Before we start obsessing over which quarterback the Cleveland Browns will select in the 2014 NFL draft, their front office has some pressing matters to attend to with regards to the makeup of their current roster.
We all know the Browns are sitting pretty when it comes to salary cap space. Due to spending well below the cap in 2013, the Browns’ adjusted salary cap will be at a whopping $46.6 million, per CBS Sports’ Joel Corry.
That figure has been a focal point of criticism directed at president Joe Banner for giving Rob Chudzinksi his walking papers after his team’s seventh consecutive loss to finish their 2013 campaign.
Whether or not Chud was put into a position to succeed or not, the Browns must put that all in the past and move forward. In addition to filling some roster holes with that cap space, the organization needs to be proactive by re-signing key players, shedding dead weight contracts and extending essential young personnel.
Here are five current players who have contracts the Browns need to be paying the most attention to this offseason.
*All stats and rankings are courtesy of PFF.com (subscription required), and all contract information was obtained from Rotoworld.com.
Phil Taylor has proven to be a disruptive player, pressuring quarterbacks as well as stuffing the run from his nose tackle position.
Phil Taylor has been a rock for the Cleveland Browns’ defensive line in both their 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. He has been a strong central force, allowing the unit to take a big leap—when healthy—eating up blockers and filling running lanes.
He’s only set to make $750,000 in 2014, but is due a $728,625 roster bonus if still on the roster in March. I can’t see any situation in which the Browns decide Taylor is expendable, no matter what direction their defensive plans end up going in.
With such a large influx of young talent at the nose tackle position, it’s hard to really gauge how much the Browns can expect to shell out to keep the imposing big man in town. The bar is high for elite defensive tackles, though, as Geno Atkins inked a deal worth nearly $10 million per year before the start of the 2013 season.
Taylor might not be on Atkins’ level in terms of production, but it’s a good place to start and move back from. He’s a vital piece to the defensive puzzle that had pundits raving about their front-seven during the first half of 2013.
If you think Brandon Weeden will still be on the Cleveland Browns’ roster next fall, I’ve got some beachfront property in Arizona to sell you.
Weeden was supposed to flourish under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The seasoned coach’s vertical passing offense was a perfect fit for the strong-armed signal caller from Oklahoma State, or so we thought.
That idea never came to fruition, though, as the former first-round pick floundered under pressure again in his second season. He was eventually benched in favor of journeyman quarterback Jason Campbell, a telling sign that the Browns organization is ready to move on from the previous regime’s mistake in selecting him.
Weeden still has two years left on his rookie contract, but should be let go soon. The Browns have the luxury of rollover money from their lack of spending in 2013 to make it a clean and easy break. According to CBS Sports’ Joel Corry, the Browns would be on the hook for roughly $4.8 million against their salary cap in 2014 if they decide to cut him outright.
It’s best to just move on, plus they can afford to take the hit. Unless, of course, they can find a trade partner, I guess, but that Arizona real estate has a better chance of moving on the market.
Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger were all outside linebackers in Ray Horton’s 2013 Cleveland Browns defense. The future is up in the air on just what direction the unit will go if Horton is not retained after the organization finds its new head coach.
Luckily for the Browns, they have a young and versatile pass rusher like Sheard who is experienced in both the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. He hasn’t blown us away with his performance as a stand-up outside linebacker, but he held his own and was solid in his first season at the position.
According to Pro Football Focus’ evaluations and points system, Sheard ranked 11th in the NFL among his peers, logging six sacks and 28 quarterback hurries in 663 snaps. Mingo actually logged 668 snaps while splitting time with the third-year pro.
Once a coach is in place, Cleveland’s defensive future will become a little clearer. But Sheard should be a primary focus no matter what direction the team decides to go. He has just one year left on his deal, so the organization should lock him up sooner rather than later. His versatility and experience will make him a valued commodity on the 2015 free-agent market if they let him test the waters.
Alex Mack was actually the fifth-best rush-blocking center in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus, despite the Cleveland Browns’ ineptitude running the football in 2013.
Beyond Mack’s return to the Pro Bowl and overall ability, solid offensive line play is largely a result of continuity and cohesion. Mack has been playing with fellow Pro Bowler Joe Thomas since coming into the league, and also played with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for two years in college.
That’s something you can’t coach. It takes time, something this organization doesn’t have after finishing below six wins for the sixth year in a row.
Plus, Mack wants to stay with his teammates.
"Cleveland is a very easy place to come back to," he said, according to Tom Withers of the Associated Press. "I like the coaches. I like the players. I have a house here. So without a doubt it would be very easy to come back.“
It’s not everyday a talented player wants to come to Cleveland. That’s why it’s so important they retain key individuals who have a stake in seeing the franchise turn a corner.
Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward had a Pro Bowl caliber season in 2013, it’s a shame he’ll miss out as an alternate selection.
He’s not perfect and will get beat occasionally in coverage, but he took a big step in that regard in 2013. Ward finished allowing just one touchdown while limiting opposing passers to a 58 percent completion rate when throwing in his direction.
That’s the area many see as Ward’s biggest weakness. Let’s talk about his strength: run defense support. Among NFL safeties, the former Oregon defensive back finished third in total tackles.
It’s possible the Browns designate him with the team’s franchise tag, which will garner him around $7 million in salary in 2014 based on last year‘s numbers. But it’s hard to imagine why they wouldn’t want to keep arguably their best defensive player around, and happy, for as long as possible.