Cleveland’s Free Agency Realty Check

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By PFC Blogger Nick Virzi

4 o’clock Tuesday afternoon can’t come soon enough.

For the moment, the Browns’ free agency rumors have been focused primarily on the defensive side of the ball. With each new update comes the name of another corner, or linebacker, or defensive end that just might be able to make the switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

We’ve seen and heard the name Paul Kruger for so long now that many of us just assume he’ll be suited up in orange and brown next year, and that his spot is one less position we have to worry about come draft day.

But in Cleveland, the disappointment capital of the sports world, it’s never safe to make such assumptions. All $48.9 million in cap room doesn’t change the fact that the Browns have been a franchise lost in the woods, with a compass that stopped pointing toward the Lombardi Trophy sometime in the late 80s. The eternal optimist in me wants desperately for the Brownies to come away from this free agency period with a revamped defense featuring three or four sure-fire studs including, but not limited to, Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and a Keenan Lewis caliber corner.?

But the realist in me says we’ll get lucky to land just one out of this group. Unless something changed overnight (possibly around the time change?) Cleveland has never been a target destination for top free agents – let alone enough to fill in half a defense in one offseason. The true first test of Joe Banner, Michael Lombardi, and the rest of the new front office will be the quality level of the players they can sign that fall below that top tier. The Browns could potentially lose 13 of their own free agents this year – they must use this opportunity to help themselves build a solid depth chart. And that, my fellow Browns fans, might mean a lot of new players that only the most obsessive of football followers may have heard of at one point or another.

In 2012, the Browns were coming off a 4-12 season under the trio of Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur. The need for additional support in free agency was apparent, and despite an advantageous cap number last year ($17.4 million under), the Browns could only muster the likes of defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and 35 year old Juqua Parker. Neither of which will be on the team this year. The fan base was left baffled – like kids on Christmas that didn’t find any presents under the tree.

The biggest part of that problem, in my opinion, was Cleveland’s losing culture. The organization had zero credibility, and gave no reason to believe credibility or respect was on the horizon. Do the Browns have that this year? Their moves at the top – starting with a football-minded new owner in Jimmy Haslam and continuing with solid coaching additions like Norv Turner and Ray Horton – seem like leaps and bounds in the right direction. Unfortunately, personnel changes alone can’t cover up the stench of five straight losing seasons.

It isn’t often you hear free agents mention they want to continue their careers playing for a ‘non-competitive team.’ Wes Welker reportedly shot the Browns down this weekend within a few hours – possibly even minutes. For the Browns to be successful in free agency in the coming years, this regime will have to prove they know what they’re doing on the field – not just on paper.