Even before we can get into what the Cleveland Browns should do with their numerous draft picks, we’ll start to get some clues about their goals this season by what they do with free agency. We’ve learned quite a bit already as the Browns made the decision to cut D’Qwell Jackson last week. The agent for Ahtyba Rubin indicated to the press that the Browns and their giant defensive lineman are on good terms, so unless he’s really playing a high stakes poker game, it appears Rubin won’t follow DQ52 out the door. The Browns are consistently linked to Bills free safety Jairus Byrd due to his connections to Mike Pettine in Buffalo. In addition, the Browns still haven’t finalized anything with either strong safety T.J. Ward, center Alex Mack, or even an early extension with cornerback Joe Haden. That’s a lot of moving pieces, but what should the team do? They’ve got lots of money available in cap space. Shouldn’t they just line them all up and pay everyone? Not necessarily.
One of the conversations around Twitter is regarding the Browns, Ward and Byrd. The idea seems to be that these two players are an either-or proposition for the team. While that makes sense from a financial standpoint, there’s little doubt these two would look good together in the same backfield from a purely football standpoint. T.J. Ward is a strong safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage and helping with the run, while Byrd is a free safety guarding against over-the-top passing among other things. The financial considerations are real, though. While these two guys play different positions it would be curious for the Browns to have so much money tied up in that specific part of the defensive secondary. I don’t know which guy the Browns should choose, but I have a tough time thinking it would be a good idea to have $15-20 million tied up on an annual basis in safeties before even considering the extension that Joe Haden is likely to get.
I’ll admit that it feels a little bit strange talking about money all the time with the Browns when they have so much of it available. Even before the Browns cut D’Qwell Jackson, they were expected to have over $45 million available. With that in mind, why did it make sense to cut D’Qwell Jackson and why were we even bothering to talk about the possibilities of cutting Ahtyba Rubin? NFL teams obviously want to run financially efficiently, especially when they’re in the process of rebuilding. The only thing worse than being 4-12 is being 4-12 with limited ability to improve.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the Browns wanted to upgrade at D’Qwell Jackson’s position in the long-run, but their decision to cut him was financially motivated. The Browns have plenty of money today, which is another reason it made sense to cut Jackson now. The Browns take their “dead money” hit in 2014 when they still have that flexibility as opposed to taking a dead money hit when they might be a better team in either 2015 or 2016 when Jackson’s deal was scheduled to run out.
Which brings me back to Rubin. Rubin’s saving grace with the Browns this season is that the 27-year old is in the last year of his deal. So even if he’s one of the more highly paid players on a team that has some redundancy at his position with Desmond Bryant, John Hughes, Billy Winn, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, and Phil Taylor, the Browns don’t need to get out in front of any future obligations. In Rubin’s case there are none. If anything, I still think the risk of him being traded is pretty high. He is set to make a lot of money, but he’s also ripe to get traded and have a new deal handed to him by some team in need of a 330-pound defensive lineman who is still in his 20s.
If that happened, Rubin would presumably be happy with most contracts that paid him anything north of the $6.8 million in cash ($6.6 in salary + $200k workout bonus) that he’s scheduled to pull in this year. Rubin’s cap number is $8.175 million for the Browns, but the player could definitely get some additional security in the form of guaranteed money on an extension if he were to be traded and extended by the receiving team.
As far as the Browns go with their finances, the factor that will continue to haunt this team isn’t about who they have and how much they’ve spent. The idea will continue to be who they don’t have that they haven’t been able to spend their money on. The Browns should consistently maintain financial cap flexibility as long as they’re searching for a quarterback. That position will always be a priority and require the most money. The Browns desperately want to find that guy, and when they do, they presumably don’t want to have to worry about paying him while keeping the rest of the team intact.
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