Nate Burleson, a 32-year-old wide receiver, signed a one-year deal with the Browns, a team(hopefully) on the rise. But how exactly did that deal come about? We went straight to the source.
The Cleveland Browns are in need of yet another facelift. Another regime change has brought a different chain of command; a more defined one. Owner Jimmy Haslam has simplified things—Team President Alec Scheiner, newly promoted GM Ray Farmer, and new Head Coach Mike Pettine report directly to him. Sashi Brown handles the contract negotiations along with Farmer, who has the final say on the 53-man roster. In Berea, there is no more secrecy, no more cloak and dagger situations. Well, at least that is what we are being told.
That is music to the ears of not just the fans of our downtrodden football team, but the media, and more importantly NFL players and their agents. You can buy into whatever you want to believe regarding ousted duo Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner, but the truth is, around the league, the Browns organization became more likeable and respected with those two no longer in power.
Farmer entered the 2014 free agency period with the second most salary cap space in the league and had no issues striking quickly, bringing in safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby, running back Ben Tate, and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in the first few days. But as free agency moved into the slower period, there were still plenty of quality veteran pieces available. Farmer struck gold bringing in wideout Nate Burleson, one of the most respected locker room guys in the league, to help mentor star Josh Gordon Monday through Saturday, and catch balls across the field from him on Sundays.
Ken Sarnoff is a 41-year old lawyer and sports agent who works for PlayersRep, a firm that was co-founder by Clevelander and Hawken grad Andy Simms.
As a member of the Syracuse media mafia, he quickly became disenchanted with the broadcasting lifestyle. While admiring the likes of Dave Pasch (now at ESPN) and Andrew Siciliano (NFL Network), Sarnoff knew the path could take him to North Dakota where he could discuss local news or sports, and this was something he just wasn’t comfortable with. So he flipped his own script and went to law school.
Burleson has played alongside the best.
During law school, Sarnoff started at the bottom as a recruiter and a paralegal for Chicago based-agent Steve Zucker. After graduation from Chicago-Kent he joined his father’s law firm and created Star Sports out of those offices. He started small, representing CFL clients. At a Super Bowl party in 1999, Sarnoff ran into old friend and former Syracuse defensive back Dwayne Joseph, who was working for the Chicago Bears at the time. DJ told Ken that he may have a player for him that could use his help. That player was wide receiver Marcus Robinson, who was represented at the time by the infamous Tank Black., Black infamously bilked many NFL players—Fred Taylor, Ike Hilliard, and Jacquez Green among others—out of millions of dollars.
Sarnoff did some marketing work for Robinson and would eventually become his agent. Robinson left the Bears via free agency for Baltimore and then NFC North rival Minnesota, where both he and Sarnoff crossed paths with a young wide receiver on the come named Nate Burleson.1
The Browns were looking for another veteran wide receiver to pair with and help mentor Gordon. They thought they were getting this when they swapped fourth-round picks (and added a fifth-rounder) with Miami for the steady Devone Bess. He was to be the guy who the young Browns receivers looked to as an example of how to do things the right way both on and off the field. Without even playing a snap with the Browns, Bess was given a three-year deal with a guaranteed $5.75 million.
The experiment turned into a complete disaster. The sure hands were left in Miami and the frustration with Bess’s play reached every level of the organization. Making matters worse were his late season issues, capped by the bizarre twitter rants and photos. A charge of simple assault, resisting arrest without violence and disorderly conduct came soon thereafter. Bess was said to be acting erratically while confronting an officer at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport,
The Browns released Bess On March 5.
The core of receivers on the roster was thin to say the least. After Gordon, there just wasn’t a lot. There’s Greg Little, who after another disappointing season will more than likely be released at some point, and return man Travis Benjamin, who will be back but coming off of a torn ACL. You have former Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden’s collegiate teammate Josh Cooper; Charles Johnson, a player who Banner and Lombardi signed without knowing of his torn ACL; and the oft-released Tori Gurley. The Browns added slot man Andrew Hawkins from Cincinnati to replace Bess, but the position was still in dire need of an upgrade.
Sarnoff put the feelers out at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine to see where Burleson could be a fit. Some teams told him they were planning on going younger at receiver, while others showed interest. The Lions, the team that released him, were amongst those teams looking to get younger. They chose to go after 25-year old Golden Tate, who they signed to a five-year, $31 million deal. Burleson turns 33 in August. Sarnoff thought the Dallas Cowboys would be interested considering Burleson’s close relationship with their new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan (who coached him in Detroit), but Stephen Jones preferred to wait until after the draft to look at veteran receivers.
As the calendar turned to April, the patient duo of Sarnoff and Burleson found two teams that were stepping forward in their pursuit: The Browns and the Miami Dolphins.
Burleson was flown to Miami for a day and a half with the Dolphins where he would meet with their front office, including head coach Joe Philbin and new GM Dennis Hickey. The very next night, he left for Cleveland. Early that next morning, Burleson was at the Browns complex, spending the entire day with Farmer, Pettine, and new wide receivers coach Mike McDaniel. The two coaches and Burleson would later break bread at Cleveland’s XO Steakhouse and chatted about life, football, and Cleveland. Burleson left Cleveland the next morning and informed Sarnoff of his decision to start negotiating with the Browns later that day.
So why did Burleson choose Cleveland over Miami?
“Opportunity,” Sarnoff said. “Miami has a lot of receivers and Cleveland needs them.” As far as the contract terms, Ken said the Browns are keeping them quiet, but there were some “guarantees” included. It is clearly a young man’s league and to still be doing it at a high level in your 30’s these days, it is a feat.
“When you are in your 30’s, it’s tough,” Sarnoff said. “There are a few receivers in their 30’s still doing it: Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith are most notable. There are a lot of factors at play here. They are trying to change the culture in Cleveland. They have some nice young pieces and with Nate and others—some veterans sprinkled in with their youth. And that is why I think it is a perfect fit. We are excited about the opportunity here.”
The “opportunity” to mentor a guy like Gordon was also extremely compelling to Burleson. This is a guy who played next to both Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson, two of the greatest deep threats in NFL history, while each were in their respective primes.
“Nate is like an extra receiver coach,” said Sarnoff. “Shawn Jefferson (his WR coach in Detroit) used to refer to the receiver meetings as ’Nate’s Room.’ He commands a room. When Nate starts talking about what Moss did, what Calvin did, what it was like to play with and hang with those guys in the peaks of their careers, the young guys like Gordon are going to listen.”
As for working with the Browns, the negotiations, which took place over the phone, went smoothly. Ken couldn’t have been more complimentary of the job done by Farmer and Brown.
“Sashi Brown had a big hand in recruiting Nate,” said Sarnoff. “You can tell the Browns have a capable front office that is going to be doing big things. They get it. These guys know exactly what they are doing. There’s a trust factor there.
“Ray Farmer was the first guy in Cleveland that I talked to about Nate. I knew him before from Kansas City. He is an incredible guy. This is a very well liked, very well respected guy within NFL circles. The Browns have themselves one heck of a GM. I was very impressed working with him.”
The sales pitch Farmer gave to Burleson obviously was a winner. The GM recruited Nate and sold him on what his team is trying to do. Truth be told, the Browns aren’t exactly a sexy sell to big name free agents these days. There is a perception of them around the league, right or wrong, that chaos reigns and owner Jimmy Haslam has shown to be a bit of a loose cannon. There is no top flight quarterback on the roster. Save for the 2007 10-6 season, the Browns have been as bad as it gets in the league since their return in 1999. Farmer has a very big job ahead of him, but according to Sarnoff, “he did a great job selling the culture change of his franchise. “
When asked to compare working with Farmer to his experiences with Lombardi, Sarnoff declined comment. He did, however, have no problem going deeper regarding the current Browns GM.
“Farmer was smart,” he said. “He knew these were the same kind of things Nate walked into back in 2010 in Detroit: a team in a working class town with years of losing. A star receiver (Johnson) on one side, not a lot next to him. Detroit and Cleveland are very similar. Nate has done it before. He can be a major part of the culture change there.”2
Sarnoff and his PlayersRep group have last year’s No. 4 overall pick Lane Johnson who starts for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. They have Patriots running back Steven Ridley and the McCourty Twins Jason and Devin, but Ken will always have a special place in his heart for Burleson, who is a great client and a great friend.
“Nate’s the most fun guy to be around. He just gets it,” he said. “There’s no attitude there. He truly is just a regular guy. He’s a blast to work with and he’s a great interview, as the people in Cleveland will soon find out.” [↩]
Unfortunately for Burleson, the first thing that comes to many a mind; the giant elephant in the room, is the now infamous pizza injury. Here is a 13-year veteran who ran with Moss and Megatron, yet the pizza induced car accident is what the media loves to lead with. Sarnoff dismissed it as nothing but boring fodder.
“It never came up with any of the teams we spoke with,” he said. “It doesn’t bother Nate, but every story in the media seems to lead with it…. It was a freak accident.” [↩]