Will Cleveland Browns make budget cuts or keep spending?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 27: Ty Johnson #25 of the New York Jets is tackled by Sheldon Richardson #98 and Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns in the second quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 27: Ty Johnson #25 of the New York Jets is tackled by Sheldon Richardson #98 and Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns in the second quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns are spending like crazy…will they make cuts to compensate?  Maybe not.

It comes as a bit of a surprise that the Cleveland Browns have continued to add payroll during this year’s free agency period, and they have not worried very much about spending beyond the nominal Salary Cap Allowance of $182.5 million for the upcoming 2021 football season. This is a shortfall of about $30 million from what was expected before the impact of the pandemic was made clear.

As of March 19, by Overthecap.com’s estimate, the Browns are operating with a payroll of $195. million, meaning they are overspent by about  $12.5 million and they have yet to sign any draft choices, nor have they provided for a practice squad, nor does this figure include any contingencies for in-season replacement players, which are always needed.

Now, this is not necessarily alarming. Cleveland can cover this and more because they had $29 million in carryover dollars from 2020, which entitles them to overspend up to that amount should they desire. It might even be their plan if they are truly all-in for a max Super Bowl run this season. If they want to spend everything this season, they still have about $15 million left on their charge cards.

Several teams tried to buy the Super Bowl last season, notably the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, and  Kansas City Chiefs. These teams carried front-loaded contracts in 2020 and/or expended carryover dollars to have an advantage over other teams for one season. Hence in 2021, they have had to restructure and extend several contracts and cut other non-guaranteed contracts.

But is this what the Browns should be doing in 2021? Do they want to blow it all for one Super Bowl charge in 2021 and then chop the budget in 2022, or should they spread it out a little? Maybe they should be thinking of a two to three-year window in which they can outspend Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

In that case, let’s talk about how to do that.

What about restructuring contracts? This year around the NFL teams are madly restructuring every contract including the peanut and beer vendors. If a player is in the last year of his contract, a contract extension for three to five years results in a significant salary-cap discount in the first year, usually about 50-60 percent, due to the quirky way the NFL chooses to amortize bonus money.

But this does not lower the budget over a three-year period. It increases the salary budget in later years, and only lowers the budget in the present year. It’s essentially “play now, pay later.” The catch is that the team is committed to carrying the player on the roster for those future years, even if his performance drops off and he is no longer really worth it.

Restructuring makes long-term sense if the veteran is willing to accept a pay cut, which is contrary to ego and expectations based on perpetually expanding NFL budgets — until now.

Veterans Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Jr., and Sheldon Richardson, Jr. carry a combined cap hit of $43.7 million. Beckham’s salary is mostly guaranteed, but Landry and Richardson could bring cap savings of $23.2 if the Browns needed to bring the cap spending down. This isn’t the best move for either the team or the players.

What should happen is that the players should be extended at a lower rate, given the economic reality of 2021. Whether the players and their agents can accept the economic reality is not clear.

Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter are other veterans who could be extended. Again, that would lower the 2021budget but not the out-years. If the Browns front office were certain that revenues will bounce back in 2021 and 2022 it would be a great idea to lock them in now.

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If the players and their agents are not willing to go multiyear and scale back their contracts based on the salary cap contraction, the Browns would then be forced to make a decision to go forward with a substandard economic situation for players that they don’t just like — the love both Landry and Richardson for stabilizing the team.

The salaries are  appropriate for All-Pro players on the 2020 pay scale, but in 2021, neither player was quite at that level, though still at a very high level. Using Pro Football Focus’ grading system,  Landry (who, it must be noted, courageously played hurt for much of the season) was still close to the Top 10 level and is probably justified as the 15th overall highest-paid wide receiver in terms of average annual salary.

On the other hand, the 31-year-old Richardson ranks 11th in terms of average annual salary, but was not graded very highly by PFF. It’s very possible that if Richardson will not restructure in a cap-friendly and lower overall rate, he may have to be cut.

Landry and OBJ would seem to be on safer ground, but contract extensions with additional guarantees would make sense for both sides the amounts can be worked out.

OBJ cannot be cut, but there is a small possibility that he could be traded to the right team, probably as part of a draft pick deal. This writer is a fan of OBJ, not a critic. He’s still a star and will be completely recovered from the ACL injury of last season. The only reason to consider such trades is because of salary cap management. By the same reasoning, his high salary means that it would be tough to trade him.  OBJ is a team leader, despite his habit of doing small things to annoy management.

If the Browns decide that they cannot afford to upset the team chemistry to such a great extent, they may bite the bullet, overspend like crazy, try to win the Super Bowl this year, and if they miss they may have to have wave goodbye to several veterans next season.

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One way or another, this team figures to carry a much larger payroll than last season and will have additional stars that last year’s team did not have.