Is C Alex Mack Worth Brewing Multimillion Battle Between Browns and Jaguars?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 10, 2014

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On Friday, the new Kevin Costner movie Draft Day opens nationwide, detailing the front office machinations of fictional general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. as he tries to rebuild the Cleveland Browns.

Well, they say life imitates art. As that film opens, the Browns have some real-life drama of their own to attend to.

With reports swirling that the Jacksonville Jaguars are set to sign center Alex Mack to a lucrative long-term offer sheet, the questions are flying across the shores of Lake Erie.

Will the Browns match the offer? And more importantly, is Mack (or any center, for that matter) worth the kind of money that's being talked about?

ESPN's Adam Schefter was among the first to report that Mack was not only set to agree to terms with the Jaguars on a long-term deal, but was hopeful that the Browns would choose not to match it, as is their right after hitting Mack with the transition tag:

However, if what Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer is any indication, he's more than willing to match whatever offer comes up the pipe from Florida:

"We remain optimistic that Alex Mack will be a Cleveland Brown for a long time,'' Haslam said on the "orange carpet'' at the local premiere of Draft Day at Cinemark Valley View theaters. "We want him to be. I think we've made it very clear that he's the kind of person, the kind of player we want in our organization.'

Asked specifically if he'd match any offer the Jaguars concoct, he smiled and said, "We want Alex to be a Cleveland Brown.''

Well OK then. That's that. The Jags will make the offer, the Browns will match it, and life in the NFL will go on.

Except it's not that simple.

Yes, the sorts of "poison pills" that led to the transition tag being mothballed by NFL teams have been outlawed by the new CBA, but as Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland points out, Schefter relayed a few ways the Jaguars could get "creative" with an offer sheet:

Schefter speculated the Jags may include language in the deal that gives Mack the chance to opt out after the 2014 season. And it’s possible they would construct the financials in the deal to pay Mack much more than the $10.039 million that was guaranteed in the Browns’ transition tag.

Sure, the Browns have more salary cap space than any team in the NFL. But at some point, the idea of a front-loaded contract with a big guarantee and an opt-out after one year (for a player who has expressed a desire to move on) is apt to make any team a little reticent.

It also begs the question of how much is too much, especially relative to what other top centers around the NFL are making.

NFL's Highest-Paid Centers 2014
PlayerTeamAgeAverage Salary2013 PFF Rank
Alex MackCLE28$10.0 million4
Ryan KalilCAR29$8.2 million9
Nick MangoldNYJ30$7.7 million19
Max UngerSEA27$6.5 million21
Eric WoodBUF28$6.4 million26

Yes, Mack's fourth-place ranking among centers last year at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was tops among the league's five highest-paid centers in average salary this year.

But even at the transition tag amount, Mack's salary would be nearly $2 million more per season than Ryan Kalil of the Carolina Panthers, who ranks second.

The disparity becomes even more alarming when you look at another top-five center at PFF last year who just signed a contract extension.

Jason Kelce vs. Alex Mack PFF 2013
Player'14 SalaryOVRPassRunSacksHitsHurries
Kelce$6.3M18.9 (1)2.6 (13)11.8 (3)318
Mack$10M17.8 (4)5.9 (5)10.0 (5)2518
Pro Football Focus

Not only was Jason Kelce of the Philadelphia Eagles ranked higher than Mack a year ago, but at 26, Kelce is two years younger. He's also set to make nearly $4 million less in average salary in 2014 after inking a six-year extension in February.

From glancing at those numbers, a pretty strong argument can be made that no center, even one as good as Mack, is worth anywhere near $10 million a season.

Unless, of course, you're the Browns or the Jaguars.

The Jags and Browns are two of the most talent-deficient teams in the National Football League. Both are flush with salary-cap space. Both will also likely be breaking in shiny new quarterbacks in 2014.

It would be nice if said shiny new quarterback wasn't broken in half in his first month of games, and a veteran center of Mack's caliber could only aid that young signal-caller's development. They are, after all, the only players on offense who touch the ball on every snap.

And make no mistake, Mack is very good at what he does.

Alex Mack Career PFF Stats
20109.2 (9)2.5 (7)5.8 (11)229
20118.7 (10)5.2 (11)0.6 (17)428
201214.9 (9)5.1 (9)14.1 (6)328
201317.8 (4)5.9 (5)10.0 (5)2518
Pro Football Focus

Two of Mack's four NFL seasons have ended with a trip to the Pro Bowl. In each of those four campaigns, Mack has ranked as a top-10 center at PFF.

Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller went PFF one better, ranking Mack as the league's top center as part of his annual 'NFL 1,000' series:

Mack’s placement atop the list of NFL centers is because of his balance as a player. No matter the down, distance or situation, he excels as a blocker. That ability to dominate the defense on every type of play has huge value.

Also, as Field Yates of tweeted, players just don't get any more durable than Mack has been to this point:

Huge value indeed, especially to a team preparing to groom the young quarterback they hope will lead the team out of the dank, dark basement and into the light.

And that's the thing. Some NFL teams may find the idea of Mack making $10 million a year (and the effect it will have on the salaries of other centers looking to strike it rich), as absolute madness.

However, Mack's value, like everything else in life, is relative.

And for the Jaguars (who just lost long-time center Brad Meester to retirement) or the Browns (who got themselves into this mess by not just using the franchise tag on Mack), teams with a desperate need for talent and money to burn, there's a method to the madness.

Either way, Mack's getting his. It's just a matter of where.


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