Can the Jaguars Sign Alex Mack Away from the Browns?


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 Started Pro Bowl All Pro
Mack 29 80 2 0
Kalil 26 47 2 0
Mangold 27 64 2 1
Unger 27 32 0 0
Wood 28 47 0 0

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 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 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?

Year Age Salary Cumulative Cash APY
2014 29 $18,000,000 $18,000,000 $18,000,000
2015 30 $5,000,000 $23,000,000 $11,500,000
2016 31 $7,000,000 $30,000,000 $10,000,000
2017 32 $4,000,000 $34,000,000 $8,500,000
2018 33 $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.