Sports Outside the Beltway

Browns Sign Center LeCharles Bentley

The Cleveland Browns have made a big splash on the first day of free agency, signing the top rated player on the free agent market.

With money to spend and holes to fill, the Cleveland Browns struck quickly in free agency Saturday, reaching agreements with a pair of high-profile unrestricted free agents who will dramatically alter the landscape of the team’s offensive line unit. The Browns have signed center LeCharles Bentley of New Orleans, the top-ranked player overall in’s ratings of unrestricted free agents. The team also reached an agreement in principle with Atlanta Falcons left offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer,’s 26th-rated free agent. Financial details of the contracts were not yet available. While some details remain to be worked out on Shaffer’s contract, it will be a seven-year deal worth more than $5 million annually.

Cleveland officials had suggested as the free agency signing period approached that they would be very active, and early on, in addressing key needs. The Browns had about $20 million in salary cap room even before the extension to the collective bargaining agreement added $7.5 million more per team. General manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel moved quickly in 2004 at the outset of free agency, and their Saturday forays will aid an offense that statistically ranked No. 26 in the league in 2005.

Landing the highly regarded Bentley is a huge acquisition for the Browns, who wanted more bulk and power on the interior of their offensive line. The signing represents a homecoming for Bentley, who is a Cleveland native, attended that city’s St. Ignatius High School, and is a longtime Browns fan.

It had been rumored for about two weeks that Bentley would sign with Philadelphia once the free agent market opened for business, but those reports proved erroneous.

Bentley, 26, was the Saints’ second-round pick in the 2002 draft. He began his career at guard and then moved to center in 2004. He earned one Pro Bowl berth at each position and scouts leaguwide agree that his best football is still ahead of him. The former Ohio State standout is a mauler, the sort of road-grader blocker the Browns need. At 315 pounds, he can take on the NFL’s biggest nose tackle and has the power to drive defenders off the line of scrimmage.

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