As the Browns head toward their first pre-season game and we wonder who is going to win starting jobs at cornerback and safety, it’s worth looking at the Browns’ unused salary cap space for a minute. This available space is one of the more controversial topics among Browns fans. In a league that is rife with parity, is unused cap space a sign that a team is content with not putting the absolute best team on the field? Is there something else at work that might make sense as to why the team is being so thrifty right now? While I think those questions are important, I think there are some logical answers.
According to the latest figures from spotrac.com the Browns have somewhere in the neighborhood of $29.24 million in cap space available right now. It’s something less than that as their latest information doesn’t appear to account for John Greco’s latest deal for five years $13.2 million with $3 million guaranteed. So assume the Browns have somewhere around $25 million in cap space, give or take. Here are some potential expenses that I think have left the Browns looking conservative for now.
Alex Mack – The Browns’ center has a 2013 cap figure of $5.032 million in the last year of his deal. He is one of the better centers in the NFL at age 27 and there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Browns will want to keep him. Playing through appendicitis comes to mind, for example. If the Browns re-up Mack, it’s tough to say what the deal will look like. Ryan Kalil got an $18 million signing bonus and has an average annual salary of $8.19 million. Nick Mangold got a $9.7 million dollar signing bonus and has an annual average salary of $7.15 million. Max Unger got $5.5 million in signing bonus and an annual average of $5.1 million. Safe to say that whatever Alex Mack gets in terms of an extension will cost more against the cap than the $5 million he’s expected to chew up this year.
T.J. Ward – It is pretty commonly accepted that the Browns will and should want to keep the former second rounder past this season. Ward is in the final year of his deal with the team and has a cap number of nearly $1.2 million. Suffice to say that his extension will look be much larger. Ward isn’t going to make premier safety money, but is it out of the realm of possibility that Ward’s compensation falls just outside the top ten of NFL safeties in cap hit? That puts him somewhere firmly approaching $5 million a year and the cap hit could be much larger if Joe Banner front-loads the deal like he sometimes tries to do in order to retain future flexibility.
Joe Haden – Haden is under team control through the end of 2015, but that doesn’t mean the Browns can’t and won’t extend the team’s premier defensive player. Haden’s cap numbers are around $9-10 million each of the next three seasons. If the Browns extend Haden it seems likely they’ll front-load that deal in order to maximize flexibility down the road too. Just keep in mind that Darrelle Revis, coming off of a serious injury, got a deal with an annual cap figure of $16 million. That’s extreme, but Joe Haden will likely be within spitting distance of those numbers. That puts him substantially higher than what his cap figure is now.
So, even in just these examples it’s easy to see how a salary cap ramps up a little bit each year assuming you have guys who are worthy of being re-signed. This year’s Alex Mack and T.J. Ward could eventually be Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Greg Little, and L.J. Fort who could be the next Trent Richardson and on down the line. Yes, you’ll eventually have guys falling off as well like D’Qwell Jackson (2017) and Ahtyba Rubin (2015) as they get older, but an organization will want the flexibility to retain some of those guys as well. These are just the players we know about right now.
One of the key things that came up in my podcast with Dave from SteelersDepot today was just how flexible a team needs to be when they don’t yet have their franchise quarterback. I don’t know anyone who thinks that Brandon Weeden is going to be next in line for Flacco money. I don’t know a ton of people who think Flacco should have gotten Flacco money, but that’s a different conversation. The point is that this is a quarterback driven league and those guys make the most money. If you don’t have one and you’re at the top of the salary cap, what does that say about your team? What does that do to your ability to pay the guy when you do find him? Assuming you find your QB of the future in the draft, you do have the first few years to try a guy out on the reasonable rookie salary scale, but eventually he’s going to get paid. And he’s going to get paid a lot if you’re lucky and he’s successful.
There’s a reasonable counter-balance to this, of course. There’s really no harm in signing veterans to one-year deals with no future financial obligations if you need a stop-gap. That’s a case where this Browns front office has put itself out there at free safety and second cornerback. If Gipson / Bademosi can’t lock down the safety spot, for example, and Kerry Rhodes ends up signing a small deal to play somewhere, they’ll look bad.
But just looking at available cap space isn’t the tell-tale sign of mis-management in this case, I don’t think. The Browns maintained salary cap flexibility because they have some upcoming responsibilities that could (and probably should) get done before the Browns suit up to face Miami in week one this season. On top of that, as long as they don’t have one of the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL, they need to retain salary cap flexibility in order to be able to pay that guy down the road when they hopefully find him.