When the Cleveland Browns brain trust had its final meeting before the opening of free agency last month, general manager Phil Savage posed a tantalizing scenario. With Cleveland's porous defensive line hanging over the franchise like an anvil, would the Browns be willing to sacrifice their second- and third-round picks to fix the problem?
Savage had already been talking to Detroit about trading draft choices for mercurial talent Shaun Rogers. And he knew it would likely take a second-rounder to acquire Corey Williams from the Green Bay Packers. Already lacking a first-rounder from last season's trade for Brady Quinn, Savage wondered aloud whether it was worth it, essentially giving away all three rounds of one draft – the NFL's annual version of the golden ticket.
Less than a week later, with Rogers and Williams in the fold, Cleveland's roll of the dice has provided the answer. The Browns went all out to shore up a void on their defensive line, sacrificing the meat of the 2008 draft. And looking back on that meeting on the eve of free agency, Savage has few regrets.
"It was the most consensus agreement we've had since maybe we've been here," Savage said.
Now that consensus opinion has led to another: After barely missing out on the playoffs last season, Cleveland's bold moves during the first week of free agency have made the Browns one of the NFL’s most intriguing teams going into this season. Much like New England's bold strokes last offseason, the Browns used every available avenue to thrust them into Super Bowl contention. With the re-signings of quarterback Derek Anderson and running back Jamal Lewis and the trade and free agency acquisitions of wideout Donte' Stallworth, Rogers and Williams, Cleveland has raised the stakes in a talent-packed AFC.
And all it took was a few draft picks and the willingness to gamble.
"I know people are concerned about the draft situation and that we don't have a first-, second- or third-round pick," Savage said of the Browns. "But we feel like we have had the first three rounds here in March and now we have seven weeks to get ready for the last four rounds of the draft. I think this is actually a benefit for us because we know ahead of time what we're getting in the first, second and third rounds with Brady Quinn, Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers."
Sacrificing those picks became a far more palatable option with Oakland's signing of defensive tackle/end Tommy Kelly. Already facing a thin free agent market and draft for 3-4 defensive linemen, the Raiders blew up the price scale for those players by tabbing the versatile but pedestrian Kelly with a reported seven-year, $50.5 million deal with over $18 million in guaranteed money.
It was a jaw-dropping signing, particularly for a Browns team that was in the market for a similar type of player – someone who could play both nose tackle and defensive end in the 3-4 defense. But rather than take a massive risk on a player who has never produced, Savage honed in on the two guys he’d been eying since this year's NFL scouting combine: Rogers and Williams. And while Savage knew it would cost plenty – the two aforementioned draft picks and cornerback Leigh Bodden (included in the Rogers deal) – the Browns could justify the price tag by pointing to the skill level and past production of both players.
What Cleveland has gotten for its draft picks is equity and Pro Bowl potential, without the unjustified price tag. By signing Anderson to a three-year deal, the Browns now have a 401k of sorts with Quinn. The Browns retain what they believe are two starting-caliber players, and some future flexibility to deal for draft picks or players. Either Quinn or Anderson could be a monumental bargaining chip next offseason, which is expected to feature a quarterback starved draft, and another thin crop of free agents.
And by retaining Lewis and adding Stallworth (signed for a reported seven years and $35 million) to the mix of Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Joe Jurevicius, Cleveland only added to last season's budding offense. But nothing carried the weight of transformation as much as the acquisition of Williams and Rogers – two players who will pump a healthy amount of talent into a defensive front that was an Achilles for most of 2007.
Even when fully healthy, Cleveland's defensive line trio of Shaun Smith, Orpheus Roye and Robaire Smith were anything but feared. Expected to protect roaming middle linebackers Andra Davis and D'Qwell Jackson and create opportunities for pass-rushing outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and Willie McGinest, Cleveland's line did neither consistently. In turn, the Browns ranked 27th in rush defense, and were 27th in the league in sacks (28).
That's what set the stage for the acquisition of Williams and Rogers. While the Browns get plus marks for trade ingenuity, they get even higher grades for adding such massive talent. Williams has been one of the most underrated defensive tackles in football the last two seasons, racking up 14 sacks in that span and keeping '07 Packers first-round pick Justin Harrell from seeing much significant action last season.
Meanwhile, Rogers has been wildly inconsistent in his career. Branded as a moody, fickle personality in Detroit's locker room, his play often fluctuated with his weight. But in spite of the knocks, he remains one of the most physically gifted defensive linemen in the NFL. When motivated and in shape, he can dominate games, much like he did last season against Denver, when he racked up 2½ sacks, a batted pass and an interception returned for a touchdown. That's largely why the Browns lavished him with a reworked six-year, $42 million deal with $20 million in guaranteed money.
"He's a strong, dominant player at the line of scrimmage and he can win the one-on-one battle, which will force some double teams," Browns head coach Romeo Crennel said during an address to the media. "He will be able to hold his ground versus the double team as well, which then will free up whoever is behind him. I think (the players behind him) will appreciate him as well."
Added Rogers, "I'm surrounded by tons of talent and guys who can demand double teams as well and allow me to do some things on my own. I most definitely think there's a lot of good football left (for me)."
That's what Cleveland is hoping. Because while gaining Williams and Stallworth were big moves and keeping Anderson and Lewis was a must, Rogers might well be the key to all of it – the one player who has the ability to make this offseason a watershed moment for this Browns franchise. Not only will he be charged with strengthening the middle of a soft defense, but commanding the kind of attention at the line of scrimmage that allows other players to flourish.
Arguably no other "elite" team in the AFC added such an important piece. While New England was losing a bundle of free agents and teams like Indianapolis and San Diego were largely standing pat with their current rosters, Cleveland was building its argument as next season's Super Bowl dark horse.