Ray Farmer will lay the foundation for the team in the next three weeks

The NFL combine is wrapping up, and for Cleveland’s new collective brain trust, the next few weeks will be setting a foundation for the 2014 season and beyond.

After the scouting combine closes on Tuesday, the Browns will put together their plan of attack for the off-season. The first order of business will be making decisions on their own free agents and players who they may decide to part ways with. The three high profile decisions to make are of course center Alex Mack, safety T.J. Ward and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.

D’Qwell Jackson isn’t a free agent, but there is a chance that the Browns could choose to part ways with the 30-year-old linebacker. The team leader in tackles for the last three seasons is due a $4 million dollar roster bonus for being on the roster when the 2014 league year begins. Jackson has said that he would be “shocked” if he wasn’t brought back, but he was also shocked that Rob Chudzinski was let go, and certainly felt that Ray Horton would be the defensive coordinator when he made those statements. His base salary for 2014 is set to be $3.9 million, meaning he would be a $8 million player with all his bonuses included, and a cap hit of $9.43 million. Next season that base salary number would raise to $7.7 million. If the Browns were to cut Jackson, there would be a $4.2 million dollar dead money hit. Keep in mind that the current coaching staff does not have any real connection to Jackson.

Mack and Ward are the real wildcards here, and what happens with them will have a real impact on what the team has to do in free agency, and possibly the draft. If the Browns could reach a deal with Mack, it would make things much easier. The Browns have the ability to designate one of the two as a franchise player, likely locking them up for at least next season. Players can still negotiate a deal with another team, but the Browns would then have the ability to match the deal and retain the player.

Since all offensive linemen are lumped together when it comes to assigning franchise tag amounts, Mack would get just over $11 million for a one-year tag. That would make him the highest paid center in the league by a few million. Signing Mack to a deal would mean that the Browns could use the more team friendly franchise tag on Ward, who would get a little over $8 million for the season. That figure is still among the tops at his position, but not by $3 million like Mack’s number.

The Browns need to make these decisions before the league year ends on March 11. In truth, they would like to have these contracts wrapped up before teams are allowed to talk with unrestricted free agents on March 8.

If one or both of those players leave, it would create a pair of holes in the Browns’ depth chart. John Greco worked at center during practices and camp last season. Without Mack the Browns could decide to let Greco have a shot at the starting center spot, but behind T.J. Ward is nothing comparable.

The Browns are $38 million or so under the cap (depending on where you get your stats). Locking up Ward, Mack and possibly cornerback Joe Haden would reduce that number obviously. They would still have money to work with in free agency.

These decisions will be coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer’s first fingerprints on the team. In his introductory press conference, Farmer and team owner Jimmy Haslam confirmed that he will have final say over the 53-man roster with Pettine deciding who is active on game days and who starts/plays on Sunday. To his credit, Farmer said that he will take his cues from the coaching staff as far as what kinds of players they want.

Those are the conversations that have been happening in Berea. They are the ones that will shape the decisions that Ray Farmer makes about free agents and the draft.

Speaking of the draft, the Browns have ten picks overall. It doesn’t seem likely that the Browns will use all of those picks on players. The team would likely love to trade a few of those assets to move into better position. They already have three of the top 36 picks, but could still move up or down as they have extra picks in the third and fourth rounds.

  • mgbode

    great point. over the next few weeks, the Browns plans should be about finalized for the entire offseason. there will be fallback plans,etc. but everything should be largely solidified.

    it’ll be interesting to see if Mack/Ward work in tandem to force the FO’s hand on the franchise tag. if either sign early, then the FO can leverage the tag against the other.

    Needs remain: QB, RB, WR, OG, ILB, FS, CB

  • Hopwin

    Word on the street is that no one is beating a path to Mack’s door. Hopefully we can resign him on the cheap.

  • Kildawg

    I think DQ could have his deal restructured/extended, it would be beyond comprehension to just cut the leader of your defense. Mack should get roughly $5M/yr for about 3-4 year deal, Ward could get up to $6M/yr for the same 3-4 year deal. Affordable without being ludicrous and players getting paid. As for the tag, Ward is the choice, it would be too expensive to use on Mack.

  • RGB

    I have a feeling Farmer is going to play nice…super nice, with Mack and Ward.
    He needs to promote a warm and fuzzy atmosphere that never existed under Lombanner, and this is the perfect (and only) place to start.
    Other UFA’s around the league are most likely watching this very closely to see if new management comes across as competent or the Same Old Browns.

  • MrCleaveland

    Sounds good, Arge. This makes sense. A rookie GM can’t afford to get off to a bad start by looking too far into the future and neglecting the here and now. And we know Pettine doesn’t give a damn about the future and cap hits and all that other stuff. Coach wants to win now, so he’ll be banging on Farmer to sign the best talent possible.

    Let’s deal with the future in the future. Right now, let’s load up on as much talent as possible. We’re all so tired of rebuilding and process and waiting and blah blah blah, and we know Jimmy is too.

    It will be a major punch in the gut if we cut DQ and let Mack and/or Ward walk.

    Let’s finally get this thing on the road.

  • RGB

    And on a parallel note…NE is SO screwed!! LOL

  • Big Z

    It concerns me to know that KC wasn’t able to field a capable QB during Farmer’s tenure there. I don’t care if it’s Hoyer, Manziel, Bridgewater, McCarron or Chomps himself – finding a QB that can succeed here trumps all other priorities.

  • mgbode

    and, let us not forget the one advantage we have by having a glaring hole at the QB position. a huge amount of free cap space that would be going to said QB (and the likelihood that even if we find the QB, then it would be in the draft and largely cap protected for 4-5 years).

    Mack/TJ/Haden can eat up some space in the present and we can worry about figuring that space out when our white horse riding savior QB comes of age and needs the big deal after these guys are old and less urgently needed.

  • mgbode

    Bill is smart enough to do the opposite of what Lombardi wants to do though.

    (I don’t think it matters that he’s using Browns printed materials unless our team wants to force the issue. I don’t think we’d want to do that, but we’ll see I guess. Hey Mike, what’s that in your luggage? Looks like scouting reports. Oh, they are recipes? okay, move along.)

  • mgbode

    to be fair, Pioli went all-in on ex-Pat Cassell and gave him every opportunity to be the guy there.

    we’ll see what Farmer does here.

  • RGB

    Ohhh. I’m sure the Browns are glad that Lombardi scouting book is now in the Patriot’s coaching booth and not theirs. ;)

  • Kildawg

    Belichick: Where’s those snacks and beverages I ordered?
    Lombardi: Which ones Bill?
    B: I had it all wrote down in systematic order in those papers. Quit staring at your crush Manziel’s stats and pictures and get what I ordered NOW before I fire you again!
    L: (Almost soils his pants and rushes to get The Hoodie his refreshments)
    B: Now we can discuss who we REALLY are considering drafting.

  • WFNY_DP

    Totally OT, but I didn’t know where else to post this. As most of you know, I’m a U of M college sports fan, and given the conversations we’ve had here in the past about kickalicious and throwalicious (and the other -aliciouses), I feel it is my duty to share that Michigan has signed a walk-on:

    SNAP-ALICIOUS!!

    http://youtu.be/zNXJbAK14ek

  • mgbode

    you never want your information in anyone else’s hands. the question is how much is truly viable with Banner also gone and how much does he have that we don’t also have? I would assume that he has printouts from an internal database.

    Also, this is why many places have a non-compete clause in their contracts. We decided to not block Lombardi from joining the Patriots, so we apparently don’t care too much.

    If we care enough to raise an issue with the NFL and go after the Pats is the real question (my guess is no).

  • mgbode

    How does Manny Ramirez not have that name trademarked yet?

  • RGB

    As long as it doesn’t contain Grandma Haslam’s secret trucker chili recipe sold at the PFJ’s, I’m sure Browns mangement was like “Meh, keep it.”

  • CB Everett

    Very curious what the media/fan take would be if Mack and Ward did not re-sign under Farmer’s watch.

    Obviously there have been a number of commenters beating the drum that Banner/Lombardi “didn’t want” those guys or didn’t appropriately “value” them. That may be the case, but turns out they did actually try to negotiate extension w Mack before the season–and he wanted fewer years. At any rate, I always believed there was more to it than straight economics in the case of Mack (wanting to play elsewhere, tired of the losing, etc)–and his recent comments/actions suggest that might be the case (currently on a trip & not wanting to negotiate until he returns, generally quiet and not making public comments about wanting to return, etc).

    If Farmer “lets them leave” as people love to say–will he be similarly vilified? Or will there be some alternative spin (i.e. it was Banner/Lombardi’s fault for setting a bad tone, the losing atmosphere, etc)? I hope we don’t have to find out.

  • CB Everett

    Key Wolverine signing indeed! That’s going to be critical for them, when they’re frequently punting out of their end zone on Nov 29th.

  • MrCleaveland

    DP,

    You almost lost me at I’m a U of M fan.

    Okay, we’ve had a trick passer, a trick place kicker, and now a trick hiker. Next we need a trick punter, a trick spiker, and a trick penalty flag thrower.

  • mgbode

    Orlando Brown does not want that last trickster around him.

  • mgbode

    I am more curious for the media/fan take when we do re-sign both of them. What will the negative spin be? Maybe we’ll start seeing people complaining about not having enough cap room.

  • Harv 21

    well, let’s hope he doesn’t get too warm and fuzzy with FAs. A competent GM still assigns a proper value to the best of a bad group of LBs and the good-not-great safety with an injury history. Lets not forget how Phil Savage messed things real good by getting too warm and fuzzy with FAs like Gary Baxter, Kevin Shaffer, Shaun Rogers, Donte Stallworth … and created that whole Pay-da-Man entitlement atmosphere. The only time to overpay is if that player is irreplaceable, for leadership or scarcity reasons. An excellent, young veteran center who never misses games fits that description better than a primarily run-stopping safety who just had one of his first healthy season in the pros and college..

  • MrCleaveland

    Remember when Sabathia, Hafner, and Westbrook were all entering their final year? We fans were all miserable, figuring the “cheap Dolans” wouldn’t sign any of them. And then POW! they re-sign Pronk and Jake, and we’re all happy as kids at Christmas. And then they both get hurt and go downhill and stay there.

    Which just goes to show you . . . uh, something.

  • mgbode

    you forgot Sizemore

  • mgbode

    are you really trying to run the Ward injury-prone angle?

    Here are the games he played in the NFL each season: 16, 8, 14, 16

    1 major injury but otherwise played through everything else. For a guy who makes his living on high-speed collisions that is good.

    ———————

    I want both signed. In the end though, if we only can sign one, then it needs to be Ward. Safety is a much harder commodity to find than center.

    And, Ward was good enough to be getting votes for All-Pro status:
    http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000308570/article/2013-allpro-teams

    He’s at least a top5 SS in the NFL. Mack a top5 Center (top2 according to all-pro voting). We have cap room. So, I hope that we don’t let either leave.

  • mgbode

    are you really trying to run the Ward injury-prone angle?

    Here are the games he played in the NFL each season: 16, 8, 14, 16

    1 major injury but otherwise played through everything else. For a guy who makes his living on high-speed collisions that is good.

    ———————

    I want both signed. In the end though, if we only can sign one, then it needs to be Ward. Safety is a much harder commodity to find than center.

    And, Ward was good enough to be getting votes for All-Pro status:
    http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000308570/article/2013-allpro-teams

    He’s at least a top5 SS in the NFL. Mack a top5 Center (top2 according to all-pro voting). We have cap room. So, I hope that we don’t let either leave.

  • Sam Gold

    I don’t think anyone can beat a path to any FA doors until 3/8, no?

  • Hopwin

    Phones can begin ringing at any time.

  • Sam Gold

    Not sure I follow: Isn’t it a violation of league policy/rules for a team to contact and/or begin negotiations with any pending FA prior to the official start of FA?

  • Hopwin

    Who said anything about negotiations?

  • Sam Gold

    Wouldn’t a “phone ringing” constitute contact?

  • Sam Gold

    Isn’t a “ringing phone” contact?

  • Kildawg

    He knows that trick penalty flag thrower can take someone’s eye out about as fast as a Red Rider BB Gun.

  • Chet Manly

    I don’t know the specifics, but there have to be some affordable veteran o-lineman in free agency. Sign two or three guys that may not be great, but are capable of holding a spot short term or be a valuable back up. Their offensive line is supposed to be a strength, but they really underperformed in the running game.

  • mgbode

    it’s called the Geoff Schwartz plan. I’m a fan of such a plan.

  • Harv 21

    I am running with history injury angle when it comes to long term cap hit on guy with college injury history and injured enough to make the weekly injury report frequently as a young player. Number of missed games does not tell all.

    – 2011: slowed by a hammie weeks 1-2, with a knee week 9, on IR weeks 10-16
    – 2012: tackling affected weeks 5-6 with a hand, and then on injury report consecutive weeks 5-13 with hand, shoulder, knee, before finishing season on IR again.

    Not saying he’s not gutty, saying he’s been dinged or out enough for a guy in the fastest healing period of his career to warrant being concerned how he’ll hold up. Combine that with his college injuries, and it would be smart to sign the historically reliable Mack long term and franchise Ward to see if he finally has two healthy seasons in a row.

  • Pat Leonard

    Sign Alex Mack to a reasonable long-term deal. It can be high, just nothing astronomical. If he wants “left tackle money”, then you have to let him walk. I’d be okay with signing Ward to either a 4-year deal or using the franchise tag on him. He’s really the team’s only candidate for the tag, so if they don’t use it on him, it won’t get used at all. You can’t pay Alex Mack $3mil more than the next highest paid center in the game, even if it’s just for one year. You’ll set a bad precedent for how he should be expected to be paid and you’ll give his agent leverage in future negotiations. Finally, keep DQ for this season, but I don’t think you can keep him around for the money that he’d be getting next season.

  • Harv 21

    Guessing they’re asking DQ to restructure right now. And maybe he will. Seems like a loyal guy and one of the few who’s really dug in here in Cleve. And maybe his agent is telling him his value is not as fantastic on the market.

  • mgbode

    the ability to play through minor injuries is a key part of being a NFL player. I was incredibly worried when we tabbed both Ward & Hardesty in that 2nd round due to their injury history. But, only Montario lived up to those claims.

    I get your concern, but Ward has passed the test for me.

  • mgbode

    the one thing DQ has going for him is that he has a ton of former coaches who will vouch for him all over the league. he wouldn’t get alot of money, but I’d guess he would find a landing spot somewhere.

  • Pat Leonard

    I was thinking along those lines as well, just wasn’t sure how the restructure would look. I’d like to keep him around though, especially if Pettine can find a way to maximize what he does best… open up lanes so he can get to the ball and make the play.

  • Hopwin

    If a tree falls in the forest and the agent doing the negotiating doesn’t report does it make a sound?

  • Hopwin

    Or were you under the impression that agents are ethical people?

  • Sam Gold

    Why so snarky? I was simply responding to your statement that no one was beating down the door to get to Mack. I would assume any door beating would have to be kept very quiet lest said door beaters be accused of violating league rules. Hence, I wouldn’t think there would be a lot of available info to be reported prior to the official start of FA.

  • Hopwin

    Exactly so, if it were uncommon for pre-negotiation conact then there is no story. But there is a story and that story is that he hasn’t drawn much interest due to his price tag and contract length requirement (5 years).

  • Sam Gold

    OK, seems like we’re perceiving this conversation very differently. Hope Mack stays.

  • Hopwin

    Ditto and hopefully his agent can convince him he isn’t as highly valued as he believes he is which would increase the likelihood of him remaining.

  • Big Z

    And who really knows how much Farmer was involved in the QB decisions, but still…