Best and Worst Contracts 2016: Cleveland Browns

Today’s best and worst contract entry focuses on the Cleveland Browns…

Best: Joe Thomas, 7 years, $80.5 million, $10M guaranteed

There is little to choose from in this area on the Browns. There are not many veterans on the team to qualify for a pick and most of those who do qualify would be in contention for the worst contract designation. So that leaves me with Thomas, one of the few consistent performers in Cleveland. Continue reading Best and Worst Contracts 2016: Cleveland Browns »

“What We Talkin’ About”: Process, Quality, and Percentages

This is the final draft of the first chapter of Caponomics: Moneyball Thinking for the NFL. We’re sending it out to publishers this week, but a) I’d love to share it with the Over The Cap audience as I’ve been unable to post much since March as I’ve been in the process of re-writing my first draft of Caponomics and b) I figured this would be an avenue to reach publishers I don’t have access to.

After about 16 months of researching the salary caps of Super Bowl champions, this chapter is an introduction to a book that is (my best attempt at) the process or the blueprint for how to build a successful NFL franchise. 

Continue reading “What We Talkin’ About”: Process, Quality, and Percentages »

Thoughts on Robert Griffins $15 Million Contract with the Browns

Robert Griffin III had been one of the more intriguing names left in free agency. Today he finally he found a suitor in the Browns, who signed him to a $15 million contract with $6.75 million guaranteed and a potential value of $22 million over two years if he reaches certain incentives. I think it’s a great deal for the Browns and the contract can tell us a little about the market, or lack thereof, that may have existed for Griffin.  Continue reading Thoughts on Robert Griffins $15 Million Contract with the Browns »

Best & Worst Contracts 2014: Cleveland Browns

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The focus of today’s best and worst contracts is the Cleveland Browns.

Best Contract: Ben Tate

Ben TateFrom the moment the Browns traded RB Trent Richardson all we heard was how hot they were for Ben Tate. At the time Tate, a member of the Texans, was one of the higher regarded backup runners in the NFL, someone who usually stepped in when Arian Foster needed a break and put up great numbers in those limited chances. People talked about how Tate could be a featured back in the league and was going to be asking for a contract in the same realm as players like Ray Rice and Matt Forte.   Though the Browns front office had some changes in 2014 the rumors held firm about how Tate was a perfect fit for the offense and that the Browns wanted him.

Cleveland wisely waited free agency out while free agent after free agent running back signed elsewhere. Toby Gerhart received $4.5 million guaranteed in Jacksonville. Donald Brown signed in San Diego for $4 million guaranteed. Joique Bell re-upped with a $4.3 million guarantee from the Lions. The Giants dropped $2.98 million on Rashad Jennings. Tate should have earned more than these players, even following his injury plagued 2013 campaign, but the Browns ended up locking him up for $2.5 million guaranteed.

If healthy, Tate would earn $3.25 million in the first year of his contract, the lowest of the group besides Jennings who would earn $3 million. Jennings would carry, however, over $1.6 million in dead cap charges if released in 2015 while Tate carries just $750,000, giving him much less protection in the contract.

While nobody knows if Tate can be effective as a starter, the Browns have nothing significant invested in him in the event he flops. A total of $1.45 million of the contract is tied to health to further reduce costs in the event he does not play well.  In a season where so many unprovens were earning close to mid tier starter money the Browns sneaked in and grabbed the highest regarded one for low tier money.  No matter how things go they will never look at this contract and feel that they compromised the future of the franchise.

Worst Contract: Paul Kruger

Paul Kruger

There were more than a few choices for this one as the Browns have gone deep on a few players in recent years to take advantage of the cap surpluses they have had the last few years. The choice for this came down to Paul Kruger and Karlos Dansby. It is close between the two as there are positives and negatives to both guys. The values of both contracts seem overly based on one season and likely will result in negative results for the team. While it was hard to decide I felt the magnitude of the Kruger deal outweighed the age negative for Dansby.

Kruger came off a breakout season in 2012 when he rose to prominence during the Ravens Super Bowl run and became a frequent point of discussion among media and fans. But Kruger had never been a standout performer before that season and had never been a starter.  Unlike the Tate contract, the Browns did not hesitate when it came to Kruger. There was no time to realize that he market was changing in regards to the one season breakout player.

The Browns ended up shelling out a contract worth $40.5 million with $20 million in guarantees for a player who had 6 career starts in four years and just 6.5 sacks in his first three years in the NFL.  The year before a far superior player in Cameron Wake signed a contract worth $8.3 million a year and minimal guarantees while Elvis Dumervil, another superior player, replaced Kruger in Baltimore with a deal worth $5.2 million a season.  In context it’s near impossible to justify what the Browns were willing to give Kruger.

In fairness to the Browns they did use a smaller signing bonus of just $6 million that may make it acceptable to release Kruger after two seasons. But its still going to cost them $20 million to get a look at him in those first two seasons, and that is a huge figure.

Not surprisingly Kruger struggled in his first season with the Browns and saw his number trend closer to his first seasons in the NFL and not his standout season in 2012.  If he has another 4.5 sack season he likely won’t be around to be the worst contract on the Browns in 2015.

2013’s Best and Worst Browns Contracts:

2013 Best Contract: Joe Thomas (Remains one of best left tackles in the NFL)

2013 Worst Contract: Paul Kruger (See above)

Click Here to Check out OTC’s other Best and Worst Contracts from around the NFL!

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Free Agency Thoughts: Cleveland Browns

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Key Additions: Donte Whitner ($7M per year),Karlos Dansby ($6M), Andrew Hawkins ($3.4M), Ben Tate ($3.1M), Jim Dray ($1.9M), Paul McQuistan ($1.5M), Nate Burleson ($1M)

Key Re-Signings: Alex Mack ($8.4M per year)

Key Losses: TJ Ward (Broncos), Shawn Lauvao (Redskins)

Major Cuts: D’Qwell Jackson ($5.2M cap savings), Jason Campbell ($3.3M), Davone Bess  ($3M), Brandon Weeden (-2M)

Free Agency Thoughts:

For whatever reason the Browns did not engage center Alex Mack in serious contract discussions prior to free agency, which led to them using the transition tag to hold some control over his rights. Mack would eventually sign an offer sheet with the Jaguars that would make him the second highest paid center in the NFL. The Browns matched the offer, but it is hard to really understand their logic in the entire process. If they were prepared to pay him this high they would have been able to get a better deal had they negotiated before free agency. If they just wanted him for a year then the franchise tag would have only cost a touch more.

The team paid more for Donte Whitner than the Broncos paid for TJ Ward which at best was a lateral move for the team.  Whitner received a very strong contract that will leave the Browns with a good chunk of dead money in 2016 if he does not work out. I have to think that the signing was about a culture change since Whitner is coming over from a successful franchise, because financially it would have made more sense to keep the incumbent.

The Browns also showed no worry in handing over $12 million guaranteed to Karlos Dansby. Dansby is coming off an incredible year in Arizona, but he is 33 years old and that is a large guarantee to a player that age. Linebackers can be effective for longer time frames but I am not sure how one year of that type of play justifies the investment.

Whether the Browns slow played their hand with Ben Tate or Tate simply misjudged the landscape they got him at a great bargain price in free agency. Tate has some upside the commitment here is low, so if he turns out to be nothing better than a backup style player there is nothing lost. At the least he will be a major improvement over Willis McGahee.

Signing Andrew Hawkins was an interesting move. They are betting that he is a keeper because they will pay him nearly $11 million over the first two years of the contract. They structured the deal in a way to frontload the cash so that the Bengals would not match the offer, but that was quite a bold move for a player who only had 200 yards last year and may only be a 500 yard per year player.

There were not too many surprises with the releases. D’Qwell Jackson was overpaid and the team was looking for a new face. Davone Bess clearly had issues off the field that need to be taken care of. He did file a grievance against the team to recover his salary, which was likely expected when he was released. Jason Campbell they perhaps should have tried to rework a deal with. Not that Campbell is a good player but the Browns QB situation is so poor that they probably should have kept either he or Brandon Weeden. Weeden was probably damaged goods and Campbell would have at least been cheap.

Overall Grade: C

When I look at the Browns I just see a lot of lateral movement at a touch of a higher cost. The whole Mack situation just seemed botched from the start as if they had a very limited plan and then realized how bad things would be if they lost him. Dansby, Hawkins, and Whitner all come in on the overvalued side. They have the cap space to burn so it is less of a concern than it would be with other teams. I think Whitner would be more acceptable if they did not already have a capable player in the secondary that was lower in cost. I do like some of the depth signings like Paul McQuistan and Nate Burleson while Ben Tate was clearly a bargain.

Can the Jaguars Sign Alex Mack Away from the Browns?

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Apparently the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to make an attempt to sign center Alex Mack away from the Cleveland Browns. Mack had been designated a Transition players by Cleveland, which gives the Browns the right to match any offer sheet that Mack signs from another NFL team. So for Jacksonville to be able to sign Mack away the Jaguars need to craft an offer sheet that the Browns will find difficult to match. I want to look at some of the considerations that may go into this.

When teams do make moves on Restricted Free Agents, which are essentially the same as Transition players from a compensation standpoint, it often comes by attacking a team with limited cap room. The Patriots attempted to do that with Emmanuel Sanders in 2013 and the Falcons are currently doing that to the Saints with Rafael Bush.  A team simply drives the price up slightly and hopes the other team cant match. When the Baltimore Ravens signed Joe Flacco to his incredibly player friendly contract it was in part because they were fearful another team could make an offer sheet that their cap did not allow them to match.

The cap space is of no concern for either franchise and will not play a role in the Mack decision. The Browns have the most cap room in the NFL , nearly $31 million. The Jaguars are third with about $26 million. The Browns cap space already includes Mack at $10 million, so to compare situations the Browns are really sitting at $41 million in cap space. They have one of the lowest payrolls in the NFL and will likely lead the league in cap room next year as well. So the Jaguars can not muscle the Browns into not matching a contract.

For Jacksonville to sign Mack away from the Browns they likely have to craft an offer sheet that pushes the value on the player beyond what the other team feels is a reasonable offer. The Browns just did this when they signed Andrew Hawkins away from the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals had more than enough cap space to match any offer sheet for Hawkins so the Browns hit the Bengals through the cash flows of the contract.

Hawkins would be considered a low, mid-grade receiver who had one decent year with the Bengals before getting injured. Such a player might warrant a contract worth around $3 million a season with limited guarantees since you may want to part ways after just one season if improvements do not continue. The Browns got the annual value of the deal close to that level, but they paid him an average of $5.4 million over the first two years of the deal with $6.8 million guaranteed. He would be dirt cheap in 2016 and 2017($1.4 million a season), but the odds of getting to those years to realize that benefit would be slim. The $5.4 million true contract number would be in the same ballpark as players like Danny Amendola, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordy Nelson, Riley Cooper, and Julian Edelman all players who were more established and considered better players at time of signing. In no way could the Bengals justify paying a fourth or fifth receiver top “number 2” money. Cap space did not matter. It was simply a bad investment for the team.

Jacksonville will likely need to take a similar approach. They already know that the Browns are willing to pay Mack $10 million this season. Mack’s agent can probably give an overview (though that has to be taken with a cautious eye) of the range that the Browns have found acceptable in earlier negotiations. The Jaguars need to exceed that and push the market the way that the Browns did with Hawkins.

The top end of the Center market is led by the Panthers’ Ryan Kalil($8.186M) and the Jets’ Nick Mangold ($7.725M). Those two would be followed by the more recent contracts of Max Unger ($6.583M) and Erik Wood($6.512M).  Lets quickly do a very basic breakdown of the players prior to extension.

 Age (1st extension year)Game StartedPro BowlAll Pro
Mack298020
Kalil264720
Mangold276421
Unger273200
Wood284700

The two things three things that jump out to me here are the games, pro bowls, and his age.  The only other player on the list to start every game prior to extension was Mangold who played four years when he was extended. Mack’s two pro bowl selections compare to the highest end players, though he had one more year to accomplish that feat than they did. Age is a negative, though, as I could reasonably expect multiple years out of these other players and cant have the same expectation of a player who will turn 29 by the end of the 2014 season.

Mack probably has a strong argument that he should be paid above Unger but there is likely an equal argument that he should not be the market setter at the position. This is where I would probably take the Browns approach and find a way to make him a market setter in realistic cash terms and bring the annual value down in end of contract terms.  Lets look at the year by year cash breakdowns of the four players:

 Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4
Kalil$19,000,000$20,750,000$30,750,000$35,750,000
Mangold$15,987,000$18,670,000$24,780,000$29,000,000
Unger$12,335,000$17,335,000$21,835,000$26,335,000
Wood$13,050,000$17,250,000$21,525,000$26,050,000

For creating an offer sheet I think that year 2 total is extremely important. The Browns would lily consider something in the $18 million range a “fair value” for Mack. The Jaguars can push that past Kalil and start turning the contract in their favor. Moving into the $22 to $23 million territory, all of which could be guarantees, sets a new market point at the position. Year 3 is likely important as well but I think that is the stage at where you begin to pull back a little and start to bring him under Kalil. By year 5 I would get him under Mangold. How would we structure such a deal?

YearAgeSalaryCumulative CashAPY
201429$18,000,000$18,000,000$18,000,000
201530$5,000,000$23,000,000$11,500,000
201631$7,000,000$30,000,000$10,000,000
201732$4,000,000$34,000,000$8,500,000
201833$4,000,000$38,000,000$7,600,000

So in this case we are creating a contract that does bring the annual value down below Mangold so the team is not really setting a new level for the position, but we are doing it in a manner that will give the Browns some real consideration before matching the offer sheet, just like the Browns gave the Bengals a few weeks ago.

One thing about the above offer that could be a problem is the fact that the Jaguars would be unable to use the all cash contract structure that they typically utilize with the above cash schedule. This is because of a rule that causes the difference in salary between year 1 and year 2 to be treated as signing bonus. To avoid that Jacksonville would have to make the offer sheet contain something along the lines of a year 1 salary of $15,000,000 and year two salary of $8 million. That is still probably strong enough to make it work, but a small signing bonus to drive the first year cash might not be out of the realm of possibilities.

If the Jaguars can make the above numbers work in their all cash system they won’t be hampered by the contract as Mack gets older and his play tails off. Cap charges of $4 million on the back end will probably match his performance on the field. If he agrees to the low backend salaries it also has him setting a max level that he could expect if he is still performing well and the Jaguars want to consider an extension to allow him to play until he is 35. The Jaguars should not have any significant contracts coming due in the next two years to where high cap charges impact them in any way. Provided Mack continues to play well and be a near the top player he can greatly benefit an offensive line that is being revamped.

So let’s see how this plays out but I tend to think if you want the player in this instance you need to make some concessions on front end cost to make the other team avoid re-signing the player.  We don’t see these offers often in the NFL so it’s a good thing to study in the rare events when they do occur.

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