able to find some key team additions through the means of free agency.
While their draft record is spotty to say the lease, they have had bouts of understanding how to handle the free agency market and address team needs through developed, outside players.
Free agency can be a crapshoot of sorts, mostly because even if one player has proven themselves in the NFL for another team, it is far from a guarantee that that player will translate their previous success into justifying their new contract on a new team.
A common facet that will be noticed when going through this list is that while each included player has made a real difference (at the time) on the Browns’ organization, their tenures with the Browns were very short in length, commonly due to injuries and the ending of careers.
Kevin Zeitler – G
Tenure in Cleveland – 2017 to 2019
The first entry on this list comes from Offensive Linemen University, better known as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the form of guard Kevin Zeitler.
Having come from the same institution that produced left tackle stalwart and franchise legend Joe Thomas, Zeitler came over after being drafted by the AFC North divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals in 2012. Zeitler played out his rookie deal in its entirety and jumped into the free agency pool after the 2016 season, looking to make a killing as the premier interior lineman on the market.
The Browns came calling and threw a five-year deal worth $60 million at him, which made him one of the more well-paid players in the entire league. Zeitler’s career in Cleveland was just as productive and noteworthy as it was in Cincinnati, as he helped shore up an offensive line alongside the likes of Thomas, center J.C. Tretter and Joel Bitonio.
Zeitler was traded two years and four days after he originally signed with the Browns in a deal to the New York Giants, along with a fifth-round selection, in return for edge rusher Olivier Vernon and a fourth-round pick.
Even though Zeitler did not get through the entirety of his contract that he originally signed with Cleveland, his impact on the team can be seen as a huge plus. And it marked one of their better large-money deals that they have ever given out.
Jamal Lewis – RB
Tenure in Cleveland – 2007 to 2009
Marking another player that was poached from a divisional rival, running back Jamal Lewis came over after the more noteworthy portion of his career with the Baltimore Ravens and finished out his career with the Browns from 2007 to 2009.
Joining the Browns for his age-28 season, Lewis continued his running-game dominance, amassing 1,000-plus rushing yards in each of his first two seasons with the team, including a total of 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns in his first year wearing the burnt orange.
Lewis put up 1,002 yards the following seasons, but only reached pay dirt four times and saw his average yardage per attempt drop from 4.4 to 3.6, showing that he was developing some rust on his tired legs. Running backs were used a bit more heavily in the early to mid-2000s, so the fact that Lewis ended up burning out as he reached the age of 30 was not a surprise.
In his final year in both Cleveland and the league, Lewis only played in nine games before being placed on Injured Reserve, ultimately ending both his season and his career in one fell swoop.
Similar to linebacker Jamir Miller and Zeitler, Lewis was only in town for a few seasons, but his impact was felt as soon as he walked in the door.
Pepper Johnson – LB
Tenure in Cleveland – 1993 to 1995
Having already endeared himself to fans across the state of Ohio by having attended Ohio State University, linebacker Pepper Johnson’s return to play for the Browns was a much-needed sight for this franchise in the 1993 period of free agency.
Johnson averaged 113 tackles across his three-year Browns career, topping out with 130 tackles in his final year with the team. His second season’s performance earned him a Pro Bowl nod, as he combined 122 tackles with two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Albeit a short career for the linebacker in Cleveland, Johnson stayed with the team for the twilight of his career. And when the team ended up moving to Baltimore in 1996, he remained in the city that he gave a good portion of his football playing days to, not making the trek to Baltimore to continue his NFL career.
Jamir Miller – LB
Tenure in Cleveland – 1999 to 2001
Seen as one of the potential franchise saviors for when the team resurfaced in Cleveland after having moved to Baltimore, linebacker Jamir Miller showed in just three seasons the type of impact player that he was on defense.
For Miller, the former 10th-overall selection by the Arizona Cardinals put up great numbers when playing in the desert across five seasons. His 367 tackles and 13.5 sacks defined the kind of career he had to begin his time in the NFL, and he shined even brighter when he changed teams in 1999.
While injuries did eventually make him bow out of the league and retire soon after tearing his Achilles in a 2002 preseason game, Miller almost eclipsed his career tackles while in Cleveland (and across two fewer seasons), and he nearly doubled his sack total in that same timeframe:
1999 – 116 tackles, 4.5 sacks
2000 – 85 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 1st career interception
2001 – 99 tackles, 13 sacks, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles, 14 pass defenses
In both ‘99 and ‘00, Miller was strictly a linebacker, but his 2001 season saw him earn snaps at both linebacker and defensive end, which ultimately unleashed his full potential in what ultimately ended up being his final season with the team and in the league.
While a linebacking addition in free agency is not necessarily going to sell copious amounts of tickets and bring more fans out to the games, Miller was exactly what this franchise needed at this time — a productive force of a football player that only knew results and how to live up to lofty expectations.
Otto Graham – QB
Tenure in Cleveland – 1946 to 1955
Having played his entire professional football career with the Browns, quarterback Otto Graham was a very unconventional free-agent acquisition for this team. But his on-field results were not unconventional at all.
Graham originally started suiting up for the Browns when they were a member of the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), and even though he did remain with the team when they made the trek over from the AAFC to the NFL, Graham’s status will be considered a free agent for this article’s purpose.
Seven All-Pro nods, five Pro Bowls, three NFL Championships and an eventual NFL Hall of Fame induction in 1965: Graham has a very full mantle that is filled with awards and achievements from his great NFL career.
This Cleveland legend helped bring notoriety to the city for football. The fact that he remained there for the entirety of his career easily puts him up the highest rankings of professional athletes that ever donned a Browns jersey.