The Browns went back to the drawing board in search of a slot receiver and came up with Andrew Hawkins.
On the first day of free agency Tuesday, the Browns reached agreement in principle on a four-year deal with Hawkins, a league source confirmed. Hawkins is a restricted free agent, so the Bengals have five days after the offer sheet is signed to match the deal.
The Bengals gave Hawkins the low tender of $1.45 million, so the Browns wouldn’t forfeit any draft picks if Cincinnati doesn’t match the contract. NFL Network reported the offer sheet is for $12.2 million, including more than $4 million guaranteed.
Hawkins, who turned 28 on Monday, is 5-foot-7, 180 pounds and attended the University of Toledo. He missed the first half of last season with an ankle injury, catching 12 passes for 199 yards in eight games.
In three years, he has 86 catches for 995 yards and four touchdowns. His best year was in 2012, when he made his only two career starts and caught 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns.
Hawkins worked out for the Browns in 2008 after he went undrafted, but they opted not to sign him.
The Browns were in the market again for a slot receiver after the disastrous season from Davone Bess that ended with his release last week. Bess caught only 42 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns before missing the last two games after leaving the team for personal reasons.
He was arrested in the offseason after an altercation at a Florida airport and told the Plain Dealer he sought medical attention.
Before agreeing with Hawkins, the Browns reportedly showed interest in New England’s Julian Edelman, Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders and Arizona’s Andre Roberts. They’ve had much more production than Hawkins and would’ve commanded larger contracts.
The Browns are still expected to draft a receiver, possibly Clemson’s Sammy Watkins with the No. 4 pick.
Sanders caught 67 passes last year for 740 yards and six touchdowns in 10 starts and 16 games. Edelman started 11 games with 105 catches, 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.
Roberts, who caught 43 passes for 471 yards and two touchdowns, signed with the Redskins.
The Browns applied the transition tag to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack last week so they would have the right to match any deal he would reach with another team. Mack’s agent, Marvin Demoff, told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King he believes he can set up a contract that would be difficult for the Browns to match.
“I’m confident we can come up with a structure that would have a reasonable likelihood to not be matched by the Browns — and would be in full compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement,’’ Demoff told King late Monday.
The NFL outlawed adding a “poison pill” to such contracts, but Demoff is a veteran agent who could get creative. No matter what he would include, the Browns could bite the bullet, match it and keep Mack for the long term.
The challenge for Demoff and Mack is finding a team willing to construct such a contract. Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports reported Tuesday teams have contacted Mack but no visits had been arranged.
The Browns can also reach their own long-term deal with Mack, but he appears excited to test the market next year if not this year. If a long-term deal isn’t reached with any team, he would be paid $10 million for 2014 under terms of the transition tag.
The Browns could’ve all but assured themselves of keeping Mack if they had used the $11 million franchise tag. The Browns would’ve received two first-round picks if Mack had left for another team.
Guard Shawn Lauvao, who started all 11 games he played last season for the Browns, signed with Washington quickly after free agency began. He reportedly signed for four years and $17 million.
Lauvao, a third-round pick in 2010, started 44 games in four years with the Browns but wasn’t a priority to retain.
** Running back Toby Gerhart left Minnesota for Jacksonville, signing a three-year, $10.5 million deal. Garafolo reported the Browns joined the Jaguars and Niners in showing interest.
THEY SAID IT
Fans and media weren’t the only interested observers of the free agent frenzy. Cornerback Joe Haden tweeted the following: “I feel like a kid waiting 4 Christmas!! I want 2 know my Squad!!! #NFLFreeAgency.”
Former Browns kicker Phil Dawson will return to San Francisco for a second season.
“Very excited & grateful for the opportunity to return to my team & be a part of chasing the quest for six! Go niners! #itsgood,” he tweeted.