CLEVELAND, Ohio — Now that J.J. Watt has signed with the Arizona Cardinals, the Browns will turn their attention to keeping some of their own free agents and acquiring other veterans.
The league year opens March 17th, with the early negotiating period for free agents beginning on March 15th. As soon as the salary cap is determined, Browns GM Andrew Berry will make offers to some of his own free agents, including receiver Rashard Higgins and cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson.
He’s also vowed to remain active in the trade market, and will explore deals from now until the deadline in November. He acquired starting safety Ronnie Harrison in a trade with the Jaguars for a fifth-round pick in September, and he won’t stop there.
The deadline for applying the franchise or transition tag to a player is Tuesday, so the Browns will have a much better idea of who’s available after that. Teams are also expected to cut a lot of players this week to get under the cap, and that will give teams and players a jump on free agency.
Here are some things to know and expect as free agency approaches:
1. What happened with Watt?
The Browns were one of the teams that made an offer to Watt, but as I reported last week, it wasn’t higher than the two-year, maximum $31 million deal with $23 million guaranteed that the Cardinals gave him. Watt really did like the Browns, but took more money to sign with the Cardinals. He also said he really liked Kyler Murray, and the weather in Arizona. The Browns likely offered Watt something in the neighborhood of the $11 million they paid Olivier Vernon last season, or would’ve landed there had talks continued. They’ll now likely use that money to pursue another edge-rusher in this saturated market.
2. Von Miller, Carl Lawson, Haason Reddick, Trey Hendrickson and other edge-rushers on their radar
It’s a great year to need a complimentary pass-rusher, and the Browns will likely end up with one of the best available on the market. The question is, which ones will actually be available? Some of the more intriguing ones are Denver’s Von Miller, Cincinnati’s Carl Lawson, Arizona’s Haason Reddick, New Orleans’ Trey Hendrickson and Baltimore’s Yannick Ngakoue. Once teams start unloading salaries and restructing contracts next week, some of these players will re-sign with their teams. Lawson, for instance, could be franchised by the Bengals for about $15.8 million.
If not, the Browns will likely pursue him. He’s only 25, and ranked No. 9 among pass-rushers by by profootballfocus.com last season with 64 pressures. The Broncos have said they’d like to try to keep Miller, the eight-time Pro Bowler, but he’d be a great option if they don’t. Reddick, 26, is expendable now that they Cardinals have Watt, and he’s got a league-high six forced fumbles to go with his 12.5 sacks. Hendrickson finished second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in his first year as a starter last season, and Yannick Ngakoeu, whom the Browns tried to trade for last season, had eight sacks combined in Minnesota and Baltimore.
Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree, who had eight sacks before tearing his ACL last season and 11.5 the year before, would not only strengthen the Browns but weaken the Steelers. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of pass rushers, and the Browns will undoubtedly emerge satisfied.
3. Odell Beckham Jr.
The Browns really like Beckham, but would have listened to offers this offseason because of his $15.75 million salary for 2021. The reality is, there probably won’t be much of a market because of his salary and the fact the salary cap will tumble to about $185 million this season from the estimated $210 million it would’ve been if not for COVID-19. Beckham is also coming off of a torn ACL, and it’s dicey to trade for a player in the midst of a rehab. He looks to be well ahead of schedule and should be 100% for 2021, but the injury will likely give teams pause.
The Browns seem to be forging ahead with largely the same receiver room as they had last year, providing they’re able to re-sign Rashard Higgins.
4. Rashard Higgins
Higgins seemed dismayed last week that he hadn’t yet received an offer from the Browns, but that was only because the salary cap hadn’t yet been determined. Once that takes place, Higgins will receive an offer from the Browns, and he’ll also have a chance to see what he can get from other teams during the negotiating window March 15-17. If a team is willing to pay him $6 million a year, his estimated market value by spotrac.com, he should probably take it and run. The Browns, with more than $30 million of their cap tied up in Beckham and Landry, they probably won’t want to pay him that much.
But Baker Mayfield loves Higgins, and the coaches do too, so they’ll make an effort to keep him.
5. Breshard Perriman
If Higgins gets away, the Browns could have their old friend Perriman on their radar. He played for the Browns in 2018, and Berry was VP of Player Personnel when they signed him. Perriman, who would provide the Browns with a much-needed deep threat, has natural chemistry with Mayfield and revived his career here after getting cut twice in the span of a week by the Ravens and Washington. The former first-round pick of the Ravens, Perriman played for the Jets in 2020, but languished on their horrible offense. Heres, he’s capable of at least six TDs a season.
6. David Njoku
Njoku’s $6.013 million fifth-year option becomes guaranteed on March 17th, and it appears the Browns are full steam ahead with their ambivalent tight end. The Browns have always valued Njoku and have never wanted to give him away. Berry was here in 2017 when they traded up to draft him in the first round, and seems to still like him a lot. Njoku played well down the stretch and in the AFC Divisional Game against the Chiefs, and the Browns believe he has good upside in this tight-end heavy scheme.
If the Browns keep him, and it appears they will, they won’t need tight end Kyle Rudolph, 31, who was released last week by the Vikings and would love to be reunited with Kevin Stefanski.
7. Lavonte David
The Bucs will likely make a strong push to keep David, the leader of their linebacking corps. But if they can’t pay him, the Browns will likely swoop in and try to grab him. His market value is $12.7 million a year according to spotrac.com, but he’s worth it. He’s 31, but hasn’t lost a step yet. He’s the No. 5 linebacker in the NFL according to pff.com, and No. 6 in coverage. He’s exactly what the Browns need to shore up their linebacking corps, and the player they could’ve used against Kansas City.
If they can’t get him, they’ll look at others such as Buffalo’s Matt Milano who’s a close second, and Detroit’s Jarrad Davis.
8. Marshon Lattimore
If the Saints decide to deal their three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, the Browns will likely have him on their trade radar as a possible partner for his former Buckeyes teammate and fellow hometown man Denzel Ward. A Cleveland-centric cornerback room would make sense for a lot of reasons, including the chance to have two Pro Bowlers roaming the defensive backfield together.
The Browns are hoping that Greedy Williams comes back 100% from the nerve damage in his shoulder, but they must have a solid backup plan, and Lattimore represents just that. If the Browns had him, Williams, Ward, Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison, they’d have a dynamite backfield and one of the best in the NFL. They’d have to pay Ward and Lattimore somewhere in the neighborhood of $17 million a year over the next several years, but it might be worth it.
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