Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and Hue Jackson took a bold approach at the beginning of free agency last year when they let their a chunk of the core group of players leave the Cleveland Browns.
They also cut some of the high priced free agents who weren’t living up to the contracts the previous regimes gave to those players.
The media and fans were outraged and still bring it up almost a full calendar year later. Now that the regular season has finished, let’s look at how those players performed in the 2016 season.
Alex Mack, C Atlanta Falcons
In what I think was the only major loss to the Browns, center Alex Mack leaving for the Atlanta Falcons really set the offensive line back.
People including myself thought Mack leaving would be okay because we drafted Cam Erving in the first round in 2015 and he was the top ranked center prospect in the draft class. Well once the season started, we noticed the big hole created by letting Mack leave.
The middle of the offensive line became a major problem and it didn’t help with guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco both suffering season ending injuries to their feet.
Cam Erving never showed any real progress until he was moved to right tackle for the season finale and showed some promise at that position. He’s the last ranked center in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (40.0).
Meanwhile, Alex Mack is the second rated center in football according to Pro Football Focus (90.9) and is the leader of Atlanta’s line as their high powered offense is marching them into the postseason, Mack’s first of his career.
Mitchell Schwartz, RT Kansas City Chiefs
After playing hardball with the organization, Mitchell Schwartz hit the free agency market last March. He came back to the Browns asking for their original offer, they turned him down and he ended up signing with the Kansas City Chiefs. Just like Mack, Schwartz will also head to the postseason for the first time in his career.
His replacement Austin Pasztor got off to a horrible start at right tackle this season and many were calling for him to benched for third round pick Shon Coleman quickly. But Pasztor started every game for the Browns and I think made strides as the season went along.
When looking at their respective PFF grades, they were both really close in grades. Schwartz was the 30th ranked tackle with a 79.7 while Pasztor was the 34th ranked tackle with a 77.3.
I think however Shon Coleman is the future at right tackle for the Cleveland Browns. Despite limited playing time this season, when he got on the field including the season finale against Pittsburgh, he played well and looked like he belonged in the NFL.
Travis Benjamin, WR San Diego Chargers
Benjamin broke out last season as the number one wide receiver for the Browns with 68 catches for 966 yards and five touchdowns. Not bad for a contract year.
He signed with San Diego but didn’t achieve the same success he did in Cleveland. He was third on the team in receiving yards, fifth in catches and tied for third in touchdowns on a stacked San Diego offense.
The Browns wide receiving corp was very young but shows a lot of promise for the future. Terrelle Pryor had an 1,000 yard season, also in a contract year much like Benjamin.
They also drafted Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton. Coleman was the top rookie receiver with 33 catches, 413 yards and three touchdowns while the other three didn’t show much success.
Paul Kruger, LB New Orleans Saints
Kruger was actually around for offseason workouts and the start of training camp. He was cut by the team in August and quickly signed with the Saints.
Kruger recorded just 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks for New Orleans, statically his worst season since 2010.
The team elected to go young with their pass rushers, drafting Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert who combined for 6 sacks.
Ogbah showed the most potential of the three with 5.5 sacks. Schobert is a backup at best and where he was for the majority of season recording just 28 tackles and 0.5 sacks.
It was better to give those guys all the playing time than continuing to pay the aging veteran who wasn’t worth the contract.
Tashaun Gipson, S Jacksonville Jaguars
He was a Pro Bowler in 2014 with six interceptions but 2015 he was dealing with injuries and only intercepted two passes.
He took the big money deal that Jacksonville seemed to throw out to a lot of people on defense, in 2016 he had 41 total tackles and only one interception. Pro Football Focus graded him the 55th best safety in the NFL.
Browns went with young unproven guys at the free safety position.
Jordan Poyer started off the year as the starter until he went down with a season ending injury in Week 6 but he had 39 tackles and a pass deflection in six games.
Second year player Ed Reynolds started seven games and recorded 43 total tackles and a sack.
Undrafted rookie Tracy Howard started three games and recorded 20 total tackles and a pass deflection.
Reynolds was graded the 47th best safety, Poyer was the 71st and Howard went unranked according to PFF.
Taylor Gabriel, WR Atlanta Falcons
Gabriel was one of the final cuts as Brown and Jackson trimmed the roster to 53. He was a standout as an undrafted rookie in 2014 but in 2015, he struggled with injuries and being able to make plays on a poor wide receiver corp.
Gabriel was claimed by Atlanta and reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan who was here in 2014. Shanahan helped reignite Gabriel’s career.
He caught 35 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns. Browns fans took to social media expressing anger for the team letting a playmaker go but I have a take on that.
He excelled in Shanahan’s offense, Shanahan left the team and he struggled. The Browns cut him and Shanahan got his hands on him again in Atlanta and Gabriel excelled again.
I’d like to see how good Gabriel is away from Shanahan’s offense. It helps that Gabriel has a very good quarterback in Matt Ryan which he didn’t have in Cleveland but I think Shanahan utilizes Gabriel’s speed and playmaking ability the best and that’s why he looks so successful.
You look at who Cleveland kept over Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins is the top guy Browns fans like to go after. While we gave up a lot of veterans, we didn’t give up Hawkins.
Hue Jackson loves Hawk and wanted him around as a veteran presence to the young receiver room with multiple rookies and Hawkins can teach the offense to those guys which always helps.
Craig Robertson and Karlos Dansby, LB New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals
The Browns let both of their starting middle linebackers from 2015 go. Robertson left via free agency and Dansby was released in March.
Robertson signed with New Orleans and led the team in tackles with 115 tackles and a sack. He was graded the 65th linebacker in the league according to PFF.
His replacement was Christian Kirksey who only had 144 tackles his first two seasons. This year he had 148 tackles along with 2.5 sacks. PFF graded him the 21st linebacker.
Dansby signed with Cincinnati and had 114 tackles and a sack. Browns went with a younger, cheaper linebacker in Demario Davis who had 99 tackles and two sacks. Dansby graded 47th while Davis graded 64th.
People can complain about cutting Dansby for Davis but the regime wanted to get younger so the move makes sense. Davis still is a veteran in the league so he still carried that presence Dansby left behind.
Donte Whitner, S Washington Redskins
Whitner wasn’t released until April when the majority of free agency was over. It angered him and some national media analysts took shots at the Browns for waiting to release him.
Whitner didn’t signed with a team until October when Washington signed him. He played in ten games (eight starts) and recorded 59 tackles and one forced fumble. PFF graded him the 85th safety in football.
Browns once again went younger with second year player Ibraheim Campbell and rookie Derrick Kindred.
Campbell played in 14 games (8 starts) and recorded 48 tackles and was graded the 86th best safety. Kindred played in 12 games (5 starts) and recorded 46 tackles and five pass deflections before breaking his ankle during the team’s bye week. He was graded the 82nd best safety in football.