Are the Cleveland Browns through with Moneyball?
The Cleveland Browns are now spending money on salaries, after years of being on a “moneyball” diet. But are they completely done with the principal?
The Cleveland Browns built their team by accumulating draft picks and salary cap space under Sashi Brown, but now that John Dorsey is calling the shots has that strategy gone out the window?
On the surface, that’s what it looks like, though closer inspection hints at a method to their apparent madness.
To recapitulate, in 2017 the Browns were dead last in the NFL in active payroll, spending only $78 million on active salaries as they were busily accumulating draft picks and cap space while so not accumulating any wins. Dorsey, with apparent near-total access to the checkbook of owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, has now reversed that. As of July 2019, the Browns have the highest active payroll in the NFL at $212.4 million, according to overthecap.com.
This is an astonishing two and a half times the active payroll of 2017. They edge out the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, both of whom are within $5 million of the Browns. This is not counting the approximately $20 million in “dead money” paid to players no longer on the team. That list includes Kevin Zeitler, Jabrill Peppers, Jamie Collins, and Carlos Hyde. In all, the Browns are currently overspending the 2019 cap by $34 million, give or take, using the cap savings that deposed GM Sashi Brown had accumulated.
The conservative route would have been to continue to save most of this year’s huge $55 million dollar war chest in order to pay the mega-salaries due in the near future to the likes of Joe Schobert, David Njoku, Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, and Denzel Ward — the young core nucleus of the team.
Instead, Dorsey has chosen to ignore the long term consequences, d*** the torpedoes and full speed ahead. He has upped the payroll this year before signing Garrett and Mayfield and Co., and have brought in several star players.
The most stunning crapshoot is the exchange with the Giants, bringing over Odell Beckham, Jr. and Olivier Vernon in exchange for Jabrill Peppers, Kevin Zeitler, and a first-round draft choice. This is a very complex deal, which now comprises some $42 million of 2019 salary cap charges, as shown in the table below.
So what does all this mean? It means first of all that the Browns have added some major salaries, but the Giants are paying major portions of it. But while the Browns are paying $10 million for three players to play for the Giants, the Giants are paying a whopping $24 million for OBJ and Vernon to play for the Browns. Understanding that, the Browns are not crazy from a cap point of view given they are taking their best shot in 2019. The Giants, on the other hand, may, in fact, be crazy, at least for 2019, though they eventually recover salary cap room by getting rid of the big dudes.
After all, the Browns still have Moneyball guru Paul DePodesta on staff. The thought was that he would ride off into the sunset with the departure of Sashi Brown. But perhaps DePodesta has more influence behind the scenes.
Football trades involving players with multiyear contracts are kind of like trading in your car with payments still remaining. You were originally planning on planning on payments for 5 years, but if you decide to trade-in after only one year, you have to pay it off immediately.
NFL bonus money is paid to the player at the time the contract is signed, but the teams are allowed to spread it over the length of the contract for salary cap accounting purposes, unless they are traded or released, in which case the charge is moved up to the current year (later in the year teams are allowed to split charges over two years, but that is a minor detail).
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So, for example, Odell Beckham, Jr. was traded with $16 million dollars of bonus money outstanding, which was supposed to be spread of over five years for salary cap purposes, but upon his trade, it immediately was charged to the Giants’ 2019 cap. Similarly, Olivier Vernon’s remaining bonus money amounted to $8 million. The Giants eat $24 million of 2019 cap space, while the Browns get charged “only” about $10 million for their departing players.
Giants fans are left wondering why the Giants are paying $24 million for their star players to play in Cleveland. Paying that kind of dead money is close to raising the white flag before the season starts. The Browns are the recipients of that pathetic mindset this time.
A positive sign that there may be some method to the madness is that the Browns have avoided bloated multiyear contracts, as can be seen in the tables below for major salaries in 2019, and 2020. For example, the big trade with the Giants does not carry a long term commitment to either OBJ or Vernon.
The largest long-term commitment is associated with signing former Viking Sheldon Richardson, whose cap number is $9.7 million this year and increases by $4 million next year. Dan Justik of Dawg Pound Daily has questioned the wisdom of that signing of Sheldon Richardson, who is getting a top-10 salary for a defensive tackle, but has not made the Pro Bowl since back in 2014.
On the other hand, the Browns gave up 296 yards on the ground to the Baltimore Ravens the last time they played, and that may have ticked off Mr. Dorsey just a bit. Justik’s point is well taken that Richardson is not really the best value at the position, but it may be that Dorsey was willing to take drastic action to improve the biggest weakness on the team.
By comparing the charts for 2019 and 2020, it can be seen that there are some major contributors who may or may not be back, including Joe Schobert, Damarious Randall, Chris Kirksey, J.C. Tretter, and T. J. Carrie. The Browns can re-sign some of them but not all of them. They must replace at least some of the veterans with developing younger players.
For 2019, high-priced Jamie Collins was not retained, with the intention of replacing him with a combination of Genard Avery, Sione Takitaki, Mack Jones, or perhaps someone else currently at the bottom of the depth chart. This may set a pattern for the near term.
The ugliest contract belongs to Duke Johnson, whose salary escalates each year and contains large guarantees. His cap number is $3.05 million this year and a whopping $4.85 million in 2020. His money is fully guaranteed this year and partially guaranteed in 2020. This escalating play-now-pay-later contract is okay if you are an aging contender New England Patriots trying to squeeze out one or two playoff appearances with Tom Brady, but it helps the present at the expense of the future.
Johnson’s escalating salary is bad for not only the Browns, but also for the player, as it is very difficult to be traded to a place where he can continue his football career. Because it costs more money to release him than to keep him on the roster, his contract may prevent the Browns from trading him. But escalating-salary- contracts have been created for Sheldon Richardson and Adarius Taylor in addition to Duke Johnson. However Richardson and Taylor have shorter-term deals without huge guarantees, so the bottom line is that the Browns can back out next year if they want to, and still get some value.
It is no wonder Johnson fired his agent. This contract has turned out to be terrible for both him and the team. If fans are down on Johnson, save some wrath for his former agent, who contributed to his unworkable situation.
The chart for 2020 shows the large commitments remaining and also the players who are on a trajectory to leave Cleveland, with blank spaces instead of salary numbers. Some of these players must be replaced from first and second-year players or maybe recycled veterans, as the cap rules are going to make it impossible to keep everyone that the Browns will want to keep, even if they can outspend the cap for another year or two.
If the Browns do nothing, their salary structure is going to automatically decrease as good free agent players depart. The Browns need to plan to make Mayfield, Garrett, and Ward among the highest-paid players in the NFL.
Although agents will be camping out on the doorstep of John Dorsey seeking extensions and pay raises for their clients, many of the high salary players currently on the roster will be allowed to leave and be replaced by younger players. This will no doubt anger players, agents, and fans; however, Dorsey is apparently okay with bringing in extra talent and having a competition to decide who can stay.
In previous years the Browns had to make players like Jamie Collins and Kevin Zeitler the highest-paid players at their position just to get them to come to Cleveland. That is going to stop. The Browns may sign future free agents at a winner’s discount rather than a loser’s premium.
Thus Moneyball is not dead, but the Browns are moving into another phase of Moneyball. They are trying for all the marbles this year, so the rules have changed. For the most part, they have avoided entangling long term contracts, but they are now signing veterans who are at their peak rather than only improving players in their early twenties. The escalating contracts of Duke Johnson, Sheldon Richardson, and Adarius Taylor are causes for concern, but on the other hand, the “dead money” is not huge.
The Browns have done a good job of keeping their commitments for 2020 at a manageable level. They will be able to extend Garrett, Mayfield, and Ward when the time comes, and maybe a few other key players.