Moves are still possible despite Cleveland Browns tighter cap space

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 31: Gerald McCoy #93 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Buccaneers won 31-24. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 31: Gerald McCoy #93 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates after the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Buccaneers won 31-24. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns have been hyper-aggressive in free agency this year, and yet they still have enough cap space to afford another high priced star.

The Cleveland Browns have been hyper-aggressive in free agency this year, and thus it’s becoming difficult — but not impossible — to afford one more high priced star this off-season. There’s still talk about Gerald McCoy of Tampa, who pulls down $13 million this year. The Browns currently have the cap space, but they also need to think about the future dollars to sign stars like Joe Schobert and Damarious Randall to long term deals.

Myles Garrett is going to be eligible for an extension next year, and after that the Browns have Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb coming up. Their agents will rush Browns GM John Dorsey just as furiously as Garrett rushes opposing quarterbacks. There will be major new expenses, and some of the veterans will have to make way. You know what the players say — NFL stands for Not For Long.

That said, the Browns do not absolutely need to create additional salary cap room, because they came into the off-season with an incredible $56 million of “carryover dollars” or cap space saved from previous years and still have $33 million left. In other words, they are spending at about 113 percent of the annual cap allowance, the highest spend rate in the NFL.

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The combination of Sashi Brown’s ruthless program of creating cap space before yielding to a premier evaluator of talent in John Dorsey may have been the best possible combination for the Browns. The extra salary cap room has enabled the acquisition of big dollar free agents Odell Beckham, Jr. Oliver Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and re-signed free agent Greg Robinson.

As a result, the carryover room has been reduced to about $33 Million, but they could still afford to sign someone like McCoy, and not get in serious cap space trouble until about 2021. Still, even if they are in “win now” mode — and they are —they will not risk something that could lead to the inability to pay Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield, and the other young stars. They must conserve cap space in order to be afford as many of the young stars as possible later on.

At this point, most of the key moves have already been made. The Browns let go Jamie Collins who was a good player last year but no longer considered among the league’s elite; plus wide receivers Breshad Perriman and Ricardo Louis; quarterback Tyrod Taylor; defensive backs E. J. Gaines and Briean Boddy-Calhoun; and tight end Darren Fells. The physical condition of Louis (injured neck) may have affected his situation, but the rest were moves designed to make a more friendly cap situation for the team.

There are only a few players who could generate greater than $5 million in 2019 cap relief, but the Browns are highly unlikely to cut players like center J. C. Tretter, guard Joel Bitonio, or tackle Greg Robinson. These talented players are very likely to stay with the team at least one more year.

There are a few players who are sometimes perceived as overvalued, including right tackle Chris Hubbard, halfback Duke Johnson, and linebacker Christian Kirksey. However, all three have large amounts of guaranteed money, and space will not be generated by cutting them. There was a window to move Johnson earlier this off-season, but that window closes on March 15, when an additional $1.8 million becomes guaranteed.

A trade, possibly in a deal for another high-cost player such as McCoy, might soften the impact by transferring part of the salary expense to the new team, but Cleveland will not recover big salary cap bucks by trading any of these three players, at least not this season.

However, there are a few role players who could save the Browns a few million dollars on the cap. Britton Colquitt was a very good punter in 2019, but his non-guaranteed $2.7 million salary means that the Browns will take a good hard look at rugby style punter Jamie Gillan, a.k.a. The Scottish Hammer. Defensive end  Chris Smith is scheduled to receive $2.1 million worth of non-guaranteed money, defensive tackle Carl Davis has $1.6 million and Ray Ray Armstrong has $1.1 million. These moves might help out the cap in a minor way and lessen the pain of signing a new player or extending a current one such as Joe Schobert or Damarious Randall.

The Browns are overspending the cap this year by some $23 million dollars, give or take, even without a player like McCoy. For the record, this analyst admittedly did not anticipate that the Browns were prepared to exceed the annual cap by this much. and in particular, I did not believe that the Browns would guarantee Duke Johnson’s contract for 2019. However, Mr. Dorsey has ignored my advice (probably a good idea — just ask my wife) and he is pushing his chips to the center of the table.  This is not another rebuilding year, this is win now.

If the Browns continue to spend at the present rate, they can continue to exceed the cap allowance until 2022. If they were to sign McCoy, the year of reckoning probably advances to 2021.

It also bears mention, once again, that the Haslams have supported their GM with their checkbook. They have made a number of mistakes over the years, but they have stepped up for Dorsey. Hopefully, they understand what they now have.

So there you have it. The Browns are busting their tails to win this year, with the highest payroll in the NFL. There are very few options at present to reduce the payroll from its current level.  Nevertheless, they have a path laid out in the future to retain their key players, although some of the veterans will inevitably be let go.

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They need to exercise financial discipline because major expenses loom in the out-years, but it is still barely possible to have yet another major player join the team in 2019, especially if they can trim a few bucks from the current payroll.