The Cleveland Browns seem to be telling anyone willing to listen they are interested in free agent defensive end J.J. Watt. They are noting that it depends on factors like cost, but they are making sure everyone knows they are looking at him, which is a message to fans, but more importantly other prospective free agents.
Josina Anderson is the latest to report the Browns interest, but Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com has also reported on it.
Part of this is getting Watt accustomed to the idea of the Browns being interested, so the notion of potentially signing in Cleveland is not an alien concept. The front office is simultaneously attempting to change the perception of the team. They aren't a team simply building anymore. Coming off an 11-5 season and a playoff win in Pittsburgh, their aim is the Super Bowl.
Juju Smith-Schuster, pending free agent, provided a rallying cry to Browns players as well as fans by suggesting the team was a bunch of "nameless, gray faces" with "a couple good players on their team, but at the end of the day, the Browns is the Browns."
The problem is there are players who agree with Schuster. It's a stigma the Browns still have as a franchise and the organization aims to eradicate it.
Many of the prospects that will be in this year's draft class were born after the Browns returned to the league in 1999. Florida State corner Asante Samuel Jr.'s father was born in 1981, so he barely remembers a time when the Browns were a championship contender and he last played in 2013. That's two generations of NFL players that have had little reason to think about the Browns, let alone consider them a destination.
With a team that hasn't been associated with this level of success for several decades, they are putting out what amounts to a media campaign to announce themselves, so potential free agents are forced to consider them in a meaningful way for the first time in their careers.
J.J. Watt would be an enormous coup if the Browns can land him, making them a legitimate contender immediately. Whether they are able to sign Watt or not, they need players to look at this team as a place players come to win.
The Browns were not this loud when it came to virtually any free agent in the first year under head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry when they were able to sign right tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper the first day of free agency. The Browns were linked to Conklin but most (myself included) expected him to sign a massive deal with the Jets while Hooper wasn't really linked to the Browns at all.
The Browns organization largely stayed quiet and signed players without much fanfare. The change is not a coincidence. The Browns are no longer taking other teams by surprise, so they want to make sure players don't sleep on them either.
With plenty of teams projected to have real challenges dealing with a lowered salary cap, the Browns also want players and agents to know they can create cap space to sign players in other to go for the Super Bowl.
Watt may be the target, but the Browns are announcing themselves to a talented group of free agent players that they believe can help them get to the Super Bowl.