Cleveland Browns Free Agency: Top 5 Outside Linebacker Targets Include Shaun Phillips and Connor Barwin

Updated: February 1, 2013

By Bob Evans
Senior Writer

The Cleveland Browns and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be making the switch back to the 3-4 defensive scheme in 2013. With that “attacking” style of defense comes a major need at the outside linebacker position for the Browns, as they have nobody experienced in rushing the quarterback from a stand-up position on the roster.

Regardless of the defensive scheme employed in 2013, it was obvious the Browns needed to upgrade their ability to get to the quarterback. In 2011 under former defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, the Browns mustered just 32 sacks on the season—which was good for No. 23 in the league. In 2012, Jauron’s unit improved to No. 11 in the league with 38 sacks—but they really did not have a dominant pass rusher on the roster.

In a 4-3 defensive scheme, you can get away with not having someone who lights up the stat sheets with a large number of sacks as long as the four men on the line are getting enough push to create some chaos for the quarterback. However, with just three men lining up against five offensive linemen in the 3-4, a team must have at least one dominant pass rusher for an offensive line to worry about.

Starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard could end up being that guy for the Browns; as he has racked up 15.5 sacks in his first two years in the league. However, Sheard has never been asked to stand up and rush the quarterback from an outside linebacker position, which could make the transition a little more difficult for Sheard and the Browns.

Many people expect Cleveland to address their need for a dominant pass rusher with the No. 6 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, as there are a number of players who could come in and be a cornerstone for the franchise for the next 10 years. But sometimes it isn’t that easy, which is why the Browns should target these five players in free agency.

Shaun Phillips, 31, San Diego

Phillips is a 6’3” and 250-pound sack machine set to hit the free agent market for possibly the last time in his career. He has racked up 69.5 sacks in his nine-year career, and is coming off his third best sack total (9.5) season since being drafted by the Chargers back in 2004.

One thing new regimes generally do to make the transition easier is to bring in players who are familiar with the culture and expectations of a new coaching staff. With new head coach Rob Chudzinski being a former assistant with the Chargers and offensive coordinator Norv Turner being Phillips’ former head coach, the Browns could end up being an under the radar team to land Phillips’ services.

Connor Barwin, 26, Houston

It feels like it wasn’t too long ago that Barwin was being considered a franchise player for the Houston Texans. The former Cincinnati Bearcat had a breakout year in 2011, posting 11.5 sacks for the Texans. After the season, Houston thought about using the franchise tag on their up and coming star outside linebacker, but instead the two could not come to terms—and it could end up hurting Barwin’s wallet.

Barwin had a disappointing season, posting just 3 sacks in 16 games. The Texans also drafted outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus pretty high in the draft, which means he should see increased playing time in 2013—making Barwin expendable.

At 26-years old, Barwin still has time to bounce back, and could come at a discount price for the Browns. Obviously he isn’t a player to bank your pass rush on, but if he bounces back he could be a major steal.

Anthony Spencer, 29, Dallas

At 29-years old, Spencer is coming off his best season in the NFL. He posted 11 sacks in 14 games in 2012 for the Cowboys in his sixth season—likely earning a major payday in the process.

The 6’3” and 250-pound product out of Purdue would certainly come at a high cost for the Browns—one this writer isn’t sure he is worth. His 11 sacks in 2012 are nothing to be ignored, but only having 21.5 over his first few seasons is something that leaves a lot to be desired for anyone ponying up big money for him.

Paul Kruger, 26, Baltimore

Baltimore’s defense thrives on having impact players with an ability to get to the quarterback, and Kruger is emerging as an important part of that. In his fourth season in the league, Kruger posted nine sacks during the regular season, and has added another 2.5 sacks during the 2012 postseason.

Kruger is further down the list because it is highly doubtful the Ravens let him go, and if he hits the free agent market he will command high dollar. The 6’4” and 270-pound product of Utah would definitely be an excellent fit for the Browns new 3-4 defense, but with Ray Lewis set to retire there is no way Baltimore can let him leave their organization.

Victor Butler, OLB, Dallas

Butler is the lesser known of this group, but he played solid time behind Spencer and Demarcus Ware. In his four seasons as a reserve, Butler has posted 11 sacks in 63 career games and shown an excellent open-field tackling ability—something the Browns could certainly use.

Prior to his tenure in Dallas, Butler was a sack machine in his final two seasons at Oregon State. In his junior season in 2007, Butler was primarily a sack specialist—bringing down the quarterback 10 times and accumulating just 23 total tackles. In his senior season, Butler developed into a well-rounded player by posting 12 sacks and 65 total tackles.

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  1. William Eltzroth

    February 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Hopefully before any free agent from another team is signed, we will have gotten our own free agents and restricted free agents under contract along with all our core players that we need to keep to reach the Superbowl. GO BROWNS

  2. Bob Evans

    February 2, 2013 at 12:41 pm


    I really think your hatred for the Banner-Lombardi combination is clouding what happens in free agency. When Banner was with the Philadelphia Eagles as their team president from 2001-2012, they brought in a number of free agents with no problem. With that said, my list was comprised of all unrestricted free agents who would likely command a multi-year deal from any team on the free agent market.

    Also, I’m not sure where you are getting the fact that Banner wants to “low ball” players, but I’m pretty sure he was part of the contingent that gave Michael Vick and Desean Jackson top dollar in Philly, also signed Asante Samuel away from New England, Nnamdi Asomugha away from Oakland, and many more. When you actually look at things, the Banner-Reid combo did in fact throw some money around in Philly.

    Listen, I love Phil Dawson like any other Browns fan. He is the last remaining link to the 1999 return of the team and has been a reliable, excellent kicker during his time here. But the fact of the matter is that Dawson is still just a kicker, and sinking millions of dollars into kickers does not win you a championship in the NFL. Lots of teams move on from older players who still want to get paid like they are in their prime every season, and it hurts the feelings of the fans because they have grown to love those players. Yes, Dawson has been the team’s MVP since ’99 and we all want to see him retire a Cleveland Brown–but if he is commanding a 5/6 million dollar deal at his age, he will not be back in CLE.

    • MJM

      February 2, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      Uhhh, probably you are correct.

      The issue I have with the Banner – Lombardi combo is this: One is an accountant who, despite his close ties with the owner of the Eagles, cannot in any way, in my opinion, have the insight necessary to competently make decisions relating to matters not in his field of expertise.

      As it relates to Lombardi, in my opinion, a deaf and blind movie critic would have greater insight on his screening than Lombardi will ever have with the players he is spending 48/7 hours viewing per day.

      With that being said, your comments are well taken. However, keep in mind that Reid was a strong man whose position, experience, wisdom and knowledge, was strong enough to tell Banner to “mind his own business”.

      With that being said, it is encouraging that the Eagles organization did spend funds on free agents. I appreciate your correction on this. Hopefully, this organization will rely on free agents to build this team rather than the draft.

      • Bob Evans

        February 3, 2013 at 7:43 am

        Haslam’s comments make it sound like they are going to build through the draft, but that could be just smoke screens. I understand the public perception of Banner as the “accountant” business guy. But he was the President of the Eagles from 2001-2012…and you don’t spend that amount of time working with Andy Reid, Tom Heckert, etc. and not learn something about the game of football.

  3. MJM1MJM1

    February 2, 2013 at 5:20 am

    Very interesting list. Good work.

    Are all these players unrestricted?

    Now, here are my questions. Did you consider the Banner factor in your list? Assume any one of these players were playing for the Browns last year, putting up the same numbers. In your opinion would the Accountant/CPA which Haslem has put in charge of football decisions re~sign anyone of them, and if so, which ones?

    And if he were trying to sign them, and if they are unrestricted, which ones would he low ball to the point they would choose to walk?

    Not sure of his age, but Butler intrigues me. Jerry Jones might allow this guy to walk.

    Given the apparent decision to allow Dawson to walk, I am not confident that Banner’s ability to weigh value to money will put the Browns in a position to sign any of them.

    What do you think?

  4. Bob Evans

    February 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Steve….2012 was his sixth season in the NFL, not sure if you possibly misread the section. I understand it takes time to develop into a position but I just am not sure he will be worth the major contract he will command when the Browns need multiple players.

  5. Steve T.

    February 1, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    I think that’s a typo on Spencer (should be “over first 5 seasons”). That said, not sure I agree with your take on him. Remember, he didn’t get much PT over his 1st two seasons, but has progressed over the last 3 now that he’s starting. Sometimes it takes a little while for those hybrid type guys to get it. It looks like he has based on the last couple of seasons. At 29, he looks to be coming into his prime. Not sure what kind of money he’s seeking…but he’s probably the best player on this list (besides Phillips – who probably has only a couple good years left).

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