As we head towards the start of free agency next week, this is the perfect time to throw out some of the best free agent signings the Cleveland Browns have made since their return back in 1999.
Now the Browns have had to lean on free agency plenty through the last 21 seasons because more times than not they haven’t been the best at drafting or even retaining their homegrown talent because of the trails and tribulations this franchise has had throughout the years.
Of course there’s been some bad free agent signings and we’ll touch on those as well later on this week.
This list isn’t in any particular order but here’s who I think were some of the best signings or even steals that the Browns capitalized on in the free agent sweepstakes throughout the years.
Jamir Miller, Linebacker – 1999
The former first-round pick flamed out with the Arizona Cardinals after five seasons, two suspensions for violating the substance abuse policy but the talent was definitely there. Cleveland signed him to a one-year deal in May of 1999 for $1.3 million with incentives to make it reach $2.2 million.
Halfway through the expansion Browns’ inaugural season, Miller led the team with 68 tackles and was the leader of the defense and the front office rewarded him with a four-year deal worth $18 million including a $6 million signing bonus. Miller finished the 1999 season with 94 solo tackles and 4.5 sacks. He backed that up in 2000 with 64 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks.
What turned out to be Miller’s final NFL season was also the best season in his eight-year career in 2001 when he had a career-high 13.5 sacks along with 22 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles. Miller made the Pro Bowl as well as being voted a first-team All-Pro. Miller’s career was cut short when he tore his Achilles tendon in a 2002 preseason game and he officially retired following the season.
Joe Jurevicius, Wide Receiver – 2006
Jurevicius carved himself out a role as a reliable receiver in the NFL throughout his first eight seasons with the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Seattle Seahawks. Appearing in two Super Bowls and being a reliable veteran presence definitely appealed to Cleveland when they signed the hometown guy to a four-year contract back in 2006.
Jurevicius was a perfect compliment to Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. and it paid off immediately as he had 40 catches for 495 yards and three touchdowns in the 2006 season. The “Season of Dreams” in 2007 was another solid, productive year for Jurevicius as he had 50 catches for 614 yards and three touchdowns and on third downs, Jurevicius was clutch as he had the third-most catches in the league on third-down situations with 29.
Unfortunately, 2007 was the last year of Jurevicius’ career as a knee injury and a subsequent bout with a staph infection ended his career which ultimately led to a lawsuit against the team which was settled in 2010.
Eric Steinbach, Guard – 2007
The Browns offensive line was the Achilles heel of the franchise since the team’s return in 1999 and they always tried to upgrade it whether it was signing Ross Verba in 2001 or LeCharles Bentley in 2006 with both not working out due to either poor performance or in Bentley’s case a career-ending injury in training camp.
In 2007, the Browns went out on the first day of free agency and locked up the former Bengals guard to a seven-year deal worth $49.5 million with $17 million guaranteed. Steinbach missed one game during his first four seasons with Cincinnati and was regarded as one of the best free agents on the market when the Browns signed him.
Signing Steinbach along with the selection of Joe Thomas in the 2007 NFL Draft helped solidify the Browns offensive line on the way to a ten-win season that season. Steinbach was a Pro Bowl alternate that season and was solid throughout his four seasons with Cleveland helping mentor both Thomas as well as 2009 first-round pick Alex Mack before he was released prior to the 2012 season after missing the 2011 season due to a back injury.
Jamal Lewis, Running Back – 2007
Jamal Lewis was a thorn in Cleveland’s side for seven seasons when he was a member of the Baltimore Ravens. In 12 matchups, Lewis rushed for a total of 1,524 yards including a NFL record 295 yards in one game against Cleveland. That’s why it was a shock when the Browns signed him to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million in March of 2007.
Lewis ended up playing 2.5 seasons with the Browns and showed he was still an effective running back during that time as he rushed for 2,806 yards in 40 games which ranks 11th in franchise history. His best performance came against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Week 2 shootout in the 2007 season he had 27 carries for 216 yards including a 66-yard touchdown. Lewis also had a four-touchdown game against the Seattle Seahawks in that season, a game Cleveland won 33-30 in overtime.
J.C. Tretter, Center – 2017
It was an under the radar move at the time but this signing, much like the Steinbach signing in 2007 started helping solidify the current Browns offensive line we’re watching today.
Tretter was a third-round pick for the Green Bay Packers in 2013 and was just becoming the starting center there during the 2016 season before suffering a knee injury seven games in that ultimately ended his season.
The Browns signed him to a three-year deal worth $16.75 million including $6.5 million guaranteed to be the starting center alongside Joel Bitonio and right guard Kevin Zeitler who the Browns also signed in 2017 and could’ve made this list as well.
Since the signing, Tretter has been one of the underrated centers in football and also one of the toughest. He’s played in all 64 games and 4,263 consecutive snaps despite dealing with injuries including a high-ankle sprain that hampered him during the 2018 season.
Tretter along with Bitonio has led the Browns offensive line the last four seasons and with the additions of Jedrick Wills, Wyatt Teller, and Jack Conklin, it’s helped form one of, if not the best offensive lines in the league and led the Browns back into contention.