By Sam Ingro
The annual Cleveland Browns ‘silly season’ is upon us, and the rumors and speculation are already flying–but for good reason. The crop of NFL free agents this season will be larger and more name-worthy than ever, mostly due to the effect of next season’s salary cap.
The good news for Cleveland is that they are sitting pretty well under the cap with money to spend on whichever free agents they should happen to choose. With more money than any other team, it makes the Browns a favorite landing spot for anyone chasing down a big-time NFL salary.
On March 12th, the free agency frenzy will begin and teams will look to snipe key free agents away from their opponents, and specifically their division rivals. So what are the top most likely targets that the Browns should have on their radar in the AFC North?
WR Mike Wallace PIT
The biggest name on the list is obviously Steelers’ wide receiver Mike Wallace. No, it is not Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco. Despite the rumors, the Ravens will not under any circumstances allow the Superbowl MVP to walk in free agency, so on to Wallace. A pure burner on the hash-marks, the young Pittsburgh receiver would be a huge target for the strong armed Brandon Weeden, as well as the high-flying aerial offense of offensive coordinator Norv Turner and head coach Rob Chudzinski. Opposite of second-year starter Josh Gordon, Wallace would be able to stretch the field and open up the middle for Greg Little and Jordan Cameron.
S Ryan Mundy PIT
With the revolving door at safety for the Steelers due to the frequent injuries of Troy Polamalu, Mundy was a vital part of the Pittsburgh secondary last season. Racking up 39 tackles and two passes defended, Mundy made life difficult for the receivers of the AFC North. At 28-years old, the former West Virginia Mountaineer has four seasons of experience in the NFL and would be a big boost to the struggling secondary position of the Cleveland Browns.
CB Keenan Lewis PIT
The 26-year old corner out of Oregon State had a very solid season last year. Leading the league in passes defended with 23, quarterbacks tested him all season long with very little results. Lewis had 71 tackles to lead the Steelers’ cornerback position, finishing fourth on the team. Lewis will be looking for starter money on the open market, and with Sheldon Brown presumably leaving via free agency, the Browns could very well be the team to give it to him.
LB Rey Maualuga CIN
Moving to the 3-4 scheme, the Browns will need to load up at linebacker this offseason; especially considering they have struggled to stay healthy at the position in recent years. Maualuga, ironically, is the player many Browns fans were clamoring for coming out of the draft. Unfortunately, while compiling big tackle numbers, he has struggled mightily in coverage. Maualuga has fallen out of favor with fans. He could really benefit from a change of scenery and a switch to a different system that allows him to rush the passer more.
LB Dannell Elerbe BAL
Coming off a breakout season, the 27-year old Ravens’ linebacker started seven games and racked up an impressive 92 tackles, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and two passes defensed. While Baltimore will hate to let him go, they will need all available resources possible to re-sign their franchise quarterback, Flacco. With Ozzie Newsome‘s ability to find starters in all of the first three rounds, Ellerbe becomes expendable here; but one man’s loss is another’s gain. For the Browns, they could lock down the other linebacker spot next to D’Qwell Jackson for years to come, making Ellerbe a priority free agent signing.
DE Paul Kruger BAL
At 6’4″ and 270 pounds, Kruger brings the flexibility of being able to play defensive end or outside linebacker in the Browns’ new 3-4 scheme. Starting six games this season, Kruger amassed 42 tackles, nine sacks, six passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble. For the Browns to win in the AFC North, they are going to need to find someone that has the ability to get after the passer, and Kruger fits the bill. A hard-working lineman out of Utah, the 27-year old is just entering his prime and could be with the Browns for the next five years with the right deal. Alongside players like Phil Taylor, Billy Winn and Ahtyba Rubin, Kruger could wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks next year.
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