The Cleveland Browns did not exactly get off to a sizzling start this year in free agency. They started by signing 36 year-old journeyman quarterback, Josh McCown, to a questionable three-year deal after he played awfully in Tampa Bay last season. They did not sign any “big name” players and missed out on some players they had been closely targeting. In addition, they lost a number of key players from last year’s team including Brian Hoyer (to Houston), Jabaal Sheard (to New England), Buster Skrine (to the New York Jets) and Jordan Cameron (to Miami). After the disappointing start, fans were frustrated and most would have put our free agency grade somewhere in the D or F range. However, I believe Ray Farmer and company have made some solid moves since to improve that grade.

It started with the signing of former Buckeye, Brian Hartline, after being released by the Miami Dolphins. The Browns signed Hartline to a team-friendly contract with little risk, 2 years worth $6 million dollars. Hartline had back to back 1,000 yard seasons in 2012 and 2013 and has been a very productive number two receiver in this league. His numbers dipped last season, but much of that was due to an offensive philosophy change in Miami. He is a pro’s pro and an Ohio kid who will be extremely motivated to play well for the hometown team. Adding Hartline at least helps improve a receiving corps which was one of the worst in the NFL last season.

Grade: B

The Browns then placed tender offers on four restricted agents who are extremely likely to be back with the team. Pro Bowl safety Tashaun Gipson and linebacker Craig Robertson were given second round tenders while Johnson Bademosi and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen received original round tenders. The Browns can match any offer these players receive and would acquire draft picks if they lose any of them to another team.

-Gipson and Robertson are crucial members of this team who have turned into really good players in the NFL. The second round tenders tell the players and the rest of the league the Browns see them as key parts of the team and want to get long-term contacts done.

-Bademosi is a special teams beast and Kitchen has shown potential as a solid part of the defensive line rotation. While not flashy, they are solid pieces which help the team in key areas.

Grade: B+

Next, the team locked up punter, Spencer Lanning with a new contract. While signing punters doesn’t exactly get fans excited, it was smart to lock up a guy who has been very solid. Field position and special teams can be key to winning or losing games and Lanning give us an advantage in that department. Lets face it, we are usually bad on offense and need to punt more than we would like. At least we know our punter will get the job done, even if the quarterback won’t, haha.

Grade: A

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 The next key signing came in the form of veteran cornerback, Tramon Williams. Williams comes from a winning culture in Green Bay, where he was extremely productive and gained tons of playoff experience. He is a legitimate and formidable starting corner who will replace Buster Skrine opposite Joe Haden. His arrival also means the Browns will not be forced to rely heavily on shaky first-round pick Justin Gilbert or other young corners Pierre Desir and K’Waun Williams.

Grade: A

Along with Williams, the front office also inked a deal with defensive lineman, Randy Starks. Starks is an 11-year veteran who has spent time with Tennessee and Miami. While he is now 31 years old, he has been a Pro Bowler and should add solid production to a defensive front which was one of the worst in the NFL last season at stopping the run. He also signed a team-friendly, low-risk contract for two years and $8 million dollars. Most expect the Browns to draft a top defensive lineman in the draft; paired with Starks, the teams defensive front should be much improved from a year ago.

Grade: B-

 The last of the headline-worthy additions was wide out Dwayne Bowe, who signed a two-year deal after being released by Kansas City. While he is not expected be the superstar he once was, Bowe is a big, tough physical receiver who is capable of being a viable number one option in Cleveland. He is a veteran and former Pro Bowler who adds much more credibility and playmaking ability to a receiving corps which lacked a down field threat.

Grade: B+

Now for the moves which were not quite as noteworthy…

Cleveland gave defensive lineman, John Hughes, a four-year extension worth $14.4 million. Hughes has been very productive when healthy and the Browns need all the help they can get when it comes to stopping the run up front.

Grade: B

The Browns signed QB Thad Lewis who was with the team in 2011 and 2012. Lewis adds depth to the position and is a dual threat who could possibly help with the installation of plays for Johnny Manziel if he is not ready for training camp. If he performs well, he could also possibly battle Connor Shaw for the third-string QB spot.

Grade: C+

The team also brought back offensive lineman, Ryan Seymour, who played in 11 games last year, starting three at center. Seymour is valuable because he is very versatile, with the ability to play at guard or center. He was a big upgrade from Nick McDonald last year at center after the season-ending injury to Alex Mack. Heaven forbid something happens to Mack again next year, but if it does Seymour is a solid backup.

Grade: B+

The Browns will also bring back kick returner/running back, Shaun Draughn. Shaun is very versatile with the ability to play on special teams, return kicks and play in the backfield. With our struggles in the kick return game, Draughn could get some opportunities to show what he is capable of. He may also get the opportunity to compete as a third down back.

Grade: B

The team also resigned wide receiver/kick returner, Marlon Moore, to a three-year contract worth $2.85 million. Moore is also extremely versatile; he can play as a pass catcher, return man and on kick coverage. He had 10 special teams tackles last season and showed some burst and dynamic ability at times in the return game. The multi-year contract could signal that Moore will be more involved in the passing game this season. He could provide some size and athleticism along side Bowe, Hartline and Hawkins.

Grade: B

After a rocky start, I believe the Browns recovered with some smart moves at low-risk to improve the team. They brought in veterans at reasonable prices who should help improve the culture and locker room while still being productive on the field. While many fans will complain that we did not sign any big names like Suh, Revis or Andre Johnson, it is important to remember that players like that were never coming to Cleveland in the first place.

Lets face it, top free agents like Revis and Suh are not attracted to the Cleveland Browns. In addition, those players command the type of money which can be crippling long-term if things do not work out. While we all want to win now, Ray Farmer and company are being smart with their cap space to compete now but also build for the long-term. They want to remain flexible for years to come and have done so with the moves they’ve made. We are in a good position with the players we have signed; if things do not work out, it will not hurt us long-term. I believe the Browns did a decent job filling needs with what free agents were realistically available to them.

Overall Free Agency Grade: B

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