The 2015 NFL regular season still has five weeks to go but the harsh reality has already set in for the fans of the 2-9 Cleveland Browns. Although the Browns are mathematically still in the hunt for a Wildcard playoff berth, they would have to win out and get some help and no one in their right mind expects that to happen. Rather, the Browns are currently on target for a top 3 draft pick in 2016, perhaps even the #1 overall pick.
Self-proclaimed “experts” that gather around watercoolers (do people still actually gather around a watercooler?) or on internet chat rooms and sports forums are pounding the table to blow it up and start all over again. “Jimmy Haslam needs to sell the team to someone who cares”. “Ray Farmer is incompetent” and “the entire coaching staff need to be fired” can be heard or read at every turn. In regards to that train of thought, I offer the following;
“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
In the sixteen years since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL, they have had three different owners, seven different General Managers and seven different Head Coaches resulting in nine different combinations of General Manager and Head Coach. Only twice in these sixteen years (2002 – 2004 and 2005 – 2008) did a Head Coach/General Manager team stay in place for more than two years. During those same sixteen years, the Browns have had a total of two winning seasons and a single playoff appearance. In 2002, Butch Davis was in his second year as Head Coach and had taken over as General Manager from Dwight Clark. The Browns finished at 9-7 and earned a playoff berth. Then, in 2007, Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage were in the third year of their tenures and the Browns finished at 10-6 and missed the playoffs due to a tie breaker with the Tennessee Titans. Coincidence? I think not.
In the past seven years, the Browns have had four Head Coaches, four General Managers and four Team Presidents. That’s an average for each of these positions of less than two years on the job. One look at the more successful teams in the NFL and you would find that all of them have had one Head Coach, one General Manager and one Team President over this same time frame. Coincidence? I think not.
That is not to say that the entire coaching staff should remain intact. Starting in 2014 and continuing into 2015, the Browns invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball both in the draft and in free agency. To say that the return on this investment isn’t there would be a gross understatement. It is my opinion that the defensive schemes being employed simply do not match what talent there is in place and that the first step to correct this would be to find a Defensive Coordinator that can put schemes in place that actually have a chance of being executed by the players on the field. If that means replacing some or all of the position coaches as well, then so be it.
Let’s assume for the moment that all these “Watercooler Experts” and click mongering pundits are right and the Browns, do indeed, clean house again and go with a new Front Office and coaching staff for 2016. What assets will they have at their disposal put a competitive team on the field?
For starters . . . the Browns have Salary Cap space. Lots of it. If the 2016 Salary Cap sees another increase over 2015, let’s assume that the 2016 Salary Cap number is $145,000,000. (The 2015 Salary Cap was right around $142,000,000.) Add to that another $19,150,000 in 2015 carry over and subtract $2,970,494 in “Dead Money” and you start the 2016 off season with $161,179,506.
Currently, the Browns have only 47 players under contract for 2016 (Includes players on IR or under suspension). These 47 contracts total $131,167,553 in cap hits for 2016. Subtract this total from $161,179,506 and they end up with a little over $30,000,000 in Salary Cap space ($30,011,953 to be precise). I like round numbers so, for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll just use the $30,000,000 cap space number.
There are six current starters (or players that see significant snaps) that are in the final year of their contracts. Although center Alex Mack isn’t in the final year of his contract, he is the lynch pin for off season decisions for the Browns.
Prior to the 2014 season, the Browns placed a “Transition Tag” on Mack. As a result, he signed a 5 year, $42M contract negotiated with the Jacksonville Jaguars that the Browns matched. This contract gives Mack the ability to opt out of the final three years of the contract and he would become a free agent for 2016. He must make that decision no later than April 5th, 2016. If he elects to stay in Cleveland, nothing changes, the Browns still have $30,000,000 in cap space and have their starting center for the next three years. If he chooses to leave, the Browns add $8,000,000 to the cap space (as only the first two years of his contract were guaranteed) and Cameron Erving moves into the starting center slot. In addition, the Browns would receive a substantial compensatory pick in the 2017 draft.
Next up to consider is starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Both Schwartz and his never used backup, Austin Pasztor, become free agents after this season. As of this writing, the Browns have zero right tackles on the roster for the 2016 season. If Alex Mack stays, Cameron Erving moves to right tackle and the cap space remains at $30M. If Mack leaves, then the Browns either push to resign Schwartz, replace him via free agency or use a relatively high draft pick on a right tackle and the $30M cap space is reduced accordingly.
While I’m on the O-Line, there is another potential scenario worth discussing. Right at the 2015 trade deadline, it was reported that the Browns and Broncos were very close to reaching a trade deal that involved left tackle Joe Thomas. I would not be shocked to see Thomas traded. As a fan of the Browns, I would be disappointed but from a roster standpoint it makes sense. (1) Joe will be 31 years old and has never played for a winning organization. He deserves to cap off his career as a winner. (2) If the Browns are truly going to rebuild the roster for long term success, why keep a guy who is only signed through 2018. About the time his contract is up, is when the fruits of this off season’s effort would be realized. (3) Joe is regarded as one of (if not the best) left tackles in the NFL. As such, he could fetch a very high draft pick. If this were to happen, add $9,500,000 to the cap space and some serious flexibility in the 2016 draft. Obviously, Alex Mack’s decision will have a major influence on this scenario.
Two other starters on offense are included in the six players mentioned above. Tight End Gary Barnidge and Wide Receiver Travis Benjamin. Barnidge is 30 years old but only drew a $1,200,000 salary in 2015 and turned in one of the better seasons for a Browns’ tight end since Jordan Cameron. His production was good enough to make Free Agent acquisition Rob Housler expendable and Housler was released in mid-November. My gut tells me that the Browns will more than likely try to resign Barnidge and either develop rookie tight end E.J. Bibbs or look for Barnidge’s replacement down the road.
Travis Benjamin is an interesting case. There is no question that he is having the best season of any Browns’ receiver, but, that’s kind of like being the tallest midget in the circus. I have a feeling that Cleveland’s wide receiver corps will get a major overhaul this off season and Travis will survive. Think about this for a second: Gone will be Taylor Gabriel, Marlon Moore, Brian Hartline and the biggest free agent bust in Browns’ history (and that includes Andre Rison) – Dwayne Bowe. The release of these five players would generate a cap savings of $7,163,332. Notable free agent wide receivers in 2016 include the likes of Alshon Jeffery and Mohamed Sanu. Both are well under 30 years old and both are Unrestricted Free Agents. The Wide Receiver corps for 2016 could be (theoretically) Alshon Jeffery, Mohamed Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins –and- Josh Gordon. Gordon was supposed to be in the last year of his contract in 2015. But when he was suspended for the 2015 season that pushed the final year of his contract into 2016.
The remaining three players who are scheduled to become free agents in 2016 include D-Lineman Jamie Meder, Free Safety Tashon Gibson and Kicker Travis Koons. In my opinion, Travis Koons is a lock to be re-signed. Jamie Meder and Tashon Gibson . . . not so much. Meder could be a victim of the lack of run defense in 2015. Although he has had his moments on the field, why re-sign a player that was part of the worst run defense in the NFL. The same could be said for 2015 UFA acquisition Randy Starks. In fact, if Starks is released – that would generate an additional $3,000,000 in cap space.
Tashon Gibson led the entire league in interceptions back in 2014 until he was injured midway through the season. He was Franchise Tagged for 2015 and, so far, has spent virtually the entire season in the trainers’ room. I believe in the adage that part of “ability” is availability and, since midway through the 2014 season, he has been anything but available.
Other “notables” that would be on my bubble are;
- Joe Haden. Once he is cleared to play, he better live up to his $13,400,000 salary due in 2016 or I would take the $3,400,000 cap savings and push Ekpre-Olomu into a starter’s role.
- Donte Whitner. I always liked Donte but it is painfully apparent that his better days are in his rear view mirror. He certainly isn’t playing up to his $8,450,000 salary. Take the $3,950,000 cap saving and continue to develop Ibraham Campbell.
- Johnson Bademosi. No cap savings here as he will be an unrestricted Free agent in 2016. Just let him walk because he simply can’t play cornerback at the NFL level.
So far I have ignored the elephant in the room. The Browns currently have four quarterbacks under contract for 2016. Johnny Manziel, Josh McCown, Austin Davis and Conner Shaw. If the rest of the 2015 season plays out like the first 12 weeks, the Browns would most definitely be in a position to draft one of the two top quarterbacks in the draft. If they decide to go this route, I expect them to either trade Manziel for whatever they can get or just eat the $2,083,870 cap hit and release him. To me, it’s worth the $2.1M to rid the organization of the media circus surrounding this guy and focus on the players that bring their lunch bucket to work. To that end, play him for the rest of this season as much as you can and roll the dice that he shows something to a potential trade partner.
So, for those that want to blow it up and start all over, leave the cherry bombs at home and bring the C4. Don’t settle for simply blowing up the front office . . . take the whole thing down and really start fresh.