Ranking Browns’ top free agents: What does the future hold for Za’Darius Smith?

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The Cleveland Browns have not only been aggressive over the last several offseasons in adding experience to their roster, but they’ve also been proactive in paying to keep their talented players away from the open market. Most of the contract extensions or restructures have been finalized with the big picture and Deshaun Watson’s upcoming cap numbers of $64 million from 2024 to 2026 in mind. But Grant Delpit’s extension in December became a priority because the Browns felt he was an ascending player worthy of further development and a longer commitment.

So, about five weeks ahead of the 2024 player movement period, most of the questions about Cleveland’s plans involve how the team will move salary-cap money it’s already committed. Barring a surprise trade or really surprising cut, the Browns will have almost their entire offense back for next season, and most of the starters on defense, too.

Not everybody will be back, though, and the Browns have to make some decisions based not just on finances — they’ll have close to $40 million in 2024 cap room assuming they again restructure Watson’s contract — but on depth, locker room chemistry and which young players the folks in charge think are ready for bigger roles.

Last year, fixing the defensive tackle group and upgrading the receiving corps were screaming needs. The Browns still need speed at wideout, but their decisions with the defensive front are slightly less pressing and less expensive. Still, good teams are always looking to add to their defensive lines.

Below is a look at 11 of the Browns’ most interesting potential free agents, how they fit last year’s team and my gut feeling on whether or not they’ll be part of Cleveland’s long-term thinking. The thing about my gut — other than it’s growing — is it could easily be wrong. The Browns feel good about the potential financial flexibility they’ll have to pursue a big-ticket player or two, but they’ll have to carefully evaluate their options, both internally and externally.

The players are listed by perceived level of outside interest if they do hit the open market. Free agents can begin to negotiate with other teams on March 11.

The Browns acquired Smith in a trade last May that included contract amendments that would make him eligible to hit free agency in March. That was designed to work for both the player and the team, and it did. Now, ahead of his age-32 season, do the Browns want Smith back? He started at defensive end in every game the Browns’ regulars played, and he played 59 percent of the snaps for the season. He was an energetic piece for a defense that consistently rattled opposing passers. He’ll have value to several suitors because he can play in multiple schemes and get to the passer even if he’s not a full-time player. Do the Browns view him as one? Can they pay him as one? This is a tough one to forecast.

Gut feeling: This feels like a negotiation that won’t take place in the first wave of free agency, but Smith probably comes back — unless the Browns find a way to spend big on an immediate replacement.

The Browns were the first team to even give Flacco a look last season, and he got hot in December to help push them to the playoffs. Watson is returning as Cleveland’s starter, so Flacco is headed back to free agency at 39. I find it hard to believe any team is going to be looking to make Flacco its starter, but he played well enough that he should draw interest — and maybe command more money than the Browns want to pay a backup quarterback. What we’re wondering is whether the Browns can risk bringing Flacco back should Watson struggle, given Flacco’s popularity in the locker room and success in the season’s final month.

Gut feeling: Flacco goes elsewhere as a tutor/bullpen arm, and the Browns bring back Jacoby Brissett as their No. 2.

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Good punters are hard to find, and over the last two seasons, Bojorquez has proven to be reliable. In 2023, he had his second-best season in total yards per punt, net yards per punt and punts successfully landed inside the 20. He’s still just 27, and it’s likely the Browns want to keep him. What will the market be? Or will they even let him get to the market?

Gut feeling: Bojorquez returns on a one-year deal.

Yes, that’s two names under one category. No, we’re not trying to meet a certain word count. Both are veteran linebackers who primarily play inside in the base defense. Both returned on one-year deals last season when they were rehabbing major injuries. Walker and Takitaki bonded last spring over their respective comebacks, and from a locker room leadership standpoint, the team probably wants both back. But Walker struggled with a handful of injuries late in the season, and the linebacker position seems to rank last in positional priority with the folks in charge.

Gut feeling: The Browns probably bring back either Takitaki or Walker, but not both. I lean toward Takitaki returning.

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His time in Cleveland had come to an end. Then Nick Chubb’s injury in September changed everything. Hunt was nearby, available and proved he could still be an effective short-yardage back. It feels fairly certain that Hunt will be moving on, and he’ll hope his 2023 tape can help him get a better contract than he was offered last summer.

Gut feeling: Hunt signs in August with some team that believes he can still help move the chains.

Elliott was a starting defensive tackle the last two seasons, and though he had a career-best 2.5 sacks in Jim Schwartz’s pressure-first scheme, Elliott only played 42 percent of the snaps as part of the defensive line rotation. If the Browns think he’s still getting better, they’ll probably look to bring him back. But with a new defensive line coach and contract decisions to make across the front seven, it’s hard to predict how things play out.

Gut feeling: The Browns tackle other priorities first, then look to bring Elliott back.

He’s been the second tight end for most of his four seasons, and in 2023 he added part-time duty as a short-yardage quarterback to his resume. Bryant has been a mostly reliable pass catcher and a willing blocker, so the Browns probably only would move on if they feel they can make a significant upgrade. Given that David Njoku is the clear No. 1 tight end and that Cleveland has other needs to address, it’s hard to see that big upgrade coming.

Gut feeling: Bryant will be back on a one-year deal.

Harris was a free agent for six months last year before the Browns added him in mid-August. He’s 32, so he probably won’t be a priority free agent, but he can bolster plenty of defensive line groups. Harris brings energy, experience and position versatility. And though he wasn’t a listed starter, he was a productive player in 2023.

Gut feeling: The Browns will want him back at some point this spring or summer.

go-deeper

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He’s been the primary backup center when healthy, and in 2023 he added fullback duties in the team’s jumbo packages. He never campaigned for the ball, and he willingly went back to center when the Browns needed him. He’s probably not a starter, so his best fit is likely with the team that knows him best and feels good about whatever role Harris is asked to play.

Gut feeling: Likely back.

With a nudge from special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, the Browns signed Ford last March and got exactly what they were hoping for: strong special teams play, constant energy and valuable experience at cornerback. It’s Ford’s special teams ability that makes him an attractive potential free agent, but his ability to play cornerback in a pinch is important, too. The Browns have a lot invested in their secondary, but if finances permit, they’d like to have Ford back.

Gut feeling: This one comes down to how the Browns handle things with the rest of the secondary, and what they might choose if they only have the money to bring back either Ford or backup linebacker Matthew Adams as the leader of the core special-teamers. I’ll guess that Ford returns on a one-year deal.

What else we’re tracking

Notable Browns who are now extension-eligible: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB; Greg Newsome II, CB; Elijah Moore, WR.

Obvious candidates for significant contract restructures: Deshaun Watson, QB; Nick Chubb, RB; Jack Conklin, OT.

Not on the above free-agent list but potentially back: Matthew Adams, LB; James Proche, WR; Michael Dunn, OL.

Veteran free agents who could get a call in July, August or even November: Rodney McLeod, S; Maurice Hurst, DT; Geron Christian, OL.

Likely moving on: Marquise Goodwin, WR; Jakeem Grant Sr., WR; Jacob Phillips, LB; Jordan Kunaszyk, LB; P.J. Walker, QB; Duron Harmon, S.

(Photo of Za’Darius Smith: Scott Galvin / USA Today)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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