Salary Cap Monday: The Quarterbacks

Does a quarterback's cap hit reflect their playing time? For the Cleveland Browns, perhaps, it might.

A player’s yearly salary cap hit does not always indicate what amount of playing time he is expected to get in any given season. But no team would like for an expensive player to sit on the bench while a cheaper player gets the starting reps. There’s no logic to keeping millions of dollars off the field when those millions were allocated to a player for a reason. This is why it should come as no surprise Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine has named quarterback Josh McCown the team’s starter heading into training camp and that no competition—if there will be any at all—will commence before camp kicks off in July.

McCown was signed this offseason to a three-year, $14 million contract which includes $6.25 million in guaranteed money and an average per-year value of $4.667 million. He has a $3,916,666 salary cap hit for 2015, which includes a base salary for $2.25 million in fully guaranteed cash for the season. In contrast, his main competition—second-year quarterback Johnny Manziel—is working off of his rookie contract, which is worth a league-proscribed $8,248,596 over four years. He’ll be making $1,874,681 in 2015, with a salary of $794,936.

Following the money seems easy—too easy, in fact, that it could be viewed as lazy. But there is very recent precedent in place that makes it nearly guaranteed that McCown will start a number of games for the Browns this year, even if he doesn’t get the nod in Week 1. All we have to do is look to the 2014 Buffalo Bills for answers.

The Buffalo Bills drafted quarterback E.J. Manuel in Round 1 of the 2013 NFL draft. However, he didn’t quickly warm up to his role as the team’s starter. He played in 10 games as a rookie, with the Bills going 4–6. He completed only 58.8 percent of his passes and threw 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions, while being sacked 28 times. It looked like a typical rocky start and nothing more until the Bills brought on veteran free agent Kyle Orton at the end of what had been a poor 2014 training camp for Manuel.

Orton’s presence itself would not have raised any red flags. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a team with a young quarterback wanting to boost the position with a veteran like Orton, who would provide insurance in case Manuel was injured or faltered and at the very least provide mentoring for the young Manuel. What did raise eyebrows, however, was the contract given him—two years, $11 million, a $3 million signing bonus, $5.5 million guaranteed and a total cap hit for 2014 of $4 million. That’s not backup quarterback money—that’s veteran stop-gap cash.

Player / 2015 Salary / Cap Hit

McCown / $2,250,000 / $3,916.666

Manziel / $794,936 / $1,874,681

Lewis / $745,000 / $745,000

Shaw / $435,000 / $435,000

Ultimately, Orton took over for a floundering Manuel in Week 5 of the 2014 season. The 2–2 Bills then finished with a 9–7 record under Orton. The Bills paid Orton the kind of money they did anticipating a situation that he would have to start. They didn’t give him that money in case he would start—they knew, inevitably, the time would come based on Manuel’s limited development. Orton retired after the 2014 season, but that doesn’t mean the Bills have recommitted to Manuel. In fact, the Bills have again brought on another veteran—Matt Cassel, signed this offseason to a two-year, $10.5 million deal that has a cap hit of $5.75 million this year. Who do you think will start for the Bills this year, knowing what we know now?

The same seems to be echoed in the Browns’ signing of McCown. On one hand, yes, it could simply be insurance—Manziel just recently rejoined his team after a two-month stint in rehab and his brief on-field exposure in 2014 left much to be desired, but also allowed for room for improvement. Like the Bills, the Browns were wise to bring in a veteran like McCown, simply because their quarterbacks room would be so young without him. But, much as Orton and now Cassel in Buffalo, McCown’s money points to him being more than just a stop-gap for 2015 or a mentor to Manziel (and for fellow second-year quarterback Connor Shaw). It’s an indication that the Browns are ready and willing for McCown to be their starter in 2015.

It seems like an easy game of connect-the-dots. McCown is both being paid more than Manziel and will be taking most, if not all, of the first-team offensive snaps at least at the start of training camp. But it’s also easy to be in denial about it. McCown, after all, has shown little on the field beyond his brief stint filling in for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago two years ago. He’s certainly not the same type of quarterback as Manziel. Further, Manziel is a Round 1 pick. And offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is, at least publicly, feeling good about Manziel’s nascent development, saying earlier this month that, “Manziel is putting himself in a position to be a quarterback in the NFL.”

“A quarterback,” though, is not the same as “a starting quarterback.” And Manuel was a Round 1 pick himself, and taken far earlier than Manziel. The Bills did not stick with Manuel just because of his draft pedigree but rather went with Orton, who gave them the best chance to win, and they look set to do the same thing this year with Cassel. McCown’s payday seems akin to those given first Orton and then Cassel in Buffalo, and likely for the same reason—because Manziel isn’t ready to be a full-time starter this year. To figure out Cleveland’s starting quarterback this year requires only one thing—just follow the money.

All contract information via unless otherwise noted

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