Five Browns thoughts coming out of NFL combine: What’s the plan heading into free agency?


INDIANAPOLIS — Some final thoughts on the Browns’ public statements at the NFL Scouting Combine, the important roster business ahead and how Cleveland might navigate March.

1. The Browns aren’t pressed by the March 5 franchise tag deadline and don’t have a first-round pick, so they weren’t going to be a buzz team at the combine. They’re busy with draft prep, but the March 11 start of the player movement period is much more important to the Browns.

The work done here is important. The Browns still hold six draft picks, and they need young players to help boost their roster. But this offseason is about trying to maximize the current roster and being ready and flexible for every possible option involved with key veteran players who might become available.

The Browns were not one of the teams making draft or player-cut headlines in Indy, and thanks to the salary-cap work they’ve done since last year, there are only a few immediate contract issues to be addressed. For the third straight offseason, much of the external discussion centers around getting Deshaun Watson comfortable and tailoring the offense to his strengths. If you’re exhausted by that, I get it.

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The team thinks Watson is on track health-wise in his recovery from shoulder surgery, and the obvious goal for all involved is for the quarterback to play a full season and at a consistently high level. When it comes to the team’s decision to either have Watson play 2024 at what would be a record salary-cap number of $63.9 million or reduce that for the second straight season with a standard restructure, Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry has been noncommittal.

Following conversations at the combine with some longtime NFL executives, I’d caution against much of anything the Browns ultimately decide to do. I still think they will choose to restructure the deal, basically halve Watson’s 2024 cap number and push more dead money into years past the 2026 expiration of the contract. Creating as much room as possible, then using the rollover to the next season with what’s left, has been the team’s strategy in recent years.

If Cleveland chooses not to rework the deal, it’s not any kind of statement about Watson’s future or where the Browns stand with him. They stand in one place, actually: a place of full guarantees and full commitment. If Watson plays at the $63.9 million number, that would mean the Browns feel good about what they did (or still can do) to put the best possible roster on the field. They were preparing for the cap to take an unprecedented jump, which it did to $255.4 million, and all indications are that they’ll continue to push money forward when they can and spend where they feel appropriate.

If they don’t push any more money into future years, it’s not because they’re planning an exit strategy — the team’s overall spending backs that up. Watson’s cap number is slated to be the same in the next two seasons, 2025 and 2026. Last year’s restructure pushed around $9 million of dead money into 2027, and the Browns can still rework those numbers ahead of any season. Philadelphia gave quarterback Jalen Hurts his big-money extension last April, and the Eagles stretched out the cap hits long past the life of the deal, which runs through 2028. Per Spotrac, the Eagles have $84 million in dead money from that contract from 2029 to 2032, with more than $60 million coming in 2029-30.

How do we translate that? The Eagles, like the Browns, are looking for maximum flexibility now and will deal with the dead money later. The cap will continue to rise, circumstances will change and the team will hope that Hurts continues to play well and eventually gets a reworked contract. Even if Berry hadn’t previously worked for the Eagles, we still could easily equate that to what Cleveland is doing. It’s all about right now, and with the cap rising, there’s plenty of time later to adjust when and if necessary.

The Browns essentially bought cap room last summer by restructuring the contracts of Myles Garrett, David Njoku, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio, and the team created $11 million of 2024 cap space with the restructure of Denzel Ward’s contract last week. The Browns have signed up to chase big prizes now, virtually taking zero-interest loans on a rising cap, and figuring out the rest later.

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2. Last year, the Browns had to fix what had probably been the league’s worst defensive tackle group. Adding multiple players at that position was Cleveland’s most obvious and pressing priority in March 2023. Adding a defensive end and wide receiver was pretty high on the list, too.

This year, four veteran defensive linemen are eligible for free agency and the receiving corps remains Amari Cooper and many question marks. But I still think there are plenty of ways the Browns can go early in free agency and on the second day of the draft, and I prepare to leave Indianapolis with the thought that although they’re going to look to add juice to the receiving corps, it’s not necessarily the highest priority of the offseason.

In short, the team believes in contract-year Elijah Moore and second-year Cedric Tillman more than most of us on the outside. The Browns are still monitoring the free-agent market and completing full background work on the draft prospects, but there’s no feeling that they have to move on an A-list wide receiver, even if such a player makes it to the open market. I leave with the feeling that Cleveland wants Za’Darius Smith back but won’t necessarily rush into negotiations. I believe the team has multiple plans for the start of the free-agency period that are contingent upon which players hit the market and what — or who — it ultimately believes is the best plan with the No. 54 pick.

If the Browns could trade that pick (or No. 85 in the third round) for a starting defensive lineman, I believe they’d explore that avenue. If they think they can draft a wide receiver who provides an immediate and long-term impact, they’ll spend accordingly in March. The Berry-led front office has been pretty good at committing to the right players already on the roster and gauging the prices of outside free agents. There have been misses — some more expensive than others — and there can never be just one plan headed to free agency, but I trust the Browns will be ready to use assets on an immediate contributor if they see the right fit.

All in all, I’d expect the Browns to try to bring back a good number of their own free agents throughout March and April, eventually extend Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and be willing to trade draft picks, as they’ve done in the past. If there’s a realistic splash to be made with a top-level player becoming available, the team should have the resources to make it happen. That’s still an “if,” and I’d guess the Browns won’t add the same number of external free agents that they have in recent years.

3. The Browns go to the new league year with two quarterbacks under contract, Watson and Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Berry has said the team will add a third, but he’s been careful not to say they will bring Joe Flacco back.

“Quarterback will always be a high priority for us, from one to three,” Berry said. “What that room looks like as we get into the summer, that I’m not sure yet. It’ll largely just depend on who’s available and at what cost.”

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Joe Flacco passed for 300-plus yards in five straight games for the Browns after being signed late last season. (Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

That’s the second time Berry has referenced budget when it comes to a veteran backup. I don’t think Flacco will come back given how well he played last season and the dynamics (internal and external) with Watson.

Maybe Flacco will sign a one-year deal elsewhere for more than Cleveland ideally wants to pay its No. 2 quarterback. Maybe money will keep the Browns and Jacoby Brissett from having a reunion. I feel strongly that a team in win-now mode — and one that just used five starting quarterbacks in 2023 — needs to go with a more experienced backup than Thompson-Robinson.

“I think there’s certainly, there’s value in experience of course, but we’ll see how it all shakes out,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “I thought (Thompson-Robinson) did a great job for us. I thought he got better as the season went on, as you’d expect in a young player. So I expect him to take a big jump in Year 1 to 2 as well.”

If budget is the issue, maybe the Browns will pursue a quarterback still on his rookie contract. Understandably, nobody’s getting excited by names like Zach Wilson, Mac Jones or Malik Willis, all of whom could be had for almost nothing and remain on their rookie deals. It’s fair to deduce that the Browns didn’t think much of the 2022 draft class (Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, Willis, Sam Howell) two years ago and might think the same now. But there are only so many quarterback options. If a team can find and fix one, it could end up being beneficial in many ways down the road.

4. I think there’s zero reason to freak out about the NFL Players Association players survey released last week that, among other things, graded Stefanski as the league’s 28th-best coach. The results say Stefanski has been pretty good, and that he’s grown into the role. The survey said the Browns badly needed a new weight room; the team already knew that and is in the process of building one. As noted above, the Browns don’t always get it right. But they’ve proven more than willing to spend big money in hopes of getting things corrected.

Does that include long-term extensions for Berry and Stefanski? It should, and I’d expect those to be handled later this spring.

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5. We don’t know what will come of the Browns’ discussions with Nick Chubb’s representatives about the running back taking a pay cut and Cleveland lowering his 2024 cap number of almost $16 million. We also don’t know when Chubb can be expected to return to action, something that could affect the team’s stance in any contract conversations.

I do expect Chubb back with the Browns, probably on a deal that — a little like the others — spreads out cap money over multiple seasons and gives him a chance to earn more via incentives. But there are plenty of veteran running backs likely hitting free agency, so I’m not sure what the numbers ultimately will be.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how the Browns handle the running back position in the coming months. Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong Jr. are set to return, but if Chubb is going to miss even a month of the season, the Browns might have to be in the market for a bigger back.

One name to track from the combine as a potential third-day pick: Audric Estime, a tank of a running back from Notre Dame who played his first two college seasons under new Browns tight ends coach Tommy Rees when Rees was the Fighting Irish’s offensive coordinator.

Notre Dame lists Estime at 5-foot-11, 227 pounds, and he was a bit of a goal-line specialist. Estime doesn’t turn 21 until the opening weekend of the 2024 season. He led the Irish in rushing in each of his last two years.





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