Offensive: Browns strike free agent deals to address needs
CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns were a major disappointment last season. They’re determined not to be one again.
As the NFL’s free agency period kicked off under an unprecedented backdrop due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Cleveland addressed several major needs on Monday while agreeing to player contracts worth more than $60 million in guaranteed salary.
The Browns are bringing in another top playmaker, a tackle to block and protect Baker Mayfield and a veteran quarterback to back him up or step in if he stumbles.
New general manager Andrew Berry made a big splash — two of them actually — in getting free agent right tackle Jack Conklin to agree to a three-year contract and reaching terms with two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Cooper on a four-year, $44 million contract.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus told The Associated Press that Conklin’s $42 million deal will pay the 6-foot-6, 308-pound tackle $20 million in the first season and includes $30 million in guaranteed money. Rosenhaus said he wanted to keep the length of Conklin’s short because of projected increases in the salary cap.
Conklin will only be 28 when this deal expires.
The No. 8 overall pick by Tennessee in 2016, when he was an All-Pro, Conklin spent the past four seasons with the Titans. The 25-year-old was limited to eight games in 2018 after inuring his knee in a playoff loss at New England, but he bounced back last season and started all 16 games while helping Derrick Henry lead the league in rushing.
Before striking the deal with Conklin, the Browns took care of some in-house business by placing a second-round tender on troublesome running back Kareem Hunt. Berry then tied up Austin Hooper along with veteran quarterback Case Keenum, a person familiar with those negotiations told AP on condition of anonymity because teams are not permitted to make deals official until Wednesday.
Hooper was one of the top free agency targets for Cleveland and he’ll be another option for Mayfield to go along with star receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb.
Mayfield didn’t have a tight end to use as a security outlet after 2017 first-round draft pick David Njoku broke his wrist in Week 2 and then fell out of favor with former coach Freddie Kitchens when he came back.
New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski preferred to use two-tight end formations during his one season as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator, and Hooper, who will get $23 million guaranteed, will be paired with Njoku.
The deal prompted one fan to ask Njoku on Twitter if he now wanted to get traded.
“Nahhhh man cmon I love competition,” Njoku posted. “We’ll push each other and get better together.”
The Browns are counting on Keenum to help Mayfield get better following a rough second season. Keenum has started 62 career games as a pro, including eight last season for Washington. He’ll be reunited with Stefanski, his quarterbacks coach in 2017, when he went 11-3 as a starter for Minnesota.
The 32-year-old Keenum went just 1-7 in eight starts for the Redskins, but the Browns see him as a perfect mentor for Mayfield and a backup in case of injury. Drew Stanton began last season as Cleveland’s No. 2 quarterback, but he injured his knee before Week 2.
Keenum’s deal is for three years and worth $18 million.
The Browns came into free agency about $65 million under the salary cap and looking for an upgrade at both tackle spots. They’ll slide Conklin in on the right side while perhaps drafting a left tackle with the No. 11 overall selection next month. There are some top prospects available in this year’s class.
Conklin said goodbye to Tennessee on Twitter, posting: “Thank you @Titans, my teammates, and all the fans for a great 4 years! Couldn’t have asked for a better city to start my career in, I love you guys!”
As for Hunt, he’s a restricted free agent and can negotiate with other teams. If he reaches an agreement elsewhere, the Browns can match any offer. If the team doesn’t match, Cleveland would receive a second-round draft pick from the team that signs him.
Given his background — Hunt was banned eight games by the league for two physical altercations when he played for Kansas City — and the high price to sign him, it would be risky for a team to take a chance on him.
Hunt signed with Cleveland last February, two months after he was released by Kansas City. The Chiefs said the 24-year-old Hunt had lied to them about two incidents, including one in which he kicked and shoved a woman during an argument in a Cleveland hotel.
He came back after missing the first eight games and was used primarily as a blocker for Chubb, who finished with 1,494 yards. Hunt rushed for 179 yards and scored two touchdowns. He also caught 37 passes for 285 yards and a TD.
The Browns also released veteran safety Morgan Burnett, creating an even greater need to address that spot. He tore an Achilles tendon last season and missed the final six games.