Cleveland Browns wideout KhaDarel Hodge may be on his way out by the end of summer camp
The Restricted Free Agency system is supposed to help the player achieve his free-market value, but in Hodge’s case, it greatly increases the chance that he will be cut and waived.
Let’s review the process. Hodge was eligible to be a Restricted Free Agent (RFA), and the Browns extended him a minimum tender of $2.1 million. The tender is simply a non-guaranteed contract offer, with a right of first refusal.
The theory is that some other team will see that the player is underpaid, offer him a great deal, and the Browns can either pay the player at the same terms, or allow him to jump ship.
Players hardly ever change teams, so general managers loathe to put much effort into crafting a serious offer if the player is not really going to change teams.
In Hodge’s case, however, he and his agent were unable to obtain any interest whatsoever, so his best offer is this $2.1 million non-guaranteed contract. That’s a higher amount than Rashard Higgins.
Up until this week, this author had thought that, wow, the Browns must really like Hodge to offer him that kind of money. I felt surely his roster spot would be secure for 2021.
But in doing research on the Browns roster to try to figure out how to draft a wide receiver, it became obvious that Hodge’s roster spot is not secure at all. That $2.1 million has not one penny guaranteed, and since it is comparable to the amount that they pay Rashard Higgins, it’s clear that the Browns are incentivized to cut Hodge and save the money.
Hence, the pressure is on him to impress the coaching staff in summer camp, or else they will cut and waive him and sign some other receiver, perhaps from the waiver wire from other teams during roster cutdown.
If he clears waivers, he is free to sign with any team he likes for whatever amount he wants; i.e., as an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA).
Hodge had a spectacular season in 2019 as a special teams gunner, with 13 tackles. However, in 2020 he played in only nine games due to a hamstring injury and had only one tackle. He had 11 catches in 17 targets (64.7% catch percentage) and has 17.1 yards per reception for his Cleveland career. He’s a very agile open-field runner. If he starts running decent patterns he can be a real receiver for the Browns.
The problem is that the RFA system was created based on the assumption that teams would extend tenders to players that were actually worth significantly more than the value of the tender. They may not have thought through what happens if the player’s market value is actually less than the tender.
It would have been very sensible if Hodge and his agent had negotiated a contract for around a million bucks, with 50% guaranteed. That’s less than the non-guaranteed tender amount but probably closer to his true open market value. Then the Browns might have matched that, and he would be a Brown this season.
But the athlete doesn’t think like that. He probably figures, “Why sign for half price, when I’ve got a shot at $2.1 million dollars? Screw the guarantees, I want the full amount of the offer, and not a penny less.”
The athlete is going to bet on his ability to stay healthy and to overperform his contract.
Thus, getting zero alternative bids causes the system to break down, because it presents the team with the option of signing the player for an amount that is too high or putting the player on waivers. That is, Cleveland is very unlikely to pay Hodge $2.1 million dollars. Unless he has transformed himself into Paul Warfield 2.0 this offseason, the Browns will have to waive him at the end of summer camp.
Not getting a realistic free market offer was a grave tactical error by the player and his agent. They probably didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of admitting that his value was substantially lower than the $2.1 million tender. Still, the agent is supposed to help the player make wise decisions and protect his future. Coming away with zero guaranteed money for a respected player in his fourth NFL season does not seem very impressive.
To be worth $2.1 million, he needs to prove that he is healthy, that he is still capable of running a 4.39 40-yard dash, and that he can still play gunner on special teams as effectively as he did in 2019. He needs to continue to expand his route tree as a receiver and improve his route running.
If any of that does not happen, some kid, possibly an undrafted rookie, will get a chance to occupy his roster spot. Hodge will be placed on waivers, but it is predicted here that no team will bite at $2.1 million.
This isn’t the way that the RFA system was supposed to work. It was supposed to encourage the team to pay a fair wage to the player, not to encourage the team to dump the player. This is something that needs to be worked on by the National Football League Players Association for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Thus, up until this past week, this fan was sure KhaDarel Hodge would be a Brown in 2021. But after digging a little deeper into his contract situation, it seems more likely that he will be cut and waived at the end of summer camp because his contract is too expensive and 100% non-guaranteed.