The Cleveland Browns' latest rebuilding project will continue in 2014, and part of that process will involve their own class of free agents and other veterans whose contracts are nearing their end in 2015.
The Browns have been well underneath the salary cap for years now, which makes this process easier. However, considering the value of the players with contracts set to expire soon, this is going to get expensive, and not everyone might get the offers they are looking for.
Let's take a look at who the Browns need to think about paying this offseason and how that factors into their projected salary-cap situation for 2014.
The Salary Cap
The 2014 NFL salary cap is not expected to change much from the $122 million it was set at in 2013. Spotrac has it tentatively set at $126.3 million for 2014, with the Browns having presently $102.7 million of that spoken for.
The Browns will also be able to roll over their excess cash from 2013 into 2014. If the cap is $126.3 million, then they will have just over $15.5 million from 2013 available to them next year. Based on their present contracts and a $126.3 million cap, the Browns will have around $38.5 million in cash to work with in 2014. If the league-wide cap is more like $122 million, then Cleveland will have $32 or $33 million in excess cash it can spend.
|Projected 2014 Cap||$126,300,000|
|Browns' 2014 Contracts||$95,494,342|
|Browns' 2014 Dead Money||$7,817,332|
|Browns' 2014 Practice Squad||$816,000|
|Total Browns 2014 Expenses||$102,672,674|
|Browns' 2014 Cap Space||$22,811,326|
|Browns' Carry-Over Cash from 2013||$15,501,431|
|Adjusted Browns' 2014 Cap Space||$38,312,757|
via Spotrac.com, does not include 2014 rookies
Left tackle Joe Thomas has the highest cap hit for the Browns next year, at $12.3 million. Their six next-highest cap figures are all for defensive players, from cornerback Joe Haden at $8.96 million to linebacker Barkevious Mingo at $3.71 million.
The Browns also have over $7 million in dead money charged against their cap for 2014, with running back Trent Richardson accounting for $6.67 million of it. While that's dead money the Browns can afford in the short term, it could affect their contract negotiations with some of their higher-priced veterans who need new deals soon.
The 2014 Free Agents
The Browns have 11 players set to hit free agency in one capacity or another in 2014 (Spotrac incorrectly lists Brad Smelley as one of Cleveland's free agents, but he's currently a member of the Houston Texans).
Of those, the two highest priorities should be center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. Offensive linemen Oniel Cousins and Shawn Lauvao could also be in line for new deals. Cornerbacks Chris Owens and Julian Posey and kicker Billy Cundiff could also receive modest contracts.
Getting the latter three signed to new deals should be easy and relatively inexpensive. Posey made just $112,941 for 2013, Owens made $1 million and Cundiff $555,000; major pay raises won't likely be necessary for all of them, especially with Owens' season ending on injured reserve.
Ward and Mack, however, will be quite expensive.
Mack is Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) third-ranked center for 2013 and he hasn't missed a game since 2010. Mack made a total of $5.032 million in 2013, his final year of a five-year, $14.6 million contract. Mack will likely need a few more millions in his new deal, which could come in the form of a guaranteed and prorated signing bonus.
That means Mack's cap hit for 2014 would be around $6 or $6.5 million, especially when looking at what the top centers around the league are currently commanding. There's no way he makes the bank-breaking money of the New York Jets' Nick Mangold, but just looking at the cap hits for centers in 2013, a raise of a few degrees seems inevitable if the Browns are going to keep Mack around.
Ward, too, is excelling on the field in a contract year, which will also mean a significantly higher payday than the $1.198 million he made in 2013. Ward is Pro Football Focus' second-ranked safety in the league, with two sacks, two interceptions and just 208 receiving yards allowed and one touchdown given up. If the Browns don't pay him, some other team will.
Because of many expensive Browns veterans needing new contracts in or before 2015, Ward could actually be a casualty. Just looking at the base salaries of the top safeties in 2013, as well as the safety salary-cap impacts for the season, illustrates what the Browns are up against.
If Ward will accept $4 to $5 million in base salary plus $1.6 million or so per year in bonuses, Cleveland can afford him. If he'd like a contract that would ultimately cost $8, $9 or $10 million per year against the cap, then he'll need to get that money from another team. A contract of that size for Ward would cost the Browns dearly in other ways, to the point that it would hurt the team more to sign him to a large contract than to let him test the free-agency waters.
In an ideal situation, Lauvao and Cousins could both get new contracts each paying out what Cousins made for 2013—$725,000—and serve as offensive line depth going forward. However, with other paydays coming due, it's more likely that only one gets a new, sub-$1 million-per-year contract from the Browns.
Potential Cuts for 2014
The Browns are approaching a period when trimming the financial fat off the roster will be a greater necessity than ever before. Though a number of players won't likely be returning for the Browns despite still being under contract, three stand out over the rest.
They are wide receivers Greg Little and Davone Bess and quarterback Brandon Weeden. The first step would be for the Browns to explore trading the trio, allowing other teams to pick up their contracts so that the Browns don't carry dead money into 2014.
Little is set to make $1.058 million in 2014. Bess is on track to earn $3.067 million. Weeden has $2.023 million owed him for the year. Because Little's cap hit is so relatively low, the Browns may actually opt to keep him around. He'll be an unrestricted free agent in 2015, so they can let him go at that point while still having at least his veteran presence on the roster for one more year.
Little hasn't been very reliable this year, as has been the theme of his entire career. He's caught only 39 of the 81 passes thrown his way, or 48.1 percent, for 452 yards and two touchdowns with seven dropped passes. However, he's actually been better than Bess, who was brought on in free agency to be a sure set of hands for Cleveland's quarterbacks.
Who Should the Browns Release in the Offseason?
Maybe it was Bess taking on Little's old jersey number, but he hasn't looked good for the Browns this year. He's caught 42 of 83 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns with 14 drops. He has the same production as Little, albeit with twice the number of dropped passes and twice the 2014 salary. For that reason, it seems like Little's roster spot is safer than Bess' going forward.
Moving on from Weeden makes the most sense of these three, and the quarterback is also the most inevitable roster cut for the Browns when the new league year begins in March. With Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell and Alex Tanney also on the roster and the odds good that the Browns either draft another quarterback in May or find a relative veteran in free agency, Weeden is the odd man out.
With his low total cap hit, the Browns could find a willing trade partner for Weeden. However, it would have to be a team interested in his services as a backup. His two poor years in Cleveland and his age don't make him an attractive pickup, at any price. The Browns may ultimately have to eat his salary in order to move on.
The Big Money Looming
The reason why a pricey deal with Ward may not come to fruition this offseason is because of what is lurking just around the corner for the Browns—their 2015 class of free agents.
The list is daunting, the dollar signs enormous: Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Buster Skrine, defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, linebacker Jabaal Sheard, tight end Jordan Cameron and safety Tashaun Gipson are among the Browns whose contracts are up in 2015. The Browns will have to act on some of these in the 2014 offseason, especially considering the amount of money involved.
Haden and Taylor, in particular, are set to command not-insignificant amounts of money with their respective new contracts. Haden is owed $8.963 million in 2014 and is coming off of a five-year, $42.7 million contract. He's only 24 years old at present and just approaching his prime.
Haden is presently the fifth-highest-paid cornerback in the league, with a 2013 cap figure over $9 million. He is also the Browns' best defensive player. A new contract for him could result in a yearly cap hit of $13 million. With around $20 million to work with this offseason, it's clear money is about to become an issue for the Browns.
Taylor has been surprisingly affordable for the Browns, with his current contract costing them a maximum of $8.093 million over four years. He has a total cap hit of just $2.575 million for 2014—a far lower payout than other comparable or less effective defensive tackles. Because he has a history of smaller paydays, the Browns have leverage in negotiations.
There's little chance Taylor will command a Ndamukong Suh-level of yearly cash ($21.4 million) in any new deal he gets, from the Browns or elsewhere, but it's likely he wants and deserves more. How much more will be the issue, which is why the Browns need to start talking about a new contract with him in 2014.
Taylor should have a cap hit of $4 to $5 million per year from his new contract. The real sticking point will be with the guarantees. Though Taylor's previous contract was a relative bargain, $7.36 million of it was guaranteed. The new contract may need to have a similar percentage of guaranteed money, which makes things more complicated for the Browns.
Rubin's contract situation also puts both the Browns and Taylor in a bad position. Rubin is very highly paid, with an $8.175 million cap hit for 2014. He'll be the second-highest-paid player on the team next year and is coming off of a four-year, $26.5 million deal.
However, he's been a middle-of-the-pack 3-4 defensive end this season. Any chance of him demanding a deal just as big or bigger than his last one would put the Browns in financial peril and could also negatively influence their attempts to get a new deal for Taylor.
Therefore, the Browns shouldn't begin discussion on an extension with Rubin in 2014. If he has a good season, then perhaps they can weigh the benefits of keeping him against the cap constraints a new deal could put on their shoulders. But, ultimately, the best decision might be parting ways with Rubin when he becomes a free agent.
The savings can then be passed on to one or both of Skrine and Gipson. Gipson seems the most likely to get a new contract, having allowed only one touchdown compared to four interceptions this year. Skrine, working mostly in the slot, has given up seven touchdowns and has just one interception this year.
Further, the Browns have a number of young and inexpensive cornerbacks on the roster—the aforementioned Posey, Leon McFadden, Jordan Poyer, Josh Aubrey—one of whom should be able to take on starting slot cornerback duties in 2015 (or even 2014), rendering a payday for Skrine unnecessary.
That leaves just Cameron on the big-names-to-be-paid list. Cameron made just $674,350 for 2013 and his $764,350 cap hit for 2014 makes him one of the lower-paid tight ends in the league. However, he's quickly becoming a major part of Cleveland's offense. Though he's been affected more by the Browns' quarterback carousel this year compared to their other skill-position players, a stable quarterback situation will likely turn him into one of the league's better receiving tight ends.
And he'll want to be paid like it, too.
This is a contract that can wait until 2015, but it's one the Browns need to plan for now. Even if Cameron's new contract nets him $3 or $4 million per year, that's a major increase in salary-cap spending at the position. The Browns will likely look closely at what the Baltimore Ravens offer Dennis Pitta this offseason and use that as a benchmark.
There's also a huge gap in tight end pay. There are no $2 million tight ends for 2014. There are $3.33 million tight ends—the Denver Broncos' Joel Dreessen—and there are $1.87 million tight ends—the Cincinnati Bengals' Tyler Eifert—but no paydays in between. Everything either goes up or down from there. Therefore, the Browns will have to earmark a rather wide range of money for Cameron's new deal, which is why the team will be thinking about his contract in 2014 while not acting until 2015.
The Bottom Line
The Browns' relative stinginess with their contracts and money in the pre-Joe Banner/Mike Lombardi/Jimmy Haslam era has actually set them up nicely to be able to afford most of the relatively pricey veterans who will need new contracts in the next 15 months.
Still, it's a tense situation. Depending on the negotiations and their results, the Browns could find themselves right up against the salary cap in 2015 with difficult decisions to make. Taking care of some of these contracts in 2014 would at least give them a better idea of what they will be facing the following year, but the key will be correctly identifying which players need attention now and who can wait.
Who Do You Think is the Browns' Biggest Free Agency Priority of 2014-2015?
In the shortest term, Alex Mack and T.J. Ward are of the highest priority, followed closely by extensions for Joe Haden, Jordan Cameron and Phil Taylor. If the Browns can just re-sign those five players between now and the start of 2015's free-agency period, they'll be in good shape in terms of their roster as well as their financials.
The real wild card is the quarterback position. The quicker the Browns can find a long-term franchise quarterback, the better off their win-loss record will be. But when they find him, eventually they are going to have to pay him—and pay him well. That could throw a wrench into their financial situation in the next few years depending on whether the league's salary-cap figure rises considerably.
Until that time, however, the Browns seem to have enough cash on hand to take care of some of their most important veterans and not find themselves in significant cap trouble. The question is more about when they make their decisions and not about who they need to try to re-sign.