By SCOTT PETRAK
BEREA â€” The Browns may not do a cannonball off the high-dive this time through free agency, but general manager Phil Savage still hopes to make a splash.
Savage and coach Romeo Crennel havenâ€™t been shy about the need to beef up the defensive front seven, and the first opportunity began at midnight today when free agency started.
â€œDefense is going to be a big part of our offseason and the next four or five days will probably dictate how the offseason goes,â€ Savage said Thursday in a news conference. â€œIf we get into this and we miss out on some defensive players that weâ€™d like to get, then maybe we shift our money to a couple of offensive pieces and say weâ€™re going to have to do the best we can in the draft (to address the defense).â€
The Browns made an immediate impact in free agency the last two years, as they gave center LeCharles Bentley and guard Eric Steinbach record contracts on the first day.
â€œThis year, I would anticipate that we would be more visit-oriented, not necessarily committing to anyone tonight at midnight,â€ Savage said. â€œWeâ€™ll be aggressive in terms of trying to get guys into our building (for visits), but I donâ€™t know that weâ€™re just going to jump out there at 12:01 a.m. and say, â€˜Hey, this is the contract weâ€™re ready to offer to you.â€™â€
But with easily identifiable needs at defensive line and linebacker and $37 million available under the $116 million salary cap, donâ€™t expect Savage to take the weekend off.
â€œIf we have players come in â€” potentially (today) and Saturday â€” and get them signed Saturday or Sunday, then thatâ€™s a different level of aggressiveness,â€ he said. â€œBut itâ€™s certainly more out there than some of the other teams.â€
The free-agent class has been weakened by teams applying the franchise tag to 12 of the best free-agents-to-be. Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth may have been No. 1 on the Brownsâ€™ list, but Tennessee used the tag to keep him.
That didnâ€™t stop Savage from maintaining a level of optimism.
â€œWe feel pretty good about some of the players we kind of have targeted,â€ he said. â€œWe feel we might be a good fit for them if we can get them here and sell the virtues of being a Cleveland Brown.
â€œItâ€™s not as hard of a sales job as it was a couple of years ago. The reputation of our head coach is great across the league. Weâ€™ve got an owner whoâ€™s willing to spend in free agency. We have a nice building, a friendly media corps. There are a lot of positives in Cleveland.â€
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WRONG TIME FOR K2: Savage said his focus is on free agency and not restructuring tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.â€™s contract. Agent Drew Rosenhaus said last week at the scouting combine that heâ€™s had â€œpositive and ongoingâ€ talks with Savage about a new deal for Winslow. â€œThereâ€™s a time and place for everything,â€ Savage said. â€œWeâ€™re willing to listen to anything, but it doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re going to do something. â€œThe question everyone would ask is why would you do something with three years remaining on a contract, especially when the Browns showed tremendous patience in terms of dealing with Kellen and giving him an opportunity to come back. The Browns easily couldâ€™ve gone a totally different route and changed the course of history for him and this team quite a lot if they decided to do other things.â€ The Browns restructured Winslowâ€™s deal so he could recoup some of the bonus money he lost after a motorcycle accident in 2005. He is scheduled to make $4 million in 2008, $4.5 million in 2009 and $4.75 million in 2010.
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COMEBACK KIDS: The Browns tendered cornerback Daven Holly, a seventh-round pick of the 49ers in 2005, up to the second-round level. Holly will receive $1.417 million with the Browns in 2008, or the Browns would receive a second-round draft pick if he signed elsewhere. They also tendered special teamer Kris Griffin. He was undrafted, so the team wouldnâ€™t receive compensation if he left. Defensive lineman Simon Fraser wasnâ€™t tendered, but Savage said thereâ€™s a chance he could return. ** Savage listed safety Gary Baxter, special teamer Nick Sorensen, linebacker Chaun Thompson, offensive lineman Lennie Friedman and cornerback Ricardo Colclough as unrestricted free agents the Browns would like to keep. Savage said Thompson and Colclough were likely to test the market. Baxter missed 2007 after tearing both patellar tendons in the 2006 season. â€œWeâ€™re hoping to do something with Gary, giving him the opportunity to continue his comeback and see where it goes by training camp,â€ Savage said.
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EXTRA POINTS: Savage denied rumors that the Browns have talked to linebacker Andra Davis about restructuring his contract. Savage said he would see how the start of free agency goes before re-examining the roster. â€¦ The Browns signed running back Kory Chapman, tight end Brad Cieslak, defensive back A.J. Davis, offensive lineman Cliff Louis, defensive linemen Chase Pittman and Zach West and receivers Kevin Kasper, Steve Sanders and WR Syndric Steptoe as reserve/future free agents.
Â Petrak may be reached at email@example.com or 440-329-7136.