Cleveland Browns overspending suggests a “win now” philosophy

Andrew Berry’s aggressive approach to free agency is a sign that the Cleveland Browns are taking their shot to win now.

The Cleveland Browns have spent a hefty sum of money on 10 free agents so far, and are currently overspending the annual cap allowance by about $20 million dollars, which will make the third year in a row that the Browns have overspent.

The logical explanation is that the Browns believe they are playoff contenders in 2020, and they are going all out to win. Of course, they did the same thing last year with John Dorsey and Freddie Kitchens. But after having shot themselves in the foot last year, they are gamely reloading, not rebuilding.

The Browns are able to overspend because they still have $32 million in carryover dollars saved from previous years, according to Spotrac.com. However, normally rebuilding teams do not spend carryover money. Prior to the 2017 season, the Browns had over $60 million of carryover dollars, which Dorsey spent down.

Unfortunately, the sports media usually includes carryover dollars when calculating cap space.  This is misleading, kind of like using your savings account to plan monthly finances. Thus, NFL fans are misled into thinking that their team has bazillions of dollars of cap space and they are not signing enough players because of a miserly owner. That is usually not true.

The real over/under is the annual cap allowance, which is $198.2 million for all NFL teams. Teams are allowed to overspend the annual cap allowance using their carryover dollars, but once it is gone, it’s gone.

Here is how the calculation goes. Including the new free agent signings, the Browns are on track to spend $192 million to active players, plus $12 million worth of dead money charged to contracts for players no longer on the team. $8 million should be set aside for the NFL draft, and about $6 million of in-season pickups for when players go on injured reserve. That comes to $218 million overall versus the 2020 cap number of $198.2 million.

This year, I initially did not believe that Andrew Berry would try for a ring immediately. I thought they would focus on about two or three major free agents, save some cap money, and qualify for compensatory draft picks by making sure the team loses more free agents than it signs. I thought until recently they would use their carryover dollars to finance big contracts for Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward, and not spend it on 2020. All that appears to be wrong.

It is not just the bottom line, but Berry has been working deals that have guaranteed money deferred to later years. That serves to maximize the talent level in Year 1, but squeezes the budget in later years. For example, Jack Conklin is getting a three-year, $42 million contract ($14 million per year average), but the Browns are on the hook for only $8 million this year. This is possible because the team pays bonus money immediately to the player upon signing, but the charges are spread over future salary cap years over the life of the contract.

Thus, the Browns are accumulating a lot of talent at a bargain rate. They are continuing the short-term trend of overspending the cap allowance, just as John Dorsey did.  Things will get tighter in 2021 and 2022, and it will be very difficult since Garrett, Mayfield, Chubb, Ward will all be on much larger contracts.

It would not be shocking to see the Browns shed some major salaries prior to the start of the season, but nevertheless they have not been bashful about adding talent. Most likely they do intend to have the best roster they can legally afford.

Next: Grading Browns first wave of free agency

The logical conclusion is they believe they have a shot at the Super Bowl this year and they are taking it. The media might not believe it, you and I may not believe it, but the Browns believe it and that is how they are structuring the team.