Regardless of where people come out on the situation with D’Qwell Jackson and the Cleveland Browns, the move was made and the team is moving onto other issues. Those priorities include negotiating deals with center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward with an eye on trying to get a long term extension done with cornerback Joe Haden. The release of Jackson has the Browns around $57 million under the cap this year, which has a two-pronged effect; pressure to use it, most notably on keeping guys, but also gives them added flexibility on how to do it.
The NFL is a bottom line business and ultimately, general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine will be judged on wins and losses, but it is difficult to imagine at least in the short term, the team would be better without these players as it would only add to the list of needs and holes they have to fill. Mack should fit into a zone blocking scheme if that is indeed how offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wants to run his team. He is an athletic, pass protector who can move and shield off opponents in the running game. Mack has not really been an earth moving type that was ideally suited to be in a gap scheme.
All indications are that the Browns want to add a rookie quarterback and having a veteran center who can keep him clean in the middle as well as handling all of the line calls is valuable. The Philadelphia Eagles and Jason Kelce have provided some framework to give a neighborhood of what type of contract Mack is going to get, should he want to stay here. Reports have Kelce receiving a 6-year contract for $37.5 million with $13 million guaranteed. The value of the contract could become $40.1 million.
How it is structured and where he is getting the money is always key, but Mack’s agent and the Browns are probably looking at that contract as a framework now. The incredible amount of cap room the Browns possess give them flexibility on how they want to pay Mack, should a deal be done. Effectively, the Browns could use this year and the cap room to pay Mack and put a significant amount of money on this year and then structure the remaining money over the life of the contract. Front loading a contract does come with an inherent risk. A player can get paid early and then hold out later, unhappy they are not getting paid as much now and want more. The best move for the Browns may be a contract that pays him a lot early, goes down in the middle with some money sitting out there as a carrot in the end.
With Ward, the thought process is that he will likely receive the franchise tag. Ward is not unhappy with that situation. The tag, should Ward sign it, would be worth around $8 or $8.1 million, which would be more money than Ward has made his entire career. For the Browns, they would get a one year, prove it deal with control of Ward and Ward would get paid. Ward has finished two seasons free of injury in his career. His rookie season and this past year.
Depending on how Pettine views Ward in his defense, they could want him to stick around longer. Ward is a great run defending, in the box style safety. He can contribute in coverage, but he is not nearly as effective as he is against the run. This puts some pressure on the free safety, currently Tashaun Gipson and the corners to cover a ton of ground. Should the Browns want him, they also have the ability to use this year’s cap room to give Ward some money now and then mitigate the impact of his contract over the next few years.
Lastly, Haden is making a pretty good amount of money this year. Haden signed a 5-year, $50 million deal as a rookie and is currently scheduled to make $6.7 million this season. He is expected to get a contract worth that averages around $12 million per season or more. Again, the Browns could opt to front load that money and give him a significant amount of that money this season. For instance, they could opt to give him in excess of $20 million this year to take the brunt of that new deal. His cap figure will always be reasonably high, but if he can be an elite corner, no one is going to be upset about it.
Other players that could conceivably be in line for contract extensions that could impact this year’s cap could include Jabaal Sheard and Jordan Cameron. It remains to be seen how this group feels about either one, but they are both valuable commodities for someone. The team may want to see them prove it more than they have to this point, but that cap room and flexibility gives them the ability to make some players happy now and mitigate their cap hit for down the road.
The Browns may have some more cap room coming as it is hard to imagine they will keep Athyba Rubin at his current cap figure. Rubin is a good run defender, but he is not giving the team anything in terms of rushing the passer. His contract figure is reported at $6.6 million this year. The Browns could easily eat that figure and just let him have it, but that seems unlikely. They may want to restructure him or ultimately let him walk, given their depth along the defensive line. They are not in a position where they have to rush that move like they did with Jackson.
Farmer has a lot of decisions to make on how he wants to handle the Browns and their salary cap going forward. The only thing that is clear is they want Haden for the long term. How much they want to keep Mack and how much is just trying to spin the situation more positively is to be determined. The money is available, but Mack wants top dollar and it is unclear where the Browns value him. Fans will not be happy if Mack is allowed to walk and he appears to be better suited to play under Shanahan than he did under Rob Chudzinski, so there are a lot of reasons to keep him. The rubber has to meet the road and soon if they want to avoid him being able to shop himself on the open market; something he has said he wants to do.