Salary Cap Monday: Vets exposed to cuts

If the Browns wanted to save cap space when making cuts this year, which players are at risk?

The Cleveland Browns have been remarkably smart with releasing veteran players who still have money left on their contracts. Dead money can be incredibly costly to an NFL team. Remember, dead money, in basic terms, is money still guaranteed a player when a team terminates his contract. That guaranteed money counts against a team’s salary cap space for a year, if not longer, and can total into the double-digit millions of dollars.

But the Browns have only $1,514,860 in dead money for 2015, with running back Ben Tate costing the team the most, at $750,000. The Dallas Cowboys, as one example, have nearly $13 million in cap space tied up with dead money. It is just as important for a team’s financial bottom line to know when to release a veteran player as it is to structure contracts in a way that protects the team’s interests and doesn’t damage their salary cap standing in the long term.

Though the Browns have over $17 million in salary cap space with the Top 51 contracts and their 12 drafted rookies factored in, they could make moves that result in additional cap savings and minimal dead money this offseason. Bringing on 12 drafted rookies means there are potentially 12 veterans who could have their roster spots jeopardized by the new additions. But the Browns, even with their significant cap space, have to make intelligent decisions about who they could part ways with. Here are three who make the most financial sense this year.

WR Travis Benjamin (Cap Savings: $660,000; Dead Money: $119,250)

It’s becoming harder and harder to find reasons for wide receiver Travis Benjamin to remain on the Browns’ roster. He’s always been a marginal receiver; though he possesses speed and has been a deep-threat option for Cleveland’s quarterbacks, he’s never proven reliable. In three years with the Browns, he’s caught just 41 of the 96 passes thrown his way, for 717 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, his production dipped considerably. Benjamin was targeted 46 times but had just 18 catches—or a catch rate of 39.1 percent—for 314 yards and three scores.

With the Browns bringing on free agents Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline in the offseason, the Browns have a well-rounded (if a bit old) group of receivers, even without considering Benjamin. Plus, the addition of pass-catching tight end Rob Housler will likely eat into any would-be targets for Benjamin this year. And the ability of rookie running back Duke Johnson to catch as well as carry the football could mean that he could take all of Benjamin’s receiving snaps and likely come away with a better catch percentage and more yardage off of the same number of targets.

Benjamin’s other use to the team, kick and punt returner, is also not as valuable as it used to be. Benjamin has returned 40 career punts for 533 yards and two scores and 18 kickoffs for 468 yards. But he was just one of eight Browns players to return either punts or kicks last year. Shaun Draughn was re-signed this offseason only to handle kickoff returns. Taylor Gabriel returned four kickoffs last year. Johnson, with his blazing speed, could also handle return duties this year as could rookie cornerback Charles Gaines. Marlon Moore also returned 13 kickoffs for the Browns in 2014.

Cutting Benjamin would result in just $119,250 in dead money (which is the remainder of his prorated bonus) for the 2015 season, while saving the Browns an additional $660,000 (the full amount of his 2015 salary). The Browns simply have too many receivers and would-be returners on their roster to use a spot on Benjamin, who has plateaued in his development at the latter and regressed at the former.

DL Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (Cap Savings: $1,542,000; Dead Money: $0)

Defensive lineman Ishmaa’ily Kitchen is another Browns player who may have hit the wall in his development. And now that the team has drafted nose tackle Danny Shelton and has stockpiled a great number of rotational defensive linemen, Kitchen’s time with the Browns could be coming to a close.

Kitchen came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent signing of the Baltimore Ravens’ in 2012. When he was released as part of the Ravens’ final roster cuts that year, the Browns claimed him off of waivers and he’s been with the team ever since. Kitchen showed some promise early, making appearances in 15 games as a rookie and totaling 17 combined tackles. But he never quite put things together enough to play a starter’s number of snaps. He did get three starts, the first of his career, in 2014, all at nose tackle. But he still played only 305 snaps, or 33.7 percent of the Browns’ total defensive snaps, on the year according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Kitchen doesn’t just have to compete with Shelton for snaps at nose tackle, he also has to fight off veteran Phil Taylor, free-agent signing Randy Starks and versatile rookie Xavier Cooper, taken in Round 3 of this year’s draft, just to get some degree of playing time. Cleveland is stacked now at all positions on the defensive line, but not all can make it to the 53-man roster. Something will have to give, in time.

It doesn’t help Kitchen’s cause that he can be released outright and the Browns’ would suffer no negative financial repercussions. Kitchen’s $1,542,000 salary for this year would go right back into the Browns’ cap without a single cent of dead money being part of the transaction.

OL John Greco (Cap Savings: $2,825,000; Dead Money: $0)

John Greco was one of the team’s top-performing offensive lineman in 2014. Working at right guard, he allowed just two sacks, six quarterback hits and 12 hurries on 1,001 snaps played, leading Pro Football Focus (subscription required) to rank him the 11th-best player at the position (out of 78) on the year.

It has been a long road for Greco to be a starter. Initially taken in Round 3 of the 2008 draft by the St. Louis Rams, Greco arrived in Cleveland in 2011, eventually working his way up to starter at left guard in 2012 before settling in at right guard, where he played in 2014. He’s managed to do something quite difficult for any NFL player—spend four years simply serving as depth on two different rosters before ever emerging as a starter.

Still, the Browns will need to trim down their ranks on the offensive line this summer and Greco could be a casualty. The Browns took a versatile offensive lineman in Round 1 of this year’s draft, Cameron Erving, who could move into Greco’s right guard job given that the left side of the line is not likely to change. Erving could also take Mitchell Schwartz’s right tackle job, kicking Schwartz into the guard position. And a healthy Michael Bowie could also make a push for a tackle or guard job, something that could force both Greco and Schwartz onto the bench.

If the Browns were in a bad financial situation, then Greco would be a top contender to be released. He would not count against the salary cap in terms of dead money, while releasing him would provide the Browns with $2.825 million in extra cash. But because they have over $17 million in cap space as it is, they don’t particularly need that nearly $3 million to help pay other players or give them a comfortable cushion of cap space.

That means the Browns could instead entertain cutting Schwartz, who would leave the Browns with $550,153 in dead money this year and a savings of $1,095,114. But if the Browns really do want to release a veteran offensive lineman and don’t want to take any cap hit at all, Greco could be on the firing line. He’s talented, to be sure, but the Browns boast many talented offensive linemen. Though a long shot for release, Greco’s impact on the salary cap cannot be ignored when examining veterans who could be cut this offseason.

All salary cap data via Spotrac.com and OvertheCap.com unless otherwise noted.


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