Do the Browns have too much unused salary cap space in 2013?

Joe BannerAs 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 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  • JHop

    I’m all for keeping future flexibility, but next year’s free agent class isn’t shaping up to be a showstopper. The only guy I’d consider worthy of throwing the checkbook at would be Jimmy Graham, but I don’t expect the Saints to let him get anywhere close to free agency.

    After that, the prospects look a lot dimmer. If Weeden flops and the Browns land in that awkward 10-15 drafting range next year where there aren’t any sure-fire rookie QBs, do they take a flier and use that cap space on, say, Jay Cutler or Josh Freeman?

    The only reasons they should have any of this cap space is to extend the players mentioned above, or make Jimmy Graham unbelievably wealthy.

  • until some extensions take place, this the most probable use of the godfather monies available for next year’s free agency:

  • mgbode

    “Ward isn’t going to make premier safety money”

    I disagree. If he plays 14games this year, then that should end the injury-prone angle (he would have played at least 14 games in 3 of 4 seasons) and his actual play on the field will be what GM’s see. And, that is a very good thing for TJ Ward.

  • Adam Copeland

    Cap space flexibility is one thing, playing a game of UFA chicken with established players playing on rookie deals is another. I agree with the end of your article that the Browns need to get some of this stuff done before the first game. It makes zero sense to me that Mack hasn’t been offered an extension yet. What could they possibly be waiting for? They’re not going to find a better or cheaper alternative in FA and why draft a new C when you already have a young Pro Bowl caliber one on the roster?

  • mgbode

    “There’s really no harm in signing veterans to one-year deals with no future financial obligations if you need a stop-gap.”

    Completely agree and I am scared that this will become evident as a failure at TE, FB, CB2, FS, S-depth, and OG.

  • mgbode

    please no. take it down. TAKE.IT.DOWN!

  • if it’s not cutler (who can be franchised next year anyway) i should like to know what the grand plan might be, because it seems there’s two options:
    * save dough to throw at someone in a deal-you-cant-refuse signing bonus, or,
    * let it evaporate into the ether.

    you dont get to rollover cap space indefinitely.

    frankly, i dont care if theyre trying to position themselves for teddy bridgewater. but i sure resent being last in cap room and at the same time be told that banner is such a terrific cap guy and i just dont understand stuff.

    ps, a lot of people fell over for banner’s charm offensive a couple weeks ago, but none of our press corps asked the cap questions. what’s up with that?

  • RyInCBus

    Don’t forget the (roughly) $5 million all teams must set aside for IR allotment (guaranteed money paid to players who are out with season -ending injuries). And I wouldn’t expect any deals to get done prior to the beginning of the season. Here’s why…

    The team has said they want to see Mack be more physical at the point of attack. So far, in camp, he has upped his game going against the mauler that Phil Taylor is every day. But they want to see it in real games first. He’s on his way. If he continues, he’ll get paid. There’s nothing that says it needs to be done now.

    Ward needs to prove he can stay healthy for 16 games for the first time in his career. If he does, and he is the star of this defense like Horton expects him to be, he’ll get his. Look to the Rashad Jones deal Miami got done the other day as a comparison. If Ward wants more than that, he might find himself slapped with the franchise tag going into next year. Wouldn’t it be nice if we finally used that on someone other than our kicker?

    Finally, Haden will be the most tricky because he thinks he’s Revis Jr and he’s not… Yet. So far he’s proving he’s everything we thought he could be coming into his fourth camp but his off-the-field antics (adderall, showing up late to team meetings) hasn’t endured him to the new regime. All of these things factor into why the Browns haven’t broke the piggy bank just yet. It’s not just to be cheap.

  • mgbode

    “Ward needs to prove he can stay healthy for 16 games for the first time in his career.”

    because his rookie year apparently doesn’t count.

  • mgbode

    I think we are more positioning ourselves for a Hundley type (#6-14 overall pick). We did “enough” that we won’t be the worst team in the NFL (JAX and Oakland look to be purely tanking — maybe Jets), but I also don’t understand why we left such blatant holes on our team that we could have at least patched over.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    If Weeden flops I think this team will be drafting alot higher then 10-15. Unfortunately not high enough for Teddy B though.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Yea really.

  • you and me both buddy.
    (and hell, #6 pick might get you an anthony barr or a tajh boyd.)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Not sold on Ward of course next to whoever plays the other safety he’s a stud. Mack and Haden are no-brainers especially Mack.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m thinking 6-8 range. A couple injuries that could easily be 3-4 though.

  • RyInCBus

    You’re right. I stand corrected. Doesn’t change the situation unfortunately.

  • you guys are crazy. cutler is both good and entertaining. would be the greatest cleveland FA signing in any sport, ever.

  • JHop

    The only good thing Cutler would bring to town is his fairly attractive wife.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    LoL I’m still hoping for that French guy LeBron something in a year!

  • nj0

    Cutler is so Cleveland.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I thought it but held back glad you didn’t. But Casspi was supposed to bring Bar Rafaeli to town and I don’t ever remember seeing her on the great beaches of Lake Erie. Damn you Omri!!!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Vanderbilt alum Bill Livingston would wet his Depends!!!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m in a compromising mood today tell ya what if he brings Brandon Marshall with him I’ll reconsider.

  • [seriously considers adding ‘Countdown to Cutler’ widget to homepage.]

  • mgbode

    no idea why he’s ignored.

  • maxfnmloans

    why can I not get rid of this nagging suspicion that Alex Mack is playing his final season in Cleveland? I hope it’s just another item in the loooong list of things I’ve been wrong about. I also worry about Joe Haden, but one FA not drafted by Joe Banner at a time…

  • woofersus

    I’m not totally sure the kind of players who are willing to sign a one year deal are a big enough upgrade to matter. It’s also possible the FO likes a couple of players on the roster in those positions more than we realize thus far (right or wrong) but my assumption has been that this team is at a point where a 1-year stopgap takes a roster spot from somebody with potential that was recently drafted, and that guy had better be a significant upgrade over who we have to justify it. Those last few cuts get a lot more painful when a team is actually talented.

  • bupalos

    That was just his first first year. Those don’t count. Only second first years.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Haden can’t leave if he does he’ll have to purchase entire new uniform for whatever cities NBA team there is.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Can I add P and K? I know those are positions that we’re told not to care about, but to me even small differences matter at those positions as they can really change a game. A punter may kick 6 punts in a game and average 45 yards versus another guy who averages 50, but if the first guy shanks a punt for 10 yards and then kicks 52 yards on each of the other punts, isn’t that a huge deal versus a guy who punts the ball 6 times for 50 yards each time? The first guy probably gave up 3 or 7 points because of the shank. With as many close games as the Browns played last year, it seems to me like the punter or kicker alone could lose 2-4 games between them. I just don’t understand the logic behind picking from the bottom of the barrel at those positions when you don’t have to.

  • Jaker

    I completely agree with the one year deals. Who on this roster is so irreplacable that we couldn’t deal out some cash for a rental? At the end of the season when we are grading each position, we are going to wonder why we went into the season with so many holes ans so much unspent cash.It’s very confusing

  • mgbode

    you can. it’s not that I don’t care about them, but they are positions that the UDFA and low budget FA signings often hit gold on. that’s why I haven’t been mentioning them, but they certainly can be put in there. also, Cribbs had a good year returning kicks, so we have to replace his production there. not to mention we need guys to step up on kick coverages (Bademosi having a more prominent defensive role may impact him there).

    lots of ST questions, yes.

  • steve-o

    The scariest thing in the world to a billionaire is becoming a millionaire. Jimmy Haslam has had a very, very expensive year and he knows that every game will sellout regardless of the cap money he spends. If your expected future income is basically maxed out, the only way to have more money is to spend less. I highly doubt they are saving 25M for a hypothetical franchise QB who they may possibly acquire eventually, maybe (right after they perfect warp drive).

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Definitely questions at PR and KR, but I do really like the options we have there with Benjamin at PR and Dion Lewis at KR. They seem like perfect guys for those roles, but we’ll have to wait and see what they are in actuality. I think we can find an accurate kicker between Graham and Bogotay (maybe even keep both for different roles), but I hate our punters. I’d rather have seen the Browns go and draft a rookie punter with big upside with a 6th or 7th round pick than try to force Conley or Lanning (or anyone else currently available) to be their guy. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it just seems extremely rare for a punter to float around for a couple years being cut by several teams, and then suddenly turn his career around and make himself into a top-10 punter.

  • maxfnmloans

    didn’t LeBron have to do the same thing?

  • NeedsFoodBadly

    I actually like Cutler. Does that make me a bad person?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I don’t know if he had to buy his own uniform I always thought they were complimentary but at least he played basketball.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Cutler and Romo are two QBs who the stats seem to like, but I’d hate to have on my team as my franchise QB. I try to imagine watching either QB in the Superbowl, and it just won’t work.

  • saggy

    they could always raise beer prices.

  • Kildawg

    Bogotay seems to have a stronger leg than Graham. It’s a tall order to replace PFD, but Bogotay looks similar to PFD: 1999 edition.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Yes, it definitely seems like Bogotay has the upper hand. If he’s more accurate than Graham or close to his accuracy in practice/preseason, then the job seems as though it will be solely his. If Graham is more accurate, then Graham will win the kicking job for field goals, but there is still a chance the Browns would retain Bogotay for kickoffs and ultra-long field goal attempts.