Browns offseason primer: Cash-strapped at QB crossroads

Cleveland Browns

2023 record: 11-6

Projected salary cap space: Over the cap

Offseason storylines: Cleveland’s salary-cap position can be summarized in one word: overextended. The Browns are without a first-round pick again and four of the team’s seven picks are in Rounds 5 or 6. For reference, the team didn’t list a single player as a starter at the end of the season that was drafted by the team in Rounds 4-7. The closest to a homegrown late-round hit for Cleveland are linebacker Sione Takitaki (80th overall, 2019) and cornerback Martin Emerson (68th overall, 2022). What feels like another crossroads season for Deshaun Watson brings a few other closely connected variables to that storyline such as, will this aging offensive line hold up, and can Nick Chubb’s reconstructed knee last a full season of pounding?

Team Needs: DT, Edge, WR, QB, RB

Comfortable with the quarterback situation and confident in it are not the same mindset. Watson has played in 12 games since the 2020 season ended. He’s never looked like the $45 million quarterback the Browns thought they were getting from Houston and is coming back from shoulder surgery. Joe Flacco proved an advanced game manager is sufficient with Cleveland’s toothy defense, but he’s also closer to AARP than All-Pro as a member of the 2008 draft class. Pass rushers opposite Myles Garrett and quality depth at tackle are defensive priorities. A running mate for Amari Cooper could be a key cog to unlocking vintage Watson.

Top free agent: Edge Za’Darius Smith – We understand he’s soon to be 32 years old but the Browns should be able to use his birthdate to their advantage. Not many teams are keeping a spot warm for Smith – or any 32-year-old pass rusher – and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wants him back, knows how to use him and can offer Garrett as a double-team-attracting bookend. Smith had 5.5 sacks last season.

Unrestricted free agents (as of March 11):

LB Matthew Adams

TE Harrison Bryant

LT Geron Christian

G Michael Dunn

DT Jordan Elliott

QB Joe Flacco

QB PJ Walker

QB Jeff Driskel

CB Mike Ford Jr.

S Duron Harmon

S Rodney McLeod

WR James Proche

WR Jakeem Grant

WR Marquise Goodwin

FB Nick Harris

DT Shelby Harris

RB Kareem Hunt

DT Maurice Hurst

LB Jordan Kunaszyk

MLB Jacob Phillips

LDE Za’Darius Smith

SLB Sione Takitaki

MLB Anthony Walker

P Corey Bojorquez