By Bob Evans
Now that the Super Bowl is over, Christmas season—aka free agency and the NFL Draft—for Cleveland Browns fans is officially underway. With major changes upon the organization from owner all the way to defensive coordinator, there certainly will be new personnel donning the orange and white next season.
With that said, the Cleveland Browns have a number of their own free agents to make decisions on whether or not to re-sign. From fan favorites Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs, to starting wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and tight end Benjamin Watson, the Browns organization will have difficult decisions on whether to retain players from the previous regime.
While fans and Cleveland media members are already revolting at the thought of going into next season without Dawson or Cribbs, the player the team should be most worried about losing is Watson—especially with Norv Turner and his tight end friendly offense coming to town.
Watson has certainly not spent his entire career as a Cleveland Brown like Dawson or Cribbs, and he has not enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons like those two are coming off of. But Watson has been one of the most integral parts of the Browns’ offense over the past three seasons.
Since his arrival in 2010, Watson has racked up 154 receptions on 254 targets for 1,674 yards and eight touchdowns. While those numbers do not exactly jump off anyone’s stat sheets—especially in this era of tight ends putting up 1,000-yard seasons—they are pretty impressive considering the quarterback carousel that has been spinning within the organization.
The likes of Jake Delhomme, Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace and Brandon Weeden have been Watson’s primary quarterbacks in his three seasons in Cleveland, yet he has found a way to average over 50 receptions and 500 yards each season. Considering the lack of imagination and creativity involved in the Browns’ offense under Pat Shurmur the last two seasons, this writer is personally excited to see what the 6’3” and 255-pound athletic pass-catching tight end can do under Turner and new head coach Rob Chudzinski.
Under the direction of Turner, San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has blossomed into one of the greatest to ever play the position. He has racked up 642 receptions, 8,321 yards and 83 touchdowns in his career—including two 1,000-yard seasons and three seasons of 10-plus touchdowns.
The need for a pass-catching tight end that can stretch the field vertically for the quarterback in the Air Coryell system is of the utmost importance, which is why the Browns need to do whatever it takes to re-sign Watson for 2013.
Many people think the team should draft another tight end or hand the job over to the unproven Jordan Cameron, but you cannot underestimate the importance of having a reliable tight end for Weeden or any other quarterback under center for the Browns. Watson was third on the team in targets, receiving yards and touchdowns in 2012—so obviously there is a major comfort level between Watson and Weeden after just one season together.
As the new Browns regime embarks on their first offseason together, they will face the difficult task of giving in to the fans. While Dawson and Cribbs have been key contributors during their tenure in Cleveland, and it would be nice to see them retire with the Browns, this team is attempting to take the next step into a playoff contender. And overpaying two veteran players whose value does not match how much they will command to remain Browns is a step away from the playoffs, not toward them.
Many of you may take this as a devaluation of what these players have given to the Browns organization during their careers, but please do not take it that way. The NFL is a business, and when deciding to shell out millions of dollars you have to look at the contributions of these players compared to available players on their roster and across the league.
With all due respect to Browns fans across the country, paying a 38-year old kicker 3.8 million dollars a year is not only irrational, it is irresponsible to an organization which has major needs at skill positions on both sides of the ball. Especially considering the fact the Baltimore Ravens just paid their starting kicker $390,000 and won the Super Bowl, 3.8 million or more for a kicker seems absurd.
When it comes time for free agency to hit, it will be much tougher for the Browns’ organization to find a tight end with Watson’s abilities than it will be someone to return kicks or put the ball through the uprights. In a perfect world, Cribbs and Dawson take pay-cuts and fans will be able to see all three on the field together next season.
But if it comes down to one or the other, Watson’s importance to the growth of the offense outweighs the “pay the men” phrase for Cribbs and Dawson—especially if it means a return to playoff football in Cleveland.