Jan. 7—Watch closely the players who suit up for the Browns in the final game of the 2022 season, because the roster could look vastly different in 2023.
Seventeen players on the roster that will close out the season on Jan. 8 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh will be unrestricted free agents in March without new contracts. Some in the group are among the 15 players on injured reserve, but the free agents still account for 25 percent of the roster when all injured reserve players are accounted for in the calculation along with the 53 players on the active roster.
Re-signing some of the potential free agents would not be considered a priority. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who spent the entire season on injured reserve recovering from a torn ACL and tight end Jesse James, who went on injured reserve with a biceps injury after playing two games in September, are unlikely to be re-signed.
Other players are unlikely to be back because they should be able to sign bigger contracts with other teams. Running back Kareem Hunt falls into that group. So does defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was sent away from the team on Jan. 6 after complaining about the way the coaches used him on game days.
Some of the free agents should be re-signed. At the top of the list is fourth-year linebacker Sione Takitaki, who was having his best season as a pro until a torn ACL suffered Dec. 4 in Houston landed him on injured reserve.
Anthony Walker, the starting middle linebacker until a quadriceps tendon injury ended his season on Sept. 22, is another player general manager Andrew Berry and Coach Kevin Stefanski most likely would want back. Walker signed a one-year contract in 2021 and 2022.
The Browns signed Ethan Pocic to a one-year $1.2 million contract in April of last year. Pocic was supposed to back up Nick Harris at center, but Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in preseason. Pocic became the starter and played well. He will command more than $1.2 million if the Browns want to re-sign him.
The Browns are projected to be about $5 million over the salary cap in 2023, according to overthecap.com. That is because some big contracts kick in next year.
Deshaun Watson has a base salary of $402,500 in 2022. He is scheduled to make $46 million next season and the same each year through 2026. Nick Chubb's salary will jump from approximately $1.2 million this year to $10.85 million in 2023. Denzel Ward gets a more modest raise — $1.035 million to $4.041,000 in 2023, but his salary jumps to more than $15 million in 2024.
Myles Garrett is scrimping on $1,035,000 this season. His contract balloons to $17.25 million next season.
Berry is wise in these situations. He will find ways to get the Browns under the salary cap by re-doing contracts. But signing free agents to bolster the roster — defensive tackle, for example — won't be easy.
—Here is the complete list of Browns that will be unrestricted free agents in March without new contracts: LB Deion Jones, OT Chris Hubbard, RB D'Ernest Johnson, RB Kareem Hunt, CB Greedy Williams, C Ethan Pocic, DE Chase Winovich, DE Jadeveon Clowney, LB Anthony Walker, S Ronnie Harrison, QB Jacoby Brissett, DE Stephen Weatherly, LB Sione Takitaki, DT Taven Bryan, TE Jesse James, TE Pharaoh Brown and LB Jordan Kunaszyk.
—Brissett started the first 11 games and went 4-7. He was asked in his final session with the media before being replaced by Watson whether he would like to return to Cleveland next year as Watson's backup. He smiled and declined to answer.
Brissett was asked the same question Jan. 6. He likely won't meet with reporters again since the players will be cleaning out their lockers on Jan. 9.
"Who knows?" he said. "This league's crazy, right? A lot of things have happened. I wouldn't be me if I worried about that right now. This point in my life, those things will happen if those things are meant to happen. And then I'll be where I'm at."
Watson and Kellen Mond are the only quarterbacks under contract with the Browns for 2023. Mond is signed through 2024. He threw two passes with the Vikings when he was a rookie last season and hasn't taken a snap with the Browns.
"I definitely think I've put film out for somebody to say that I'm a starter in this league, and I believe that about myself," Brissett said. "So whatever happens after that just happens."
Brissett completed 236 of 368 passes for 2,068 yards with 12 touchdown passes and six interceptions in his 11 starts.
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