How the Cleveland Browns can survive Deshaun Watson era cap purgatory

Browns, Andrew Berry. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Browns, Andrew Berry. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cleveland Browns
Nov 4, 2019; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) celebrates his fourth quarter touchdown against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports /

In 2023 the Cleveland Browns will have to cut payroll

For years, the Browns have been able to outspend their opponents, thanks to the efforts of Sashi Brown, who stashed away $59 million worth of salary cap back in 2017 by cutting every veteran he could, including viable players like Josh McCown and Joe Haden.

Make no mistake, in 2022, the Browns are making their best Super Bowl run, signing every free agent possible, and taking advantage of the first-year discount, knowing full well that the result is an unaffordable payroll in 2023 beyond. They are currently projected at somewhere around $242.7 million versus their cap allowance of $225 million.

They are allowed to overspend the cap allowance if they can “carry over” dollars from 2021. Currently, Over The Cap tells us that the Browns have $27.8 million worth of total cap space, because they have carried over $9.5 million from 2021, and they are currently underspent. If they can unload all or part of Baker Mayfield’s salary this season (at some point, some quarterback will be out for the season and there may be a market for Mayfield and his $18.9 million salary), they may be able carry over enough money to pay for 2023.

Because bonus money is spread out over five years, while salary is charged to the year that the check is written, NFL teams get a discount on the salary cap in the first years of a new contract. Bills are coming due in 2023 for the Browns, big time.

For example, quarterback Deshaun Watson’s cap charge is $10 million in 2022, and $55 million in 2023, a difference of $45 million.

Amari Cooper’s cap charge is $4.9 million in 2022, and $23.8 million in 2023 — an $18.9 million difference.

Myles Garrett’s extension starts to kick in. His cap charge is $13.0 million for 2022, $29.2 million in 2023, a $16.2 million dollar difference.

That’s about $80 million dollars from just three players, gang!

The Browns also are scheduled to lose the following players as unrestricted free agents: Jack Conklin, David Njoku, Kareem Hunt, Jacoby Brissett, Anthony Walker, Jr. Chris Hubbard, D’Ernest Johnson, Charley Hughlett, Sheldon Day, Chase Winovich, Sione Takitaki, Ethan Pocic, Greedy Williams, Ronnie Harrison, D’Ernest Johnson plus several other less talented players.

To be clear, these players are not included in the $242.7 budget currently on the books. The Browns are over budget and they are losing more than15 players as unrestricted free agents in the same season. By comparison, this makes the maiden voyage of the Titanic seem relatively problem-free.

The whole idea of 2022 is that your team is going to win the Super Bowl now, before later happens. But “later” eventually rolls around, so your GM/coach decides to retire and moves on to another team, which is what Andrew Berry will probably do when the Browns’ window closes.

Now you understand why this fan believes that 2022 is the Browns best shot at a Super Bowl. It seems almost impossible to keep the window open in 2023.

But wait! Since the voidable years technique is legal, the Browns probably can in fact emulate the Saints and restructure contracts and spread bonuses over five voidable years even though the contract is only for one year. The Browns have already done this with Johnson and Cooper, but they could be granted extensions for another year in order to get that first-year discount again.

This means that the Browns will be paying major dollars until well into the future, so there will be the devil to pay for many years, but it is possible to keep the window open another year.

What can the Browns do to reduce the payroll? If you are thinking about cutting John Johnson, who many fans felt was the most overpaid player on the team, that will save the Browns only $900,000 because so much of his deal is guaranteed. Plus he received bonus money for voidable years, namely 2024,2025, and 2026 when he is not even under contract with the Browns (as mentioned earlier, this little trick was one pioneered by the New Orleans Saints on the play-now, pay-later plan).

The Browns actually are under the cap for 2022 and have up to $27 million of cap savings that could be carried over to 2023. Getting someone to accept all or part of Baker Mayfield’s salary would be very important because the Browns could carry over up to $18.9 million dollars of additional cap savings into 2023.

They can also help themselves by trading some of their major players, just as the Cowboys found it necessary to trade Amari Cooper to the Browns. Cooper might prove to be a one-year wonder. Again, he would presumably get a new contract out of the deal, if it can be made. The veteran offensive linemen may also have to go if they can be replaced by younger players.

They can also extend Deshaun Watson and reset the clock. How about one more season, Mr. Watson, with a major pay raise and a signing bonus? The Browns could once again give themselves a first-year discount again if they add a sixth year to his original contract. They can do the same thing for Myles Garrett.

Another crazy scenario is a long-term suspension of Watson, which would result in reducing his cap charge. Eight games would save the Browns $25.9 million dollars.

Let’s mention one good thing. With 15 unrestricted free agents leaving, the Browns are almost certainly going to qualify for three compensatory draft picks. They will show up in 2024.

With a combination of these moves, the Browns could survive the 2023 season, and maybe even make a playoff run. At some point, however, they are going to have to get off the carousel. They will need an exit strategy.