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Browns make biggest Day 1 splash of free agency, a welcoming sign for NFL laughingstock

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

The Cleveland Browns won four games last year, same as they did in 2008 and 2011. In the other years in between, they won just five each season.

They fired their coach, again, this time after just a single season. They hired a new one, Mike Pettine, who is merely their sixth in the past decade. The front office got shook up, too, of course.

They haven't been to the playoffs since the 2002 season and haven't won a postseason game since 1995. They've averaged 4.5 victories a season over the last half dozen years. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam might still be indicted for the business practices of his truck stop business.

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Hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner will be dropping his bags in Cleveland this season. (AP)

Three different guys started games at quarterback last year, yet they have no quarterback, unless you're buying Brian Hoyer.

In short, they stink.

And yet …

… OK, let's slow down. Cleveland is not winning the Super Bowl next season. Cleveland is not putting together a winning season. Cleveland is not making the playoffs next year.

Well, when it comes to the latter two, probably not.

And that has to be the most exciting "probably not" a fan base has ever heard.

NFL free agency opened Tuesday afternoon and your early winner has to be the beleaguered Browns. Hey, it's something. At the very least, this should be graded on the curve – this is a rare positive day for a franchise that has been the laughingstock of the league.

Cleveland lured San Francisco's hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native and Ohio State product, and very solid Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby right out of the gate. They join an already reasonable good defense – the issue in 2013 was offense, offense, offense.

And considering they still have plenty in salary cap space, they have emerged as the favorite to land Darrelle Revis, the cornerback Tampa Bay is expected to cut by Wednesday afternoon. Revis isn't what he once was with the New York Jets, when he was the league's premier shutdown corner, but he might still have a run in him. He certainly isn't going to hurt them. They have short-term money to burn.

None of this solves the problems of the offense but that can come. The Browns also signed Cincinnati slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to an offer sheet on Tuesday, according to ESPN (The Bengals can match). A running back could still be signed. And most important, with major needs on defense addressed, Cleveland can enter May's draft focused on the offense.

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The Browns bolstered its linebacking corps with Karlos Dansby. (Getty Images)

Cleveland owns the fourth overall pick, which almost assures it a shot at one of the three highly regarded college QBs – Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Blake Bortles of Central Florida.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will assuredly go in the top couple picks also. Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is a possibility too. So is linebacker Khalil Mack of Buffalo, and offensive linemen Jake Matthews of A&M and Greg Robinson of Auburn.

If any of them go in the top three, they push quarterback options down to Cleveland.

In addition, the Browns shrewdly traded running back Trent Richardson during the 2013 season to a desperate Indianapolis team, and picked up the Colts' first-round selection, No. 26 overall. With their own second-rounder, they own three of the top 35 picks. They also have additional picks in Rounds 3 and 4.

The Browns suddenly have a viable defense and a ton of flexibility to fill gaps big and small. Again, not enough to win a title, but at this point, Browns fans would take just being in playoff contention. It's been that bad.

The key will remain the quarterback. NFL.com's Aditi Kinkhabwala cited team sources claiming the Browns aren't high on any of the college prospects and are leaning toward the rehabbing Hoyer, who had his moments in the three games he played last season before injuring his ACL.

That could just be draft posturing, of course. If Hoyer is the future it's a future no one saw coming.

More likely, they take the fourth pick and go with whoever is available from the Manziel, Bridgewater and Bortles triumvirate. While the history of rookie quarterbacks is spotty (and even worse in Cleveland), the blueprint here is actually similar to the Seattle Seahawks. Build a great defense and surround a young quarterback (in Seattle's case, Russell Wilson) with plenty of weapons. Then watch him develop. Cleveland already has an elite receiver in Josh Gordon (1,646 yards, nine TDs last year).

Look, it's March. Cleveland has been failing in free agency and screwing up drafts for decades now. None of the top quarterback prospects are as can't-miss as, say, Andrew Luck was. Who knows where this goes. These are, after all, still the Browns.

Yet, after another lost season, after another regime change, after more stories of IRS and FBI investigators circling Haslam's company, this here was an afternoon when the league was talking about the Cleveland Browns.

And for a change, no one was laughing.

 

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