Cleveland Browns Dominate Day One of Free Agency

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By Jereme Jones March 17, 2020 0 Comment
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The new front office and coaching staff of the Cleveland Browns wasted no time making their presence felt in a major way in the free-agent market on Monday.

The new league year in the NFL doesn’t start until Wednesday, but that didn’t stop the Cleveland Browns from making a lot of moves on Monday. The Cleveland Browns and new general manager, Andrew Berry, opened the legal tampering period by spending over $100 million. The team signed three free agents, Jack Conklin, Austin Hooper, and Case Keenum, tendered offers to four of their free agents, including running back Kareem Hunt and cut safety Morgan Burnett. It’s safe to say the Andrew Berry/Kevin Stefanski era of Cleveland Browns’ football will be anything but boring.

Jack Conklin Signs

The biggest signing of the day for the Browns filled the team’s biggest need, as right tackle Jack Conklin signed a 3-year contract for $42 million. It is a front-loaded deal, with $20 million coming in the first season. By doing the deal in this manner, general manager Andrew Berry allows the team some payroll flexibility in upcoming years while still filling a huge need for the team right now.

Conklin, who was a 1st round pick of the Titans in 2016, is coming off one of the best years of his career in 2019. He was considered the best right tackle in the free-agent market this year. Conklin has played almost exclusively at right tackle in the NFL. It is expected he will remain on the right side of the line in Cleveland, replacing Chris Hubbard. Hubbard could now be a candidate to be cut, with three years and over $21 million remaining on his contract.

With Conklin’s signing, the Cleveland Browns take a big step forward in strengthening the team’s biggest weakness, their offensive line. With Conklin at right tackle, along with left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Trotter, the Browns have the makings of an outstanding line. And, many believe Cleveland will improve the line even more by selecting a left tackle with the tenth pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. If they do, the Browns could have a top-five offensive line in the NFL.

Austin Hooper Signs

Cleveland made Austin Hooper the highest-paid tight end in the NFL on Monday, signing him to a four-year deal worth $42 million. $23 million of the contract is guaranteed and will be paid out in the first two seasons. The Atlanta Falcons originally selected hooper in the third round of the 2016 draft from Stanford. In his four years in Atlanta, he caught 214 passes for 2,244 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last season was his most productive with the Falcons, as he had 787 yards and six touchdowns on 75 catches. Hooper was widely considered the best free-agent tight end on the market this season.

Hooper’s signing is magnified by the importance of the tight end position in new head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Last year, the Vikings offense used two tight end sets 39% of the time. That was one of the highest percentages in the NFL. And the tight ends weren’t just on the field in Minnesota. They were an integral part of the offense. Starting tight end, Kyle Rudolph was 3rd on the team in receptions with 39, while fellow tight end Irv Smith was 4th with 36 receptions. In comparison, the Browns’ 5 tight ends last season caught a combined 41 passes. And, only 10 of those receptions are still on the roster; both David Njoku and Stephen Carlson each had five catches last year.

By being so aggressive in signing Hooper, it is clear that Stefanski plans to continue to emphasize the tight end in his offense in Cleveland. It also means that fourth-year tight end David Njoku could still be a big part of the team’s plans going forward, despite the Hooper signing. Njoku is a former first-round pick who split time last season between the injury list and former head coach Freddie Kitchens’ dog house. If Stefanski can get Njoku to play up to his potential, and Hooper can continue to produce at the same level he has the last two years in Atlanta, Baker Mayfield should have a career year.

Case Keenum Signs

The Browns’ third signing of the day was the least surprising, as they signed veteran quarterback Case Keenum to a 3-year, $18 million contract. Many expected Keenum to sign with Cleveland due to his history with Stefanski. Keenum and Stefanski spent the 2017 season together in Minnesota, where Keenum led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game.

Keenum has started 62 games in the NFL, but he is expected to serve as a back-up for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland. Last season, he started eight games for the Redskins, going 160 for 247 for 1,707 yards, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Keenum is a perfect veteran back-up to the team with Mayfield. And, in case of injury, the Browns can feel comfortable with Keenum at the controls of the offense.

Kareem Hunt Receives a Qualifying Offer

Cleveland submitted a second-round qualifying offer to running back Kareem Hunt on Monday. Hunt is still free to talk to other teams, but if he signs elsewhere, the Browns will receive a second-round pick as compensation. If Hunt takes the qualifying offer with Cleveland, it would be a one-year contract for approximately $3.2 million.

Hunt, who missed the first eight games of last season due to suspension, had 179 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries for the Browns. He also caught 37 passes for 285 yards and one touchdown. While Hunt will not be the primary back for Cleveland, he fills a valuable role behind Nick Chubb. Expect to see him get plenty of carries in 2020 for the Browns. And, with his receiving skills, he can also be a versatile weapon in Kevin Stefanski’s offense.

Morgan Burnett Cut

The Browns also cut veteran safety Morgan Burnett on Monday. Burnett, who is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, had one year remaining on his contract. The move will leave Cleveland $1.325 million in dead cap space while saving the Browns $3.375 million. The 11-year veteran started eight games for Cleveland last season at strong safety, totaling 41 tackles and one interception. Without Burnett, the Browns now only have two safeties remaining on the roster; last year’s fourth-round pick, Sheldrick Redwine, and former undrafted free agent J.T. Hassell.

Three Signed to Minimum Salary Tenders

Cleveland also offered minimum salary tenders to their three exclusive rights free agents, running back Dontrell Hillard, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, and tight end Pharaoh Brown. As exclusive rights free agents, the players must accept the offer from Cleveland or sit out the 2020 season. Hillard saw action in 14 games last season, mostly on special teams. He returned both kicks and punts for the Browns. Hodge was claimed off waivers from the Rams last September and played in all 16 games for Cleveland. On the season, he caught four passes for 76 yards. Brown played in nine games last year for Cleveland, starting six. He caught just two passes for 27 yards in 9 games.

Even with today’s flurry of transactions, there are still a lot of moves to come this week in Cleveland. The Browns have three restricted free agents; they must make decisions on before Wednesday; tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, guard Justin McCray, and defensive end Bryan Cox. They also must decide whether or not to cut a few more high-priced veterans, specifically defensive end Olivier Vernon and offensive tackle Chris Hubbard. Cleveland is also expected to remain busy in the free-agent market. They still have around $30 million to spend and plenty of holes to fill. If today was any indication, it should be an exciting week in Cleveland.

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