The Cleveland Browns reportedly have the cap space to make a big signing, but why haven’t they made a move for a free agent like Jadeveon Clowney?
It has been reported that the Cleveland Browns have some $39 million of cap space, so why is that vast sum of money not used to pay for star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and other remaining free agents? Holey moley, the Browns are still No. 1 in the NFL in cap space, so what are they waiting for?
Good question. The short answer is that they very well might sign Clowney, but it is tighter than you might think based on the raw numbers. If and when the Browns do sign Clowney, they will find it tougher to re-sign Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield and others. It is not impossible, however, and it might really happen.
First of all, the reason why most of the sportswriters are getting this wrong is that they are confusing two separate NFL cap limits. In the off-season, there is a “Top-51” rule limit, which does not include dead money (the guaranteed money paid on contracts for players no longer on the team), does not include 2020 draft picks, does not include the bottom of the roster and has zero contingency funds for replacement players when someone goes on the Injured Reserve. They only include the top 51 salaries, even though the roster is 55 players.
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The purpose is to prevent teams from getting grossly overspent in the offseason, though they are allowed to carry more salaries than they can afford during the off-season. That is where the $39 million figure comes from and it is so not real!
The real spending limit, or adjusted annual cap, is equal to the annual cap allowances plus unspent funds (“carryover” dollars from the previous year, or, for the Browns, $198,200,000 plus $30,500,147, or $228,700,147, according to Spotrac.com). Cap space is the difference between the adjusted cap and this year’s cap charges. Cap charges include the 2020 player’s salaries and pro-rated bonus money, and is currently $192,595,582, pending ups and downs as players come and go. Dead money is $12,450,237.
So $228,700,147 minus $192,595,582 minus $12,450,237 leaves $23,654,328. That is the number that Spotrac uses for the “cap space.” But even this is not a good indication for what they can actually afford, because there are additional expenses to account for. Seven draftees will cost some net $4,469,537, including the money recovered by cutting seven minimum salary players. Additional money is needed to sign new players during the season to replace players who wind up on Injured Reserve or who get suspended. That is conservatively assumed to be $5 million. Counting those expenses, the maximum they could legally add would be about $14 million in new salaries, not $23,654,328 and certainly not $39,009,328.
Now, as for the so-called Top 51 limit, the NFL has a rule that says that the team’s top 51 salaries have to be under the salary cap during preseason. THE TOP 51 CAP SPACE IS NOT REAL. It does not include dead money, salary money for draft picks, or money for in-season additions. The NFL just gives teams a temporary bigger spending limit as well an expanded roster to limit to 90 players instead of 55. Payroll and roster numbers have to be cut by the start of the season.
To bring on Clowney, the Browns would probably need to offer a similar deal to the one received by DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys. Lawrence signed for five years at $105 million, but the first year cap charge is only $11 million, escalating to $22 million the next year. That is affordable based on available cap space this year, but to sign Clowney without totally messing up the cap for 2021, the Browns would need to clear some space. Several commentators have suggested that Olivier Vernon might be let go, which would create $15.5 million in cap space, and in fact the Browns might come out ahead in 2020.
This is realistically achievable if they want to go that route, though in 2021 the Browns will have to move a few big contracts to generate space for players that they want to keep.
The biggest reason to sign Clowney is that the Browns need to stop Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. If the Browns have Garrett and Clowney on the same line, they will be the fastest pair of defensive ends in the NFL, and that may be necessary to contain Jackson.
So many pro-Browns tweets and Facebook posts have cheerfully pointed out that Jackson is more effective on the ground rather than the air. That is true, but he still has to be stopped. Last I checked, there is no rule against the quarterback running the ball. Hello! The purple coats are coming by ground, not by air. The Browns need to counter speed with speed.
The Browns are still in good shape financially. They are overspending the cap allowance this year, but they can cover it thanks largely to cap space saved in the Sashi Brown rebuilding period.
However, if they want to keep the nucleus of the team together in 2021, they will want to save some carryover money for next year rather than blowing it all in 2020. In that regards, Vernon is a good football player, and maybe having him on the team, especially without a long-term commitment, is a viable alternative to Clowney. The big knock on Clowney may be that he has had trouble staying healthy. Hence a five-year commitment might not be the great idea that everyone seems to assume.
Andrew Berry and crew need to determine to what extent they believe in Clowney as a long-term investment. There are some very good reasons to try to make this move happen, but there is an equally strong counter-argument for standing pat. If you want to dance, you have to pay the piper, and the piper needs some big bucks in 2021 and beyond. Staying with Olivier Vernon, who does not come with a multiyear commitment, might not be a bad thing.