With the 2019-20 NFL season now in the rearview mirror, all sights are set on the offseason. For your reference, some key dates are below:
This article will focus on bullet points three and four above, i.e. free agency window.
The Browns are faced with many difficult decisions in free agency, with expiring contracts for middle linebacker Joe Schobert, wide receiver Rashard Higgins, free safety Damarious Randall, and left tackle Greg Robinson. Further, multiple players may be subject to terminated contracts, including right tackle Chris Hubbard, edge defender Olivier Vernon, and linebacker Christian Kirksey.
Although the team has upper echelon talent at multiple positions on both sides of the football, there are still positions that could use an upgrade, including (but not limited to): left tackle, right tackle, free safety, tight end, and linebacker. With projected salary cap space of approximately $49.6 million (Over the Cap), the Browns have the wherewithal to acquire a few players that could make an immediate impact.
Let’s take a look at a handful of potential targets that are unrestricted free agents (“UFAs”) in 2020. Will the Browns sign all (or even more than a couple) of these players? Absolutely not. This is merely a list of players that would be considered upgrades at positions of need1:
The offensive scheme of head coach Kevin Stefanski places an emphasis on the use of two-tight end sets. In fact, per Sharp Football, the Minnesota Vikings offense used “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) on 35% of offensive plays in 2019, which was the second-most in the league. As such, the Browns could use another playmaker at the ever-important position opposite three-year veteran David Njoku. Enter former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper.
Over his first four seasons, Hooper has accumulated 2,244 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns to go along with back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances in 2018 and 2019. He is as reliable as it comes as pass-catcher, hauling-in 91.1% of catchable targets, coupled with a minimal 4.3% drop rate throughout his tenure with the black and red (Sports Info Solutions). The tight end makes his hay in the short to intermediate passing game/underneath the defense predominantly via drag and flat routes that would further avail the outside passing game for the likes of current Browns wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis “Juice” Landry.
The Falcons face a tight salary cap situation in 2020 with projected cap space of $5.3 million that is 4th-lowest in the league. As such, Hooper has a decent chance of hitting the market. If so, the Browns should pounce at the opportunity.
Above I mentioned the tight salary cap situation for the Falcons as being the 4th-lowest in the league. Who has the lowest you may ask? None other than the former team of Anthony Harris, as the Minnesota Vikings have a projected cap space of -$11.4 million. As a result, it will be a challenge for the NFC North franchise to retain his services in 2020 and beyond.
Harris continues to be one of the most criminally underrated players in the league, accumulating nine interceptions and seven pass breakups over the past two seasons, all while earning a total of $3.8 million. Further, his 91.6 coverage grade in 2019 was the best at the position group (minimum 500 defensive snaps) and he had a prodigious 29.0 tackling efficiency, which is a PFF metric that measures the number of attempted tackles per miss.
The Browns are in dire need of a free safety heading into 2020 with Damarious Randall and Eric Murray both likely to hit the free agency market. In my opinion, Harris is the pièce de résistance of the 2020 free agency class, with production and playmaking ability that would provide the team another cornerstone piece on a youthful defense.
The 26-year-old inside linebacker, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, is coming off his best season as a pro. In 2019, Littleton had the highest tackling grade among all defenders (91.6) and the 7th-highest coverage grade (82.3) among all linebackers who played a minimum of 500 defensive snaps (PFF). Additionally, his 2.9% broken + missed tackle percentage was the best among all linebackers in 2019 (Sports Info Solutions). The Browns, on the other hand, received a tackling grade of just 49.9 as a team, which was 21st in the league (PFF).
Littleton is one of the premier talents at the position and would serve as an instantaneous upgrade in the box2 over second-year linebacker Mack Wilson, who would better be suited as a rotational piece at this point in his career.
It is a throwing league and the Browns could have the best tandem of coverage linebackers in football with Littleton and Schobert (assuming he is re-signed). Littleton is going to warrant a fairly sizable contract, but he is worth every penny, as his production has been equal to or greater than the expected contract cost.
As mentioned above, edge defender Olivier Vernon could be subject cost > benefit in 2020, as the team could cut the edge defender before June 1 and save $15.5 million with no dead cap space. Vernon is a talented player, but injuries are becoming a concern for the eight-year veteran who hasn’t played a full season since 2016 with the New York Giants.
Vernon could be replaced by someone along the lines of Arik Armstead from the San Francisco 49ers. Per PFF, Armstead had a 90.0 season grade, which was third-best at the position. Additionally, he had a wins above placement (WAR) value of 0.23 in the 2019 season, which was ninth-best among all qualifying players at the position group. The 26-year-old could be a long-term solution at the edge defender spot opposite Myles Garrett, especially with the familiarity of newly-hired defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who formerly served as the 49ers defensive backs coach.
The 49ers may franchise tag the former first-round pick at a projected cost upwards of $19 million for 2020. However, if that’s not the case, he should be on the Browns shortlist of desired names.
The Browns current backup plan at quarterback is, well, nill. Former Alliance of American Football (“AAF”) standout Garrett Gilbert is positioned as the man to take over the reins should Baker Mayfield be sidelined with an injury (knock on wood). That is not ideal for a team that is in win-now mode. Enter seven-year veteran Case Keenum., who has accumulated 14,368 passing yards, 75 touchdowns, and an 85.3 quarterback rating throughout his career.
While with the Vikings in 2017 with Stefanski as the quarterbacks coach, Keenum had a career-year as the 8th-best graded quarterback (81.4) and had the 8th-best wins above replacement (2.09) (PFF). His familiarity with the Stefanski scheme and general success at the position would be a worthwhile investment at a projected one-year contract of $11 million ($6 million guaranteed), per Over the Cap.
Justin Simmons (Safety), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Safety), D.J. Humphries (Tackle), Hunter Henry (tight end).
What say you? What players would you like to see the team add in free agency in 2020?