Browns' Top Contracts to Consider Cutting Ahead of NFL Free Agency
The Cleveland Browns made plenty of noise in 2020 and have the means to make even more in 2021 if they play this offseason right.
The latest salary-cap projections, which should settle somewhere around $180-$181 million, per Adam Schefter of ESPN, should be encouraging. The Browns are now projected to have around $21.7 million to spend when the offseason starts, per Over The Cap.
That's a good place to start. It's the 10th-most cap space in the league, and the Browns have few returning free agents that are must-sign. Instead, their talent retention likely starts with extending players such as Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward.
Of course, that budget can be expanded by taking a look at their current contracts and identifying who they may want to trade, restructure or cut altogether.
As they begin that process, these are the names who should be on the chopping block based on the amount of money they could save and their current fit on the roster.
All salary-cap info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.
DT Sheldon Richardson
There's no question the Browns' biggest weaknesses come on the defensive side of the ball. Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski built an offense last season that could put points up against anyone, but they couldn't stop anyone, either.
There are issues in all three levels of the defense. Sheldon Richardson is scheduled to be the eighth-highest paid defensive tackle in the league next season.
Statistically, the Missouri product's numbers are fine. He posted 64 tackles, 4.5 sacks and three pass deflections, but he was also PFF's 49th-graded defensive tackle. That's a far cry from how he's being compensated.
The good news for the Browns is that Richardson's 2021 is contractually light on guaranteed money. The team could cut him and save $11.5 million against the cap next season.
The fact that he will be 31 next season is an additional factor working against him. It's reasonable to think we may have already seen his best days. The Browns have young options on the interior of the defensive line who could take the next step.
Andrew Billings should be returning after opting out of the 2020 season, and Jordan Elliott should be ready to play a larger role after being part of the rotation in his rookie season. With Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris set to hit the market, the Browns could actually upgrade at the position with the money they save.
TE David Njoku
It's time the David Njoku saga came to an end in Cleveland.
The 24-year-old's size and speed combination has always made him a tantalizing prospect. He's even flashed the ability to be a legitimate downfield threat at times. But there have been reports of trade requests from the tight end on more than one occasion.
Even now, when the team is finally on the right track and he played a role in a winning season, he won't commit to wanting to be in Cleveland.
"That's a good question," Njoku said in an appearance on The Jim Rome Show (h/t Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal) when asked if Cleveland is the right place for him. "I'm not going to answer that right now. I have no comment towards that at this moment. I'm just going to enjoy my family, my friends, my loved ones."
The Miami product is nice to have on the roster, but he's far from indispensable. Both by snap count and production, he is the third tight end on the roster. Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant are the clear 1-2 punch at the position, and the latter should only get better in his second season.
Cutting Njoku would save the Browns an additional $6 million against the cap, so there are real savings to be had by finally parting ways with the enigmatic tight end.
DE Adrian Clayborn
Adrian Clayborn played an essential role after the injury to Olivier Vernon down the stretch, so it would be nice to reward him with another year. But a cost-benefit analysis is warranted.
The 32-year-old is a great veteran presence on the defense but cutting him would save the franchise $3 million against the cap. That could be the difference between landing an elite pass-rusher in free agency or not.
Clayborn notched 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits as a part of the rotation of defensive ends.
Finding some legitimate pass-rushers to pair with Myles Garrett has to be a top priority this offseason. The 25-year-old registered double-digit sacks for the third consecutive season but didn't have much help. The next top sack artist on the team was Vernon with nine.
After Vernon tore his Achilles at the end of the season, he can't be relied on to put up those numbers again. The draft could bring a replacement, but the Browns also have the financial flexibility to add one in free agency.
Parting ways with Clayborn will only serve to clear up the cash to make that a realistic option.