Browns' Top Players to Consider for Franchise Tag, RFA Contract Tenders
The Cleveland Browns enter the 2021 offseason in a great position to continue building after a breakthrough 2020 campaign.
In head coach Kevin Stefanski's first year, the Browns had their most successful season since coming back as a franchise in 1999. The offense hit its stride in Baker Mayfield's third year under center, and the team showed it can compete in the deep AFC North and exorcised demons in a playoff win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, the work of building a contender in 2021 is set to get underway rather quickly, and it all starts with the franchise-tag window opening on Tuesday.
In a typical year, the franchise tag is somewhat of an emergency option to buy more time to negotiate a long-term deal. The one-year contract is determined by the top five salaries at a given position relative to the cap. However, with the salary cap projected to dip this season, so too will the franchise-tag costs.
So, in a year when more teams will likely use the tag than usual, the Browns have at least one option they could consider.
Then there's restricted free agents and exclusive-rights free agents. These are players the Browns can essentially guarantee with one-year tenders. They used a tender on Kareem Hunt last season before ultimately signing him through 2022.
Here's a look at who they may be considering for those designations as we approach franchise-tag time.
Franchise Tag: No Clear Options
The only impending free agent who would have potentially been a franchise-tag candidate is defensive end Olivier Vernon. Unfortunately, that's not an option because, according to Spotrac, his contract doesn't allow for him to be tagged in 2021, and he ruptured his Achilles tendon at the end of the season.
Optimistically, that puts him back in the lineup in September sometime. But Vernon will be 31 years old on October 7, and an injury of that magnitude is hard to pin down for a recovery time.
The transition tag, which offers no compensation if a team signs the player, projects to be around $14.8 million, per Over The Cap's projections. Even if Vernon was contractually able to be tagged, that's a lot to spend on a guy who played for a cap hit of $11 million last season.
Karl Joseph might be the next-best option set to hit free agency. The safety transition tag is expected to be $9.6 million while his market value is $8.2 million in annual average salary, according to Spotrac.
Given the Browns signed him to a one-year $2.5 million deal last year, it's more likely they either pony up for a difference-maker in the secondary or find another bargain like Joseph toward the end of free agency.
More teams may turn to the tag than usual this offseason because it is going to be cheaper than usual, but the Browns are unlikely to be one of them.
Restricted Free Agent Tender: WR KhaDarel Hodge
The Browns' crop of restricted free agents is rather sparse as well. KhaDarel Hodge is joined by cornerback Tavierre Thomas as the only two who are eligible to receive a tender.
Of the two, Hodge is the more likely bet to be brought back. The 26-year-old has proved to be useful on special teams and stepped up as a receiver when called upon. He finished the season with 11 catches for 180 yards including three catches for 73 yards in a Week 11 win over Philadelphia.
What the Browns are going to do with the receiving corps is a storyline to watch. Odell Beckham Jr. is a potential trade chip. The offense moved along just fine when he tore his ACL last season, and Cleveland already has a lot of money wrapped up in the position between him and teammate Jarvis Landry.
Rashard Higgins is set to hit the open market, and his rapport with Mayfield has been evidenced through the last three years when given the opportunity.
Should the Browns move on from any of those top three guys, Hodge would be a receiver who is familiar with the offense and has been around.
He's probably not going to even get the right-of-first-refusal tender, which is projected to be worth around $2.1 million this year, but the Browns are likely to bring him back on a cheaper deal. There isn't likely to be a big market for the receiver.
Exclusive Rights Free Agent: DE Porter Gustin
Any player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract is eligible to be an exclusive rights free agent. Essentially, teams can offer them a one-year deal for the league minimum, and they are ineligible to negotiate with other clubs.
Last season, the Browns used the designation to bring Pharaoh Brown, KhaDarel Hodge and Dontrell Hilliard on for one more year.
This year, the most likely candidate for the deal is Porter Gustin. The undrafted defensive end out of USC showed some promise. He had 28 tackles, five hurries and two quarterback knockdowns even though he didn't register a sack and had only one interception in the playoff win over the Steelers.
Other players who are eligible to be exclusive rights free agents are offensive linemen Michael Dunn and Colby Gossett, defensive end George Obinna and tight end Stephen Carlson.
Of those, Gustin is the most valuable. There will be lots of talk about the Browns adding some new pass-rushers to pair with Myles Garrett, whether it's a veteran like J.J. Watt or Von Miller or some of the top names in the draft.
However, player development is key to any franchise and a small move like bringing back Gustin on a one-year deal could turn out to be an important part of their defensive plans in 2021.