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2020 NFL Draft

Hue Jackson would love Browns' free agents to return but ready to 'move forward' if they don't

Hue Jackson described the recent, informal conversations he's had with the Browns' biggest-name free agents as "great" but stressed he understood the rights they have when the new league year begins March 9.

Jackson said he'd love to see the return of all of Cleveland's free agents, a group that includes right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and safety Tashaun Gipson. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack also can become a free agent if he opts out of his contract.

Jackson, in a session with local reporters after he spoke from the podium at Wednesday's NFL Scouting Combine, was asked if he'd be disappointed if some or none of the upcoming free agents returned to Cleveland for the 2016 season.

"I would not be disappointed. They have a right to do that," Jackson said. "When you say disappointing, to me we still have another opportunity to pick other players on our football team to play. We're going to put 11 guys out there on offense, defense and special teams and play.

"The players have an opportunity to do what they want to do and we understand that. Do I want them to stay? Yes. But if they leave, I can't worry about that. We just got to move forward and put our head down and not look back."

The deadline for NFL teams to place the franchise tag on players is March 1. Benjamin, Gipson and Schwartz would be eligible for that distinction, which a team can place on one of its players if it chooses to do so.

Jackson didn't rule out the Browns using the franchise tag for the first time since 2012 but stressed "a lot of things can happen in six days."

"I don't know exactly if we need to get to that level right now but if we do, we will if we think that's the best thing for us," he said.

All four of the players were starters when healthy last season. Benjamin is coming off a career season and Mack recently participated in his second Pro Bowl. Gipson made his first Pro Bowl last season and Schwartz hasn't missed a snap since he was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft.

The new league year begins March 9 at 4 p.m. and players who have not re-signed will be official free agents.

"They have an opportunity just like they have to say we want you as much as we want them. It goes both ways," Jackson said. "We'll do whatever we can to improve our football team. Free agency, draft but I think we want to be major players in the draft more so than we are in free agency because that's how you get guys on your team and you keep them. If we see an opportunity that fits for us and it's the right thing for us to do in free agency, we'll do that too. That's important."

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