On Monday the Browns placed the transition tag on free agent center Alex Mack. If Mack signs the one year tender and does not agree to another deal with the Browns or any other club, he will play for a little over $10 million dollars in 2014.
That would be a nice raise.
In 2013 Mack made his second Pro Bowl, and played every offensive snap of every game for the fifth straight year. He was playing on the last year of his rookie contract and earned a little over $5 million for his services.
The Browns are taking a gamble by placing the transition tag on Mack. The first and obvious gamble is that Mack could be signed by another team to a deal that the Browns are unwilling to match. Let’s say the Raiders (picking a team with a lot of cap space, not because there are rumors of Mack to Oakland) decided to offer Mack a five year contract at $9 million per year. That would make Mack the highest paid center in the league, likely until he’s 33 years old. If the Browns decided that was too rich a deal for them, they would lose Mack and not get anything back from the Raiders in compensation.
One of the reasons that the franchise player tag has been effective for teams wanting to keep a player is that it carries with it a steep price for any team trying to pry that player away. Namely two first round draft picks as compensation. The transition tag doesn’t have such a safeguard.
The second reason the move is a gamble is that the Browns could end up paying their center $10 million dollars next season. The franchise and transition tag numbers in the NFL are based on average salaries of top players at their given position. The problem with placing the tag on a center is that the average salary isn’t determined by using just players that play the center position, but by all offensive linemen, including those expensive left tackles.
If he plays under the transition tag figure, Mack would be the highest paid center in the league by about $2 million dollars. In fact, there are only two centers other than Mack who make over $6.5 million.
This may not seem like a big deal for a club with a lot of money under the cap. Maybe it isn’t. It does seem like a bad business model to pay a player 20-25% more than the market says is the top level for his position.
According to the Browns, they would like to still sign Mack to an extension. If they do, then the transition tag would go away and they would have simply bought some time for negotiations.
What they have bought with time to get the Mack deal accomplished, they lost by having no protection in the event they lose T.J. Ward in free agency.
We don’t know the Browns intended strategy. Perhaps to them, placing the franchise tag on Ward was never really an option. Maybe the current coaching staff is ready to go all in on Jarius Byrd. In that case, letting Ward go by using the transition tag on Mack wouldn’t matter. Getting the three time Pro Bowler Byrd to come to Cleveland shouldn’t be considered a slam dunk however.
Here’s how the gamble plays out. The best case scenario would involve the Browns getting a long term deal done with Mack and signing Ward or Byrd to a free agent deal. That’s a win-win.
The Browns could also sign Mack and miss out on both Ward and Byrd. You would have to score that as a win/lose if the Browns don’t have a Pro Bowl safety next season considering what they are giving up.
Alex Mack and his agent could shop around and not get any official offers. Let’s face it, why put an offer out that you know the Browns are just going to match? Why not let the Browns overpay Mack for a season and then take a run at him in free agency next year? Mack would then sign his one year tender for $10 million dollars and do the whole free agent tango again next season. Hard to call that a real win for the team.
Then the situation exists where the Browns don’t get a deal done with Mack, and don’t match an offer extended to him. They would lose Mack, get no compensation and likely lose Ward in the process.
Browns fans should hope that the Browns are making a calculated gamble that pays off.