Posted: Thursday March 30, 2006 1:00PM; Updated: Thursday March 30, 2006 4:06PM
Former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest is one of several key free-agent additions for the Browns.
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Redskins owner Daniel Snyder chatted on his cell phone while pacing in a hallway. Nearby at the same Hyatt resort, Eagles boss Jeff Lurie spoke with Herman Edwards. (Starting rumors about a post-Andy Reid scenario?) And Falcons owner Arthur Blank, resplendent with his Atlanta tan, stood alone during a break at the NFL's annual meeting. Among these über-rich chaps, in an offseason of hurried spending, I halfway expected to bump into BillGates.
Of course, the biggest spender of all this offseason has been Cleveland's Randy Lerner, who's added at least $100 million to his payroll. That's a nice chunk, even for a billionaire. But the Browns hope to get their money's worth by transforming themselves into a playoff contender in the AFC North.
"There's no question that they have helped themselves," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. "We have a tough division, and they're going to be near the top of it, I'm telling you."
Cleveland GM Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel took advantage of being $25 million under the cap to address their glaring needs: improving the offensive line, pass rush and run defense. The Browns kicked off free agency by acquiring a Bentley (LeCharles) from New Orleans. By the third day Cleveland had signed left tackle Kevin Shaffer (Atlanta), nosetackle Ted Washington (Raiders), receiver Joe Jurevicius (Seahawks) and punter Dave Zastudil (Ravens). The spending spree was punctuated with a doozy: linebacker Willie McGinest, one of the best defenders in Patriots history. Cleveland's new players have been to a total of eight Pro Bowls and provide a nice blend of youth and experience.
I've covered enough offseason hoopla to realize that signings don't always translate to immediate improvement on the field. ("We've improved on paper," Crennel warned.) But Cleveland -- with promising second-year quarterback Charlie Frye -- has certainly closed the gap in a division ruled by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. And if injured wideout Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow fully recuperate from injuries, Crennel should have no problem improving on last season's 6-10 record.