Cleveland Browns: Big Spenders or investors in 2020 Free Agency

CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: Paul DePodesta Cleveland Browns Chief Strategy Officer addresses the media after the Browns introduced Kevin Stefanski as the Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - JANUARY 14: Paul DePodesta Cleveland Browns Chief Strategy Officer addresses the media after the Browns introduced Kevin Stefanski as the Browns new head coach on January 14, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Will the Cleveland Browns cash in additional carryover money and go on another free agent binge in 2020, or will they invest more in growing assets?

After years of rebuilding 2019 was the first year in a long time that the Cleveland Browns seriously targeted the Super Bowl and shifted to a “win now” strategy. Fans hate rebuilding (when will it ever end?) and so, for the most part, we bought into John Dorsey‘s plan.

No more did the Browns trade back for the extra future picks that brought in Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb. Instead, they brought in several high-priced veterans, drew upon an extra $24 million in carryover dollars and traded away their first-round draft pick as well as a few minor picks. Cool.  The only problem was that the team went 6-10.

So if you were Andrew Berry, what direction would you set for the team?

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The first option would be to continue to try to Win Now,  even though the team was only 6-10 and not Super Bowl contenders as they had envisioned.  The Browns are still in good shape with $32,328,127  of carryover dollars, which can be added to the estimated 2020 cap allowance of $2 million.

That is, the Browns really could spend up to $232,328,127 in 2020 and have the biggest payroll in the NFL. They could collect several big-name free agents and even trade-in future draft picks to make an all-out assault on Super Bowl LV.

A second option would be to go back to the rebuilding mode, “win later.”  Berry might feel that John Dorsey made too many mistakes to put together a legitimate Super Bowl drive.

In that case, the team would purge some high priced veterans, hoard additional draft picks and salary cap dollars,  and target about a Super Bowl run two or three years from now. But they would not start from zero because key pieces are in place — Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb. These are the future salaries that the excess carryover dollars are supposed to support.

When the Browns brought in chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta in 2016, he quickly concluded that the Browns do not yet have a scouting system at the level of the Steelers or Ravens. Moreover, the market for free agents is not a level field since players are averse to coming to teams with losing records such as the Browns. Hence, to be better than those teams the Browns would need to have more draft picks and higher payroll even if it means that the team has to suffer through some rebuilding years until those investments bear fruit.

In other words, a 6-10 finish is about what you expect on a year-to-year basis until such time as the personnel office can catch up to the established powers of the division. But if you can get to the point where the team is drafting two and three players in the first round every year, eventually they will catch up.

That seemed to be the case in 2018 when the Browns had two picks at the top of both the first and second rounds of the NFL draft. They came away from the Win Later process with Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb. However, the process was shut off at that point and further investment did not occur.

Win Later means that the team invests in improving players, or in financial terms, appreciating assets. They will not take short cuts by investing in players who are on the downside of their careers. That would mean draft picks and players in their early to mid 20s.

The early indications are that Berry is thinking more along the lines of “win later.”  Joe Schobert is Exhibit A. Based on the reporting of Mary Kay Cabot, the Browns did not tell Schobert and his agent that his contract demands are out of line. Rather Berry and the Browns seemed to agree with the belief that Schobert is worth a lot of money, and there is nothing but praise for Schobert’s work ethic, but the Browns have elected not to play in that market. The Browns also have cut veteran Adarius Taylor.  These moves only make sense if there is going to be a general belt-tightening exercise in the front office.

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Thus, this fan believes that the Browns will unload more salary money this off-season than they bring on board via free agency. They will save additional carryover dollars in anticipation of larger deals for Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield next year.

However, an exception is the offensive line, where the need is so great that the Browns are going to have to invest there immediately, investing in the future or not. Currently, they have gaping holes at both tackle positions and some uncertainty about right guard as well.

This cannot wait until 2021 because the team’s biggest asset is  Baker Mayfield, who is going to grow up to be a $150 million dollar man.  However, that is only if he can avoid getting killed by opposing pass rushers. He took 40 sacks last year, good for seventh overall in the league. That is too many.

The situation is reminiscent of 1999, when the Browns had a stud quarterback in Tim Couch, and decided to invest heavily in defense in 2000 and 2001. They drafted only two offensive linemen; one in the sixth round and one in the seventh round. The inability to protect Couch probably contributed to shortening his career.

The Browns have been hurt by the departure of incumbent left tackle Greg Robinson, who has found that his hobby of trading recreational marijuana has become a full-time job, having drawn great interest from the federal government.

Right tackle Chris Hubbard is the smallest tackle in the league and weighs 15 pounds less than Shaq Mason, the smallest guard in the NFL. If that sounds crazy to you, Pro Football Focus agrees, grading Hubbard as only the 76th best tackle in the NFL, while he gets paid as a starter.  This will get rectified. Hubbard will probably be released, but if not, his best shot is at right guard.

Look for a major free agent signing at tackle and likely the Browns will be after another tackle in the draft. But overall this fan predicts that the Browns will try to save some additional carryover dollars.

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They will attempt to move a few high salaries in exchange for moving up in the draft, either this year or next. They will cut more payroll than they add via free agency this season.  But they have to immediately make a major investment in offensive linemen to keep quarterback Baker Mayfield healthy.