Cleveland Browns landed John Johnson at affordable discount

CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 22: John Johnson #43 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates his fourth quarter interception to seal a 20-13 win at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 22: John Johnson #43 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates his fourth quarter interception to seal a 20-13 win at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns are getting a star safety in a cap-friendly deal

On Wednesday, when it becomes official that the Cleveland Browns are signing John Johnson III as a free agent,  the Browns have a star safety without a huge salary cap impact in 2021.

You might recall that Johnson was the guy who broke our hearts in Week 3 of 2019 with a fourth-down interception in the end zone to preserve a Rams 20-13 victory at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Now, the Browns are paying him $33.7 million for three years to quit adding to Baker Mayfield’s interception total:

"“John Johnson signed a 3 year, $33,750,000 contract with the Cleveland Browns, including a $12,000,000 signing bonus, $24,000,000 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $11,250,000. In 2021, Johnson will earn a base salary of $1,250,000 and a signing bonus of $12,000,000, while carrying a cap hit of $5,250,000 and a dead cap value of $13,250,000.” —, as of March 16, 2021 (contract yet to be signed)"

That is not exactly chump change, but the Browns are now getting a winner’s discount instead of paying loser’s tax. Make no mistake, players instruct their agents to give preference to teams that they perceive as playoff contenders that give them a real shot at a ring.

They like the money too, but they will accept a smaller paycheck to play with a playoff team. If you don’t believe it, remember the salary history of players like Jamie Collins, who was an All-Pro in New England on his rookie contract, and came to Cleveland on a rich contract, went back to New England on a lean contract, and then left to work in Detroit for Matt Patricia on another fat contract. Losing teams usually have to pay a lot extra to obtain the same talent. That’s just a fact of life in the NFL.

As reported by Tyler Sullivan of CBSSports, the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars were also very interested in Johnson, but guess who won that beauty contest? Not only that, but  Mary Kay Cabot of confirms that Johnson turned down significantly more money from one of the other teams to come to Cleveland. Cabot’s source for this information tidbit is Johnson’s agents, Alan Herman and Jared Fox of Sportstars. Herman and Fox listened to their client’s wishes and negotiated a tough deal to be sure, but money was not the decisive factor.

A second type of discount, one that you are probably sick of reading about, is the Covid-19 discount. Lack of ticket revenue has resulted in a lower salary cap after years of steady increases. If you believe Pro Football Focus, Johnson is one of the top safeties in the NFL, obtaining elite grades in the areas of coverage and run defense, and yet his contract is significantly smaller than might otherwise be expected.

In a non-Covid, normal year, this might have been a four-year deal rather than a three-year deal. It makes sense for both sides to go with a three-year deal, because of the uncertain revenue situation. Andrew Berry was more confident in pulling the trigger on a three-year deal; on the other hand, Johnson could be worth more money on his next deal if revenues bounce back in the next three years.

The first-year discount is standard on multi-year deals, and is a consequence of the rules for applying bonus money over all the years of the contract, while allowing the athlete to get a big payday up front. That’s why the 2021 cap charge is only $5.25 million according to Spotrac.

Needless to say, this is a major upgrade for Cleveland. Remember that the Browns let Joe Schobert go, partly because they were supposed to transition to a 4-2-5 base scheme and were not crazy about paying a star middle linebacker, even though they loved Schobert.

With Grant Delpit out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon injury, the Browns had to play Andrew Sendejo in more situations than they had intended. Sendejo took a lot of grief, but in reality, he was supposed to have been an extra defensive back, and he would have been just fine in that role.

Now the Browns will team Johnson with Ronnie Harrison and possibly Delpit as the third safety if he can come back. The Browns still have Sheldrick Redwine and Tavierre Thomas on the roster.  Plus practice squad call-ups Montrel Meander, Jovante Moffatt, and Elijah Benton are available, but they will still try to add someone via the draft, in all likelihood.

The Browns have not paid for any draft choices yet, obvious, but their payroll is significantly over the annual cap allowance of $182.5 million. The Browns can cover it because they still have a positive carryover of around $29 million from the Sashi Brown era which would allow them to carry over a payroll balance from previous years.

Question for discussion: Are they going to spend out this year for a Super Bowl run? They have so far shown very little sign of trying to cut the budget by refinancing major contracts or wielding the ax for some high-priced veterans.

Or, might that happen later on? For example, if general manager Andrew Berry is able to sign a defensive tackle at a lower price, Sheldon Richardson might be in jeopardy because the Browns could recover $11.5 million by cutting him. Ouch.

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Jarvis Landry, with $11.8 million potential recoverable dollars is in a similar situation. The veterans and their agents hopefully can renegotiate cap-friendly multi-year deals, but if they cannot come to an agreement, Berry may have to make a move.