Browns Poised to Make Run at NFL’s Best Linebacker in Free Agency

Andrew Berry, Browns

Getty General manager Andrew Berry of the Cleveland Browns looks on before a game against the New York Jets at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

The Cleveland Browns are looking to win now and the best linebacker in football just hit the free agent market.

Cleveland had a rough run in 2022, though the team’s first-year issues weren’t much of a surprise. The Browns went all in on quarterback Deshaun Watson last offseason and are poised to be competitive in the AFC North Division if the quarterback can return to his pre-suspension form.

Several units on the roster are stacked with Pro-Bowl level talent, though the linebacker group, which was plagued by injury last year, is in desperate need of an injection of talent. On Thursday, February 23, perennial All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner broke ties with the Los Angeles Rams and will be looking for a new home when the NFL’s free agency period opens on March 15.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news on Thursday afternoon.

“Rams and nine-time All-Pro LB Bobby Wagner mutually agreed Thursday to part ways, sources tell ESPN,” Schefter tweeted. “Rams need more cap space and Wagner wants to win. He will now be a notable part of this year’s free agent class.”

LB Bobby Wagner Could Prove Missing Piece on Browns Defense

Bobby Wagner

Getty Linebacker Bobby Wagner, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, celebrates after sacking quarterback Colt McCoy of the Arizona Cardinals during a game at SoFi Stadium on November 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Wagner’s desire to win, which Schefter noted, could be an issue for the Browns should the team decide to court him. However, the franchise’s commitment to playing for the present is clear based on the moves it made last offseason.

Cleveland sent a draft haul that included three first-round picks to the Houston Texans for Watson around the same time that general manager Andrew Berry fleeced the Dallas Cowboys in a deal for wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was exceptional last season despite some disarray at the QB position.

The offensive line and running game are solidified, while elite pass rusher Myles Garrett and two-time Pro Bowler Denzel Ward are locked in on long-term deals on the defensive side of the ball.

The Browns finished last year at 7-10, though that mark is not necessarily indicative of what the team is capable of in 2023. Cleveland’s success hinges on Watson returning to Pro-Bowl form, which is an open question, but if the front office can convince Wagner that the Browns are on an upward trajectory, they may be a group the future Hall-of-Fame linebacker will strongly consider.

The division rival Cincinnati Bengals have been to two straight AFC Championship Games, which is a detractor for a free agent looking to join a contender, but the Baltimore Ravens have serious questions at quarterback and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while still formidable, aren’t a Super Bowl-caliber team heading into next season.

Cleveland can feasibly win the AFC North, or at least position itself as a perennial playoff contender for the next several years, with the addition of a few key pieces this offseason. Wagner potentially fits into that picture if the Browns can convince him that they are headed in the right direction.

Browns Can Move Money Around to Afford Signing LB Bobby Wagner

Bobby Wagner

GettyLinebacker Bobby Wagner of the Los Angeles Rams lines up against the Arizona Cardinals during a game at State Farm Stadium on September 25, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

If the Browns can convince Wagner they are a viable contender, the main obstacle becomes fitting him into the fold financially.

The Rams signed the linebacker to a five-year deal worth $50 million, with $20 million guaranteed. That deal is now irrelevant after Wagner’s exit from L.A., but it provides a framework for what his next contract might look like.

Wagner is entering the 12th year of his NFL career and will turn 33 in late June. Despite his age, Pro Football Focus ranked Wagner as the best linebacker in the league last season with an overall player rating of 90.7.

Cleveland has spent a lot of money and draft capital over the past year, though the team has not invested heavily in the linebacker position. The Browns are currently $13.4 million over the 2023 salary cap, but Berry could engage in enough financial maneuvering to get a multiyear deal for Wagner done.

If the Browns truly believe they are on the precipice of a deep postseason run, the franchise needs to take a hard look at Wagner to solidify a defense that has playmakers locked in at both the first and third levels.

Read More