The Cleveland Browns are in a favorable position to maintain all of their young talent this offseason. They find themselves entering the offseason with the most salary cap space available in the NFL—$24.3 million according to OverTheCap.com—a franchise tag and just two key unrestricted free agents hitting the market.
The big question is which one of their free agents will receive the tag, if any? Will it be second team All-Pro safety and Pro Bowl alternate T.J. Ward or will it be second team All-Pro and Pro Bowl center Alex Mack?
While the Browns certainly have the ability to keep both around for the foreseeable future that does not mean it will actually happen. Just as likely is a scenario where only one or possibly neither of these players is back in a Browns uniform next season.
You always have to keep Browns C.E.O Joe Banner’s frugal reputation in mind when analyzing contracts of players.
Let’s go deep into the scenarios of each player possibly receiving the franchise tag from the Browns.
What is the franchise tag?
There are two types of franchise tags: the non-exclusive and the exclusive. Both of these tags allow teams to bring back their talent for one more season without a long-term contract agreement. Teams have a two-week window to designate which player, if any, will receive their franchise tag. That period begins February 17th.
With the non-exclusive franchise tag, a player must be offered a one-year contract based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five years and their percentage of the current year's salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year's salary (usually salary cap number), whichever is greater. This tag allows the player to negotiate with other NFL teams but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.
Under the exclusive franchise tag, a player will receive a one-year offer from his team that is the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended (May 2) or 120 percent of his prior year's salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.
Teams usually opt for the non-exclusive tag. However, quarterbacks are more likely to get the exclusive franchise tag than any other position.
– Joel Corry, former sports agent and current writer for CBSSports.com.
In laymen’s terms, whoever receives the franchise tag is going to get a huge payday. Neither Mack nor Ward will be worth two first-round draft picks to any franchise so the non-exclusive, or cheaper, franchise tag is the more likely option.
Both players would be set for major pay increases under the franchise tag. Ward would be in for a huge raise because his rookie contract, where he made just $630,000 in 2013, just expired. Mack’s contract, where he made $3.732 million in 2013, just expired as well. How much of a raise would the tag be?
Here are the projected franchise tag numbers for their positions in 2014 according to CBSSports.com:
|POSITION||2014 FRANCHISE TAG PROJECTIONS|
Alex Mack, Center
Mack, one of the most popular names on the Browns, just finished his fifth season in Cleveland. The two-time Pro Bowl selection and 2013 second team All-Pro selection is one of the few constant names that has remained on the roster.
Mack has two major factors working against him receiving the franchise tag. The first is the overall performance of the offensive line. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Browns ranked 17th against the pass and 18th against the run in the NFL.
Mack and company allowed the third most sacks in the NFL (49) and had the 23rd lowest yards per rushing attempt in the league (4.0).
The other major factor playing against Mack is the franchise number itself. For some reason, the collective bargaining agreement in the NFL lumps all offensive line positions together when it comes to the franchise tag.
Thus, if a team wants to franchise a center like Mack, they have to pay him like a left tackle. As you can see in the chart above, that would put him somewhere around $11.1 million for next season. When compared to centers on the best lines in the NFL, that is an astronomical amount.
|TEAM||FootballOutsiders.com RANKS||CENTER||2013 Salary|
|Denver||Pass (1) Run (8)||Manny Ramirez||$815,000|
|New England||Pass (9) Run (1)||Ryan Wendell||$815,000|
|Cincinnati||Pass (3) Run (11)||Kyle Cook||$2.5 million|
|New Orleans||Pass (4) Run (7)||Brian De La Puente||$2.023 million|
If Mack is on the Browns next season, it will be because the front office re-signed him to a long-term contract and not because he received the franchise tag. To put it in perspective, New York jets center Nick Mangold is the highest paid center in the NFL at $6.5 million per year.
T.J. Ward, Safety
Ward finally had his breakout year in 2013 by staying healthy all 16 games, making the Pro Bowl and being named a second team All-Pro safety. This was the type of player former Browns general manager Tom Heckert envisioned when he selected Ward in the second round of the 2010 draft.
He has always been able to deliver the big hit, but this season he became a consistent playmaker and leader on the defense. ProFootballFocus.com has Ward ranked as the top safety available in free agency.
Ward ranked third in the NFL in tackles among all defensive backs with 112. He ranked 16th among safeties with 1.5 sacks and his nine passes defensed was also near the top of the list among his position.
As you saw above, the 2014 franchise tag is estimated at around $8 million. This would be a little over $1 million more than last season. Below is a list of the highest paid safeties in the NFL according to Sportrac.com:
|Kansas City||Eric Berry||$7,009,000|
|New York (G)||Antrel Rolle||$7,000,000|
|Buffalo||Jairus Byrd||$6,916,000 (franchise tag)|
|San Diego||Eric Weddle||$6,000,000|
If the Browns franchise Ward, he would then be among the top five in safety salaries once teams hand out their contracts this offseason. This would be the smart move on their part, however.
As good of a year as Ward had, he has not proven he can sustain this level of play over a long period of time. He has also yet to prove that he can stay healthy. One season is not enough.
The Browns should use the franchise tag on Ward and hope that he makes them pay through the nose next offseason. That would mean he repeated or improved on his 2013 performance.
If the Browns decide to sign him to a new contract, they will pay through the nose anyway without the extra year of evaluation. Ward’s agent is Drew Rosenhaus and he is notorious for getting his clients big time deals, especially when they have career seasons on the year their contract expires.