Outkicking Their Coverage: The Expansion-Era Browns' Finest Free Agent Finds
By Steven King
Call them the Top 10 – the 10 best free agents the new Cleveland Browns have ever signed.
We’re not going to go back to the days of the original Browns, for they were leaving Cleveland just as free agency – at least as we know it today – was really getting started in earnest. Instead, we’re going to limit our search to the expansion era, which began in 1999.
So here goes the Top 10, listed from the earliest years to the recent ones:
1999 – P Chris Gardocki (Indianapolis Colts) – Those first re-born Browns teams didn’t have many good players, but of the ones they did have, he was among the best, if the very best. His long and high kicks got the club out of a lot of bad situations.
2000 – DL Orpheus Roye (Pittsburgh Steelers) – A consummate pro, “O. Roye,” – as he was called –gave the Browns good performances consistently for eight years, helping provide some real playmaking ability and stoutness up front for a defense that really needed it.
2001 – QB Kelly Holcomb (Colts) – Coming on in the 2002 regular-season finale after starter Tim Couch suffered a broken bone in his leg, “Sleepy” finished out the win over the Atlanta Falcons that helped the Browns earn their first – and only – postseason berth of the expansion era. He proceeded to have one of the best passing days in playoff history by throwing for 429 yards and three touchdowns as the club nearly defeated the Steelers.
2001 – LB Brant Boyer (Jacksonville Jaguars) – He wasn’t very big and he didn’t play very much at linebacker, but Boyer was about as good of a special teams player as the Browns have ever had – in this new era or the old one.
2002 – RT Ryan Tucker (St. Louis Rams) – With Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike McCormack, Monte Clark, Cody Risien and others, the Browns have had a lot of great right tackles in their history. Other than McCormack, Tucker was as good as any of them, as he proved during his eight years with the team.
2006 – P Dave Zastudil (Baltimore Ravens) – You know there’s been a real talent dearth on the team through the years when two punters appear on this list, but Zastudil – from Bay Village, Ohio and Ohio University – most certainly has to be included since he surpassed Browns legend Horace Gillom from the Paul Brown years and became the club’s career punting leader.
2007 – RB Jamal Lewis (Ravens) – He had bedeviled the Browns so much as a member of the former Browns that it was good to see Lewis finally playing with the current franchise. He delivered big-time by posting back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons – including 1,307 in his first season with the team – as he gained the most yards in franchise history for someone not named Jim Brown.
2007 – G Eric Steinbach (Cincinnati Bengals) – Steinbach is, by far, the best guard the Browns have had in this re-born era and could have easily gone to the Pro Bowl following his first season with the team.
2007 – DL Robaire Smith (Tennessee Titans) – Though he played only about half as long as Roye, Smith had many of the same qualities and was a major addition.
2010 – TE Benjamin Watson (New England Patriots) – Because of his age – he will be 33 by the end of the season -- the Browns let him test free agency this off-season and maybe he’ll be able to finish his career with a winner. But in his time with the Browns, Watson did a great job, leading the club with 68 receptions in 2010 and combining for 86 more over the next two seasons.