The Cleveland Browns defense features three starters that may hold some of the worst contracts in the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns defense was a major disappointment in 2015, giving up 30 or more points nine times and finishing near the bottom of every statistical category that matters.
They were also a disappointment on payday, as the team invested a league-high $82.1 million in salaries for the defensive players on the roster. That number accounted for 54 percent of the team’s payroll, making the Browns the only team in the league that spent more than half of its cap space on defense.
Things are a bit more in balance for 2016, as Cleveland has cut its defensive payroll to $63.3 million, which represents 46 percent of their overall salary cap space, according to spotrac.com.
The Browns are still top-heavy on defense, however, as seven of their 10 highest-paid players play on the defensive side of the ball, lead by cornerback Joe Haden, who will make $10.1 million in base salary this season.
Haden also joins linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Desmond Bryant on Pro Football Focus’ list of some of the worst contracts in the NFL. Haden ranks at No. 1 among cornerbacks with an average cap hit of $13.28 million over the remaining four years of his contract:
"Even before 2015, Haden’s play had always been a rung or two below his reputation. In 2015, this dynamic magnified, with Haden finishing with a 32.2 overall grade before his season ended prematurely with a concussion. He allowed a near-perfect 158.2 passer rating into his coverage last season, surrendering an average of 4.8 receptions, 77.4 yards, and 0.8 touchdowns per game in his five outings. He missed more tackles (five) in 290 snaps last season than he did in 1,044 snaps in 2014."
"Even if we erase from our memory his disastrous 2015 season, one would assume that Haden’s past production would come close to warranting his current deal. The 29th-, 12th-, 20th-, ninth-, and sixth-highest graded cornerback going back from 2014 to 2010, respectively, Haden’s deal is easily among the top five at the position going into the 2016 season. With $20.1 million in dead money left on the contract, the now analytically-minded Browns need to hope for a return to at least his 2013 form to obtain commensurate value from Haden, an outcome made even less likely by the fact that his offseason ankle surgery leaves his availability for opening day in doubt."
Kruger is not as bad off, checking in at No. 5 among edge rushers, with an average cap hit of $7.95 million over the final two years of his contract:
"Kruger has not been a terrible free-agent signing, but he’s never replicated the form he showed in Baltimore with Cleveland. The deal may not look particularly excessive now, but he received serious change in the 2013 offseason, signing up for $40 million over five years with $13 million guaranteed. His contract has counted $8 million against the cap in each of his three seasons, making it more palatable now that the overall cap has increased."
"Kruger performed adequately as a pass-rusher in 2015, finishing with a 78.3 overall grade. He recorded a high number of pressures (43), but managed only 11 knockdowns only three of which were sacks. The big plays have not carried over from his early-career performances. He also posted a measly 48.3 run-defense grade a year ago. Kruger has not been a bust in Cleveland, but he has failed to develop into the dominant pass-rusher the Browns had likely hoped for."
That only leaves Bryant, who comes in at No. 4 among interior defenders with an average cap hit of $7.5 million over the next two years:
"Bryant was better in 2015 than he was the previous two seasons, where he graded negatively both overall and against the run. However, he still finished 54th among interior defenders in overall grade last season (75.0), despite having the fifth-highest salary of all 3-4 DEs. He finished 2015 with the 22th-best run-stop percentage (8.1) of that group, and the 14th-best mark in pass-rushing productivity (8.7)."
"Bryant’s contract is not a burden on the Browns the way that McCoy’s and Dareus’ are on the Buccaneers and the Bills, respectively, as he can be released at any point with minimal repercussions ($2 million or less in dead money over the next two years). That said, there’s little in the way of evidence to suggest that he’ll produce at his current salary’s value for the Browns in 2016 or 2017 (should he stay that long). The Browns no doubt will eventually look to upgrade at the position, with the possibility of packaging a subset of the impressive collection of future draft picks to acquire substantial talent in subsequent off-seasons."
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Haden and Kruger have some extenuating circumstances in regards to their poor play in 2015.
An ankle injury and a pair of concussions limited Haden to just five games last season, making it difficult for him to have “earned” his salary. After re-injuring his ankle during an off-season workout and subsequently undergoing surgery, Haden is expecting to be back for the start of the season this fall.
Kruger’s drop off from a career-best 11 sacks in 2014 to just 2.5 last year can be attributed to being misused by former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. While Kruger did not have a standout season the last time Ray Horton was in charge of the Browns defense, he should bounce back this year.
As for Bryant, he’s never been a difference maker since joining the Browns in 2013, but he has been a consistent contributor. And while there is validity in the rankings that Pro Football Focus uses, some of Bryant’s struggles last season are no doubt a result of the overall problems of the defense as a whole.
Luckily for the Browns, they have the salary cap space to deal with the contracts, both this year and in the future if they need to make a move. There is also real reason for optimism that all three players should bounce back this season.
And, if not, at least in the case of Bryant and Kruger, the Browns have young players ready to step up in case there is a void.