The Cleveland Browns are in the fast lane, heading toward acquisition season, with free agency and the trading period less than a month away. After that comes the NFL Draft, where Cleveland doesn’t have a ton of selections but still can make moves within the margins to improve their roster with younger depth. By the time that’s all said and done, the Browns should be much closer to returning to the playoffs than they were by the end of the 2022 season.
Next week in Indianapolis is the NFL Scouting Combine, which takes place from February 28 to March 6. A little more than a week after that, free agency and the trading period begin, and the Browns will hopefully add some key pieces to put themselves over the top and back into the postseason. Cleveland has 25 players set to become free agents on March 15, when the league calendar officially flips to the new year. 21 of them would become unrestricted free agents, two would become restricted free agents and three would become exclusive rights free agents.
Mind you, each player is eligible to re-sign with the Browns at any point between now and March 15. With that said, it doesn’t mean they have to bring back anyone since Cleveland may need to shake things up a bit to wake up a somewhat dormant, playoff-caliber team. Of course, there are numerous hurdles when signing free agents, the most glaring being salary cap space. This year alone, numerous Browns players have their second-year contract or extension rates kick in with huge salaries. They also have a massive, record-breaking cap hit from Deshaun Watson’s contract coming as well.
Cleveland general manager and executive vice president of football operations Andrew Berry has a knack for signing starters and quality depth. He will first consider the salary cap and then find ways to get the Browns under when he is attempting to re-do these contracts and also decide who the club will need to pass on keeping. But, when it comes to Watson, they should invest in protecting their franchise quarterback as much as possible. When looking across the roster, there are obvious cuts to give the Browns more wiggle room financially. But, when it comes to a key spot on the offensive line, Cleveland could have a bit of a battle on their hands.
Over the span of last year, Ethan Pocic proved he belongs as the team’s starting center going forward. As the anchor of the league’s best-rushing offense, the one-year contract with a veteran minimum base salary of $1.035 million plus a $152,500 signing bonus Pocic signed last spring isn’t going to cut it going forward. Sure, some of it was happenstance with Nick Harris, who was penciled in as the starting center during preseason, going down with a knee injury in the team’s preseason opener. But, Pocic also made the most of the situation in front of him and carved out an incredibly important role with the Browns in his lone season with the team.
Pocic wants to stay with Cleveland and, hopefully, the Browns want to keep him as well. But, with him being such a bargain player, Pocic could be too pricy for Cleveland on the open market. Ranking at No. 11 overall among qualifying centers according to Pro Football Focus, Pocic is undoubtedly the best center set to hit the market in March and could be in line for a major payday. Considering the Browns just extended Jack Conklin, it’s going to be tricky to find the wiggle room to pay him.
“I would think we would [want to re-sign him],” said Cleveland offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. “I don’t make those decisions, but I don’t think there is anything in his play this year that we would say we wouldn’t want to see him again next year.”
It’s hard to calculate what exactly Pocic could earn on the open market in NFL free agency since this is just a website and not an NFL front office. But, if Cleveland wants to keep Pocic like Van Pelt wants, something in the neighborhood of three-years, $22.5 million seems like a fair number to start with. It’s a reward Pocic, who is projecting as a special talent, for his already great play all while maintaining flexibility just in the event that it was more of a one-hit wonder. But, considering that Cleveland has roughly $13.4 million in salary space, they’re going to have to move some money around to make it work.
Sure, there’s still a ways to go until free agency opens for both Pocic and the Browns. Nevertheless, it’s an important topic worth discussing since Cleveland needs continuity under center for both their rushing attack and their franchise quarterback. Obviously, every team in the NFL needs offensive line support, the Browns included. So, perhaps Cleveland finds a way to open up more room financially to retain Pocic, who is clearly the future long-term solution for them under center.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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