The Cleveland Browns and their significant amount of cap room are going to be brought up quite a bit throughout free agency. Not only do they have their own players to sign, but any agent that can use the Browns to try to give their clients leverage will as has already been seen. It is unclear how different Ray Farmer’s approach is to Joe Banner’s when it comes to spending and how he wants to structure the salary cap and until something actually happens, it is a matter of spin and PR that shapes the discussion. The two could have a completely different ideas of they want to do things or they may have the identical approach and Farmer will get the benefit of the doubt more from fans and media.
Alex Mack is going to the ultimate test case with this new front office. The team is saying that Mack is their top priority and he very well could be, but Mack’s agent has not changed his stance on the situation at all. Whether it was Banner or now Farmer, the goal is the same. Mack wants to maximize his value and get top dollar. Any notion of a discount to stay for less or anything along those lines is nonsense. If the Browns are going to keep him, they are going to pay him a mint to do it.
Mack has said he wants to test free agency and would give the Browns the first right of refusal. In essence, he wants to get a bidding war for his services and if Cleveland is willing to pay the most, he will happily stay. Tampa Bay is the team that has been discussed as the top destination should Mack decide to leave. George Warhop, his offensive line coach since he has been in the league, is now in Tampa and Carl Nicks has unfortunately, probably played his last down in the NFL due to a staph infection. Certainly, another team could come out of nowhere and make a play for Mack and that would be fine with them.
The Browns are saying the right things and the presence of Farmer gives them a fresh image. Ultimately, it remains to be seen if Farmer is willing to go any higher in what the Browns are willing to offer than Banner was. It would be fantastic to be able to keep Mack, especially since they likely want a rookie quarterback in the first round of the draft. Mack also would be a good fit in the zone scheme they are likely to run. This message the Browns are sending is putting the pressure on Mack. If he does not sign, the Browns want him to be the one who is unwilling to deal as opposed to being viewed as the team unwilling to pay as would was guarantee with Banner at the helm, fairly or not.
Critics will cite the salary cap the Browns appear to have available. The problem with that figure is that much of that cap is planned to be used. Joe Haden is in talks to get a long term deal. T.J. Ward is in talks and while he is the likeliest target for the franchise tag at around $8 million, they could get a deal done for a longer term deal that would be less per year. In that scenario, they could use the franchise tag on Mack. They also have Jabaal Sheard, Jordan Cameron, Buster Skrine, Brian Hoyer and Jason Pinkston who will be free agents after this season if they want to keep them. Phil Taylor, Billy Winn and John Hughes will be free agents next year and somewhere in there, Tashaun Gipson is a free agent as well. All of these guys currently make peanuts against the salary cap and if they are good and if they are players they want to keep, their impact on the cap will go up substantially. This is a great problem to have and something the Browns want to have headaches with because it means they are drafting well and they are devleloping their own talent as opposed to overpaying for it on the free agent market.
The franchise tag makes sense for both Ward and the Browns. For Ward, $8 million for one season would be more than he has earned his entire career. The Browns get to see if he can stay healthy for a year and if he is worth a longer deal. It is possible they could get a deal done with Ward that would give them flexibility with Mack.
Mack does not want the franchise tag and it would only further sour the relationship between the two sides. However, if the choice is keep him for $11 million for one year and have him walk or simply have him walk, regardless of how he feels about it, it is doable. They can afford it for one year and it would allow them to groom a center behind him to ultimately replace him when he walks.
When it comes to a player like Jairus Byrd, the Browns could be interested. More than likely, this is Byrd’s agent seeing the cap room and Pettine in Cleveland and trying to use it for leverage. Byrd is reportedly going to average over $10 million per season when a deal is done. For the Browns, Haden is going to average $12 million or more per season and there is Ward. It is incredibly unlikely the Browns want all of those contracts in the same secondary as it would weigh extremely heavily on the salary cap.
Lastly, there are players that will be linked to Cleveland all day long such as Eric Decker and Ben Tate. Yes, the Browns need a running back and they need another wide receiver, but if they are not going to keep Mack, they definitely do not want to overpay for these positions. Not only are both spots loaded in the draft, but if they are going to pay a ton of money for a spot, do it for a lineman that tend to stay healthy and play forever. They have 10 picks and they really did splurge last year with Desmond Bryant and Paul Kruger, both good players, but getting into the business of trying to buy players leads to cap problems in a hurry. Stay the course, believe in the ability to draft and develop well.
When the dust settles, the Browns will likely have cap room left for this year. The Browns are not a team that is likely to get players to come here for 1-year contracts. It is not impossible to happen and the Browns might be able to get someone on a 1-year prove it deal for someone coming off of injury, but players signing a short deal are often doing it with contenders they feel can win the Super Bowl.
The Browns are likely to be active in free agency, but it is active trying to get deals done on the players they already have, which is far more important. They could try to find some deals on players forced to take less because they are not the top tier talent and the amount of underclassmen coming into the league, but it would be surprising if the Browns were to bring in any high priced free agents from other teams. It is an unsustainable way to build a team and the best teams in the league build through the draft and retain their own players. Jimmy Haslam wants to be like the Pittsburgh Steelers or Seattle Seahawks and the Steelers rarely ever sign free agents and the Seahawks have, but their free agents have been bad like Sidney Rice or short term like Michael Bennett.
In the end, the Browns may still lose Mack and still tag Ward, just like they did with Banner. Just like with Banner, they are talking extension with Haden. Perhaps Farmer will deviate from that mindset somewhere in the process, but Banner was smart with the cap and that was a strength of his, which is why the Browns are in such good shape now. Farmer could be different, but it would be surprising to see him be a sea change compared to where Banner was headed.