Is the State of the Browns Really So Bad?


The perpetually sinking ship that is the Cleveland Browns has hit a new low this offseason. On Monday, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam fired CEO Joe Banner and GM Lombardi, just about a month after Head Coach Rob Chudzinski was relieved of his duties. Lombardi was hired on January 18, 2013, so at least Haslam gave him a full year to turn around the franchise. Chudzinski didn’t even make it 365 days.

The Browns 4-12 record in 2013 marked the sixth straight year that they’ve won 5 games or less, and the franchise has just two playoff appearances since 1989.

Yet things really aren’t so bad; if they can secure a QB this offseason (and they’ll likely target one in the draft), I truly believe they’ll be force to be reckoned with.

The defense is loaded with talent. Joe Haden (2nd team All-Pro) is one of the best CBs in football. Impending UFA Safety TJ Ward was also named 2nd team All-Pro. They signed former Ravens LB Paul Kruger last offseason, have a great young playmaker in LB Jabaal Sheard, and drafted Barkevious Mingo with the 6th overall pick last year (who struggled as a rookie but is undeniably talented).

Their offensive line boasts two studs—LT Joe Thomas was named 1st team All Pro for the fifth straight year while impending UFA Center Alex Mack received 2nd team All-Pro honors. They have a legitimate #1 WR in Josh Gordon, who was named 1st team All Pro (along with Calvin Johnson) and led the league in receiving yards despite the quarterback-carousel that took place. They also have talented TE Jordan Cameron, who was a pleasant 2013 surprise.

Of course the Browns have holes. Aside from their glaring QB issue, they have no talent at RB and lack a second WR. So what will they do in free agency?

On the surface the Browns have plenty of cap room (over $45 million according to Jason’s Feb 10th update.) However, this number is somewhat misleading as they own the task of resigning their current talent.

They are working on signing Haden to a long-term extension. Haden’s current (rookie) deal carries a $8.9 million cap hit for 2014—not chump change by any means. So while an extension might not increase his 2014 cap hit by all that much (depending on the structure of the deal, of course), the Browns’ front office must still take this is into account when making any free agency decisions.

Cleveland will almost certainly use the franchise tag later this month— either on Ward (the safety position has a projected $8 million cap hit for 2014) or Mack (the projected cap hit for a franchised OL would be greater than $11 million for 2014). Ward and Mack are both young and talented, so the Browns will likely try and bring both guys back regardless of which one is slapped with the franchise tag.

The Browns also have 2 first round selections (4th overall as well as Indianapolis’ 26th overall pick from the Trent Richardson trade).  The implications here are that their Year One Rookie Pool will be high (last year  the 4th and 26th picks alone accounted for over $5 million in cap space during their rookie seasons).

Haslam—who was active in free agency last year and is also paying the 2014 salaries of both Chudzinski and Lombardi—has proved he isn’t afraid to spend money. But based on the Browns’ current state, the $45 million in cap space could actually be a lot less. Here’s a lock at some possible numbers:

-If Haden signs an extension, it won’t be cheap; his 2014 cap hit could conceivably increase by $5 million or more.

-I estimate that retaining both Ward and Mack would cost $15 million in 2014 cap space.

-Cleveland’s Year One Rookie Pool will take up greater than $7 million in cap space.

So in reality, the $45 million in cap space they currently have could very likely be much less if they want to keep their current talent. Also, Josh Gordon is a FA after the 2015 season—the Browns will want to factor him into their future plans.

Last week I mentioned the possibility of Cleveland signing Eric Decker.  While I still believe it’s a possibility, new GM Ray Farmer will have to think long and hard giving any 2014 free agents top dollar.

But of course, all of the talent mentioned above will mean nothing if Cleveland doesn’t get its hands on a serviceable QB.

Andrew Cohen