Salary cap deals that the Browns might need to make
In this business, you hate to part ways with a superior player to create salary-cap space, but that is often the way it is in the NFL. It’s a salary cap league. The Browns may want to move the contracts of Chris Hubbard (potential cap savings of $3.66 million, according to overthecap.com), KhaDarel Hodge ($2.13 million), and probably D’Ernest Johnson ($850 thousand, with restricted free agency coming up next season).
However, a sane general manager will be unlikely to pick up the contracts of Hubbard or Hodge as they are currently constructed. Either the contracts would have to be restructured, or the Browns might have to add a draft pick or two in order to induce a team to take on a contract that is too expensive.
This would be the reverse of the Brock Osweiler trade, in which the Houston Texans sent a second-round draft pick to the Browns in exchange for the Browns being willing to take on a $16 million dollar cap hit for Osweiler.
An ideal trade would be to offer the (ahem! sorry if this offends the player or the agent) perceived overpaid player and one or two seventh-round picks from 2022 or 2023. As noted above, this analyst does not believe seventh-round picks are worth keeping, though other real GMs around the NFL apparently do not share this opinion. So if the Browns can give away seventh-round picks to persuade a trading partner to assume salary cap, that would be the best possible situation.
Alternatively, if the contract is restructured, the Browns could simply absorb some of the cap hit in a sign-and-trade scenario. A deal for Chris Hubbard at his current salary may be difficult if not possible, but if the new team can get him at half his current price it might be worked out and still benefit both sides.
KhaDarel Hodge’s contract is hard to understand. The $2.13 million figure is simply the non-guaranteed tender offer that is triggered in Restricted Free Agency. What was supposed to happen was that the RFA and his agent were supposed to get an offer from another team, and the Browns could decide whether they wanted to match it or not.
As it is, with zero guaranteed money, the Browns can cut Hodge, even if it is an injury situation, and he would be left with nothing.
Was the Hodge camp unable to get any kind of guaranteed offer at all during the restricted free agency period? Zero guaranteed dollars was the best offer they could find?
Presumably, he and his agent have an injury insurance policy to cover that injury eventuality, and they think they can get a better deal as an unrestricted free agent at the end of summer camp, because they are headed towards an unconditional release. Hodge is a terrific special teams player, but it would come as a surprise if the Browns elect to pick up that contract especially given the logjam at wide receiver that currently exists (Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, rookie third-round pick Anthony Schwartz, Ryan Switzer, JoJo Natson and hybrid slot receiver/tailback Demetric Felton also seeking employment)
Another factor that will influence trade-ability is the length of the contract remaining. Specifically, if the Browns are sold on rookie Demetric Felton’s ability as a change-of-pace running back and return man, they may want to offer D’Ernest Johnson on the open market. Johnson will be a restricted free agent (RFA) next season. Still, Johnson is just not as valuable as a player who is signed for three more years on his rookie deal like Genard Avery was.
The Browns like Hubbard, Hodge and Johnson. Any motivation to trade them (and it is purely speculation based on the numbers; no “secret sources” or any of that balderdash) is primarily about salary cap and roster space rather than any dissatisfaction with their level of play. The way to win in today’s NFL is to find the best possible players at the lowest possible price. These possible trades are all about price.
I hesitate to add that, in the past, tight end David Njoku has asked (quietly, properly, and through proper channels) for a trade in order to get more playing time. Njoku is falsely accused of being a poor blocker by those who have not seen him play since 2018. In reality, he became the best blocking tight end on the team in 2020. It’s probably fair to say that it is the consensus view of Cleveland beat writers that Njoku made enormous improvement as a blocker, though not everyone noticed.
John Dorsey sought to light a fire under Njoku in 2019. It worked. However, coach Kitchens did not like Njoku and demoted him to fifth string (truth! The Browns are one of the few teams in NFL history to even have five tight ends on the 53-player roster, and Njoku was a healthy scratch a few times). Many fans continue to honor the memory of coach Kitchens by unfairly riding Njoku’s case, and they should really quit it. We all love our former coach but he is not coming back.
Njoku’s contract is $6.0 million this season which likewise makes him difficult to move. The biggest obstacle to playing time, however, is not Browns management or coaching. It’s his injury situation.
A healthy Njoku should be an 800-yard tight end (he had 639 yards in 2018), but he has been plagued by injuries in 2019 and 2020. That was his number one problem. Harrison Bryant did not outplay him last season, but he did show up at more games.