With $61.5 million in salary-cap space (the fifth-most in the NFL), the Cleveland Browns have plenty of money to spend in free agency. While the Coronavirus outbreak has put a halt to the majority of sports worldwide, the NFL decided to start the NFL free agency period on time rather than delay it, which began at 12 p.m. ET Monday afternoon. The Browns wasted no time in going to work, spending some of their cap space, and filling some holes on a roster that still has plenty to fill.
The Browns have spent $63 million in guaranteed money today between Hooper, Conklin, Keenum. That’s the most they’ve spent in guaranteed $$ in free agency since at least 2011 (and probably ever), according to @ESPNStatsInfo pic.twitter.com/86GuHMFoIq
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) March 16, 2020
Less than an hour into free agency, Cleveland secured the top free agent tight end on the market, giving former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper a four-year, $44 million deal, making him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 16, 2020
While David Njoku certainly has plenty of raw talent, three years into his NFL career, the tight end has yet to live up to his potential. The addition of Hooper not only gives the Browns a solid playmaker at tight end, but the 25-year-old has continued to prove that he is one of the best at his position, totaling 214 catches (277 targets), 2,244 yards, and 16 touchdowns in his four-year career so far, including 75 receptions (97 targets), 787 yards, and six touchdowns in 13 games (10 starts) last season, all three of which were career highs.
This signing doesn’t bode well for Njoku as a starter, for obvious reasons, but it also doesn’t mean that he is on the way out in Cleveland either. New head coach Kevin Stefanski loves using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), which means Hooper and Njoku can both be on the field at the same time.
The Browns might have overpaid a bit for Hooper, but his talent paired with the type of game he plays allows the Stefanski-led Browns to play the style of offense that the new head coach prefers and fills a hole that Cleveland needed to fill this offseason. Also, reports state that the Green Bay Packers were also in on the tight end, which could be a reason the Browns were forced to give Hooper a bit more money.
Just hours after making Hooper the highest-paid tight end in the league on a deal that might have been a bit overpriced, the Browns signed former Tennessee Titans right tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal ($30 million guaranteed). In case you did think the Browns gave Hooper a bit too much money, they made up for it with their team-friendly deal to Conklin.
Jack Conklin agreed to a 3-year deal with the Browns for $42M with $30M fully guarantee, per @RosenhausSports. He earns $20mil in the first year. Wanted to keep it short due to the projected increases in the salary cap. Conklin will only be 28 when this deal expires.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
The top offensive tackle on the free-agent market, the 25-year-old fills a glaring hole along the offensive line. Cleveland needed to add two starters at both tackle positions this offseason, this addresses one of those. Many believed that the former eighth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft wouldn’t hit the free-agent market, but after Tennessee declined to exercise his fifth-year option last offseason, he was able to do so.
Considering the other contracts that were given to a number of offensive tackles on Monday, this certainly looks like an even better deal for the Browns. Now, they must fill the starting left tackle vacancy in the upcoming draft and an offensive line unit that was a huge weakness in 2019 could be one of the team’s strengths in 2020.
It’s also important to note that both Hooper and Conklin’s contracts are frontloaded, which is quite important when looking ahead.
#Browns front loading contracts in the first 2 years knowing payment on Myles Garrett & Baker Mayfield extensions are due beginning in 2022 for Garrett, 2023 for Mayfield
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) March 16, 2020
Just when you thought they might have been done on Day 1 of free agency, Cleveland made one more signing to close out the day, signing quarterback Case Keenum a three-year, $18 million deal ($10 million guaranteed) and giving Baker Mayfield to have a legitimate backup quarterback that he can continue to learn from heading into his third year in the NFL.
Browns reached agreement with former Redskins' QB Case Keenum on a three-year, $18 million deal that includes $10 million guaranteed, per source.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
For what it’s worth, his $6 million annual salary would have been the 32nd-highest salary among quarterbacks in 2019, just ahead of players such as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor. That puts things in perspective a bit, even if you think the Browns did give him a bit too much money.
The Browns will be Keenum’s sixth team in seven seasons, but the quarterback and that’s certainly a hefty price for a backup quarterback, but given his experience, it was somewhat needed, even if Cleveland still has a bunch of other holes to fill on the roster. Paired with Stefanski when the two were with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, the veteran is familiar with the head coach’s offense. In their lone season together, Keenum completed a career-high 67.6% of his passes for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. That, along with the fact that he has started 38 games the last three seasons, and he brings plenty of experience to the quarterback room.
It’s important to let things play out, especially with the way the 2019 season ended after what many believed was a solid offseason for the Browns last year, but this is certainly a good start to the 2020 season, especially given the fact that it’s the first offseason with (yet another) new-look front office. Whether it’s a number of starters or just depth across the board, they still have plenty of holes to fill on the roster. Now, it’s just important that Cleveland continues to capitalize on free agency and in the upcoming NFL Draft.