The Cleveland Browns are one of several NFL teams that get a little cap relief after June 1, which could trigger a few more free-agent signings — and it would not be surprising to see DeAndre Hopkins with a new team soon. Cleveland actually ends up with roughly $10 million to play with.
The reason is that when teams release players with guaranteed money on their contracts, the cap hit is spread out over two seasons — if they are released as post-June 1 cuts. If they are released prior to June 1, the team has to eat the guaranteed portion of the deal all at once.
Given the inflationary economy America finds itself in, future dollars will be worth less than present dollars. The experts are projecting a 2024 cap of $256 million, a 13.9% increase over the current level of $224.8 million.
Consequently, NFL teams are incentivized to push their obligations into the future. So there may be a few players released, and there will be a little extra money around the league to sign high-priced players like wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, defensive end Frank Clark, cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive tackle Matthew Ioannidis, running back Ezekiel Elliott and others.
The Browns had already designated John Johnson for release. Thus, his $13.5 cap hit comes off the books and is replaced by a lesser charge of $3.75 million this season, so there is $9.75 million available from his deal to dangle in front of DeAndre Hopkins or some other free agent.
Let's just say we think the Browns defer some bucks to 2024 or else there would be no point in designating him as a post-June 1 release. So, there is cap space in 2023. In 2024, the Browns need, absolutely need to restructure Deshaun Watson's contract again, but we will not worry about that this season. Cleveland is trying to make the playoffs in 2023, and they are investing in free agents this season.
Around the NFL, a few key teams—notably the Kansas Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills—may be able clear a little bit of cap space and sign someone. Those three teams are among the most desirable locations as well as the tightest caps at the moment.
This, in turn, will signal to the other players and their agents that it is time to find a new home. Conversely, if DeAndre Hopkins wants to sign with the Chiefs and they absolutely, positively cannot clear enough cap space to afford him, even after June 1, it could clear a path for a team like the Browns to afford him. The Browns are legit contenders.
What would it take to afford Hopkins? If there is one thing that this offseason has taught, it's that the revolving credit plan is in effect, and NFL teams are going to use “voidable years.” That is, Hopkins will be 31 on June 6 and is probably worth a three-year deal, but they will extend the bonus over five years, counting on inflation to make his deal more affordable.
He might get a deal roughly similar to Amari Cooper’s: $41 million for 3 years, 50% guaranteed, with the famous five-year bonus plan. The first-year cap hit was $4.9 million.
However, take a look at Hopkins’ numbers before we start to throw money at him. In 2020, he had 1,407 yards for Arizona, but his production dropped to 572 yards in 2021 and 717 yards last season. It may be that injuries are starting to catch up with him in his 30s. He's still highly productive, but he just hasn’t taken as many snaps as he used to. Hello, scouting department, how much gas is left in the tank?
Although Hopkins is the biggest name out there, Chiefs star defensive end Frank Clark is also available and is one of the main arguments against them signing Hopkins. Also, defending the pass is just as important as catching passes.
Cornerback Marcus Peters should change his uniform number to 007, License to Interfere. It would be awesome to have him in Brown in Orange interfering with Purple and Black for a change. Peters has reached the magic milestone of age 30, however.
Can we trust a star cornerback once he turns 30? Matthew Ioannidis, a defensive tackle, is also worthy of consideration. Zeke Elliott is a big name, but probably a situational running back at this stage in his career. He may be expecting a starting role, and if so, Cleveland is definitely not the place he should sign.
If he is willing to be a role player and block for Nick Chubb, they might be able to work something out. Old friends John Johnson, Jadeveon Clowney, and Kareem Hunt is still out there, but are not expected to re-sign with the Browns.
Of the three, Johnson is probably the one with the most football left in him, but he is so not a free safety, and fans improperly blamed him for being played out of position. In any case, the financial pump will be primed on June 2, and some of these players should start to find new homes soon.