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Browns busy in the trenches during second day of free agency

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The Cleveland Browns started their free-agent hunt on Tuesday in the trenches, nabbing two offensive linemen and a defensive lineman. The Browns reportedly agreed in principle1 with former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Chris Smith. The Browns moved the offensive side of the ball, reportedly agreeing in principle with former Broncos offensive tackle Donald Stephenson and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Chris Hubbard. The Browns inked Smith to a three-year, $14 million deal, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. The contract for Stephenson is a one-year, $2.5 million deal, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. And Hubbard’s contract is a five-year, $37.5 million deal with $18 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

The biggest signing is probably offensive tackle Chris Hubbard. Hubbard is a 26-year versatile offensive lineman, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 2013 NFL Draft as an undrafted free agent out of UAB. Hubbard has played in 40 games and has started 14 games at right tackle and guard over his four seasons in the NFL. Last season with the Steelers, he really showed what he could do, filling in for right tackle Marcus Gilbert for 10 games. The extended playing time likely contributed to this healthy contract. With the Browns, his role on the team is a little up in the air. The uncertainty with left tackle Joe Thomas’ future makes his role one that will take shape with more information. But, it would appear Hubbard will come in and compete for the right tackle spot against Shon Coleman. Hubbard’s familiarity with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will probably give him the edge for the starting role.

Defensive end Chris Smith will also likely come in to be a quality contributor for the Browns. Smith is another young player at 26-years old. He entered the league as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ fifth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Arkansas. Last season with Bengals, he had 26 tackles, one forced fumble, and three sacks. In his four-year career, he has amassed 46 tackles, two forced fumbles, and seven and a half sacks. Smith will come in and add much-needed depth to the edge rusher group. Beyond Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, the Browns struggled to find production from the edge rusher group.

The signing of offensive tackle Donald Stephenson is likely for depth purposes. Stephenson is 29-years old and was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma. In his six seasons, he played in 80 games, starting 37 of those games. He has experience playing both tackle positions. The Browns need depth on the offensive, especially at tackle, so this addition improves this area with an experienced offensive lineman.

The Browns may not have won over some of the big names that the rumors over the past couples days had the Browns coveting, but the Browns added some much-needed help on Tuesday. The addition of Hubbard will probably be an underrated one in fans eyes. But, he could be the team’s starting right tackle next season. Shon Coleman did not show the improvement the team would have liked to have seen over the course of the season last year, so the front office decided to go with a player in Hubbard who is the same age and maybe an ascending player in the NFL. Smith and Stephenson give the Browns depth in the trenches, which always a good way to go about building your team.

The Browns are surely not down in free agency. The team still has a lot of holes on the roster and a lot of money to use to fill these holes. But, the biggest storyline to follow on Wednesday and the days ahead is the future of Joe Thomas. His decision to play the 2018 season or retire clears up the direction the team is going in on the offensive line. If he plays this season, it makes the line a lot more settled and complete, to say the least. So, keep your eyes on Thomas and on the Browns front office, who will likely continue to add to the roster over coming days.

  1. Deals are not official till Wednesday at 4 pm. []