By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
PALM BEACH, Fla. – When it came to free-agent shopping, the Browns decided that it made more sense to spend on what was familiar rather than make risky investments in the unknown.
“The main focus was re-signing our own players,” general manager Tom Heckert said during an exclusive interview with “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” from the NFL meetings, which ended on Wednesday.
That isn’t exactly music to the ears of some Browns fans who wanted the team to be more aggressive in the open market.
However, as Heckert pointed out, the club chose to direct most of its money toward players who were already on the roster and performing at a high level. That included not only players, such as linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who were re-signed either right before or during the current free-agent period, but also those (such as offensive tackle Joe Thomas, defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, and linebacker Chris Gocong) who received new deals last year.
“Trust me, I completely understand the fans are saying, ‘Why aren’t we going out and signing all of these free agents?’” Heckert said. “But when you talk about D’Qwell Jackson, Joe Thomas, Chris Gocong, Ahtyba Rubin … I mean, we’ve signed some really good players. You look around the league, and some guys are losing these kinds of players.
“So we feel very, very confident that, instead of going out and spending money on other players that we don’t know about, we spend money on our own players that we think are great. And, obviously, the players we’ve signed have performed very well for us. That’s kind of been our goal — to keep our own guys and not go out and get everybody else’s castoffs.”
The Browns did add a couple of new players who are expected to make significant contributions. One is former Cincinnati Bengal Frostee Rucker, who is expected to start at right defensive end. The other is former Philadelphia Eagle Juqua Parker, a reserve defensive lineman with whom Heckert is quite familiar from his time in the Eagles’ front office.
“(Rucker) can move inside in the nickel pass rush, which is something that we haven’t had,” Heckert said. “Rubin and (fellow tackle) Phil Taylor had to play a lot of the time, so hopefully we can get (them) some rest in there on nickel stuff. Juqua Parker, who’s a guy that I’ve known for a long time, will really come in and help us as a pass-rusher. We’re excited about that.”
Still, there are those Browns fans who are unhappy that the team didn’t find any offensive help in free agency.
According to Heckert, it was hardly a matter of intentionally ignoring that side of the ball.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t try to help ourselves on offense,” he said. “We did, and it just didn’t work out. But if we missed out on somebody we really targeted, we weren’t just going to sign somebody just to sign somebody.”
Now, Heckert and the rest of the Browns’ player-personnel staff are completely focused on next month’s draft. They received a pleasant surprise on Monday when the NFL awarded the Browns four compensatory draft picks for their free-agent losses.
“It’s phenomenal,” Heckert said. “I can’t sit here and say we’re going to have all 13 picks this year. We could obviously move around. But I do think that’s the best thing about it: It gives us a little ammunition to move around, not only in the early rounds but even later rounds. If there’s a guy we really, really like — like we did last year with (offensive lineman Jason) Pinkston; we traded a couple of picks to move up and take him (in the fifth round) — it at least gives us the option of doing that again this year.”
Heckert said the Browns have pretty much completed their evaluation of this year’s draft prospects. He said three private on-campus workouts with players they consider top prospects are scheduled, and that meetings will begin this week with each of the 30 prospects the NFL allows each team to have visit its facility before the draft. The visits tend to provide a better setting for club officials to get better acquainted with the players than the brief sessions they’ve had with them at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
“This time, we’ve got them in our facility and we can have them for as long as we want … there’s no time limit, there’s no one else around, just our guys,” Heckert said. “So you can really sit down and you can find out about guys. Our coaches can sit down and go over stuff with them, football-wise, just to make sure they’re smart enough for us to play. But then (it’s just sitting down to get to know the guy and make sure he’s the guy you want to take, especially when you’re talking about taking a guy with the fourth pick of the draft.”
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