Cap Tuesday: Sneaky Value Contracts

Getting more for less is what an NFL general manager dreams of on a daily basis.

There are few things that an NFL team likes better than getting more than its money’s worth when signing or re-signing a player. Getting $9 million per year in production out of a player being paid $2 million is more than just hypothetically saving $7 million in salary cap space, it also is a sign of front-office savvy. Not only does it mean a team was able to find a talented player, but it also means they could get him at a bargain relative to his talent. Getting more for less is what an NFL general manager dreams of on a daily basis.

This week’s Browns’ salary cap focus will be on three such values. Now, of course, “value” is a relative term when it comes to the salary cap, and there are players on the roster who present obvious values relative to what they mean to the team on the field. These include rookies, who aren’t paid as much as they used to be and undrafted signings like running back Isaiah Crowell. Some of these players will be playing far more snaps than their pay grades suggest and are the kinds of everyday values that litter every NFL teams’ rosters.

Instead, I’d rather take a look at three contracts that sneakily give the Browns a high level of value. These are three veterans poised to make significant on-field impacts in 2015, impacts that will be worth more to the team than the salaries being paid them.

DL Randy Starks

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The Browns signed Randy Starks in April, a month after the Miami Dolphins released him after seven seasons with the team. Starks was set to cost $6 million against the Dolphins’ salary cap, money they did not want to pay Starks despite him starting 96 of the 111 games he appeared in during his tenure. Starks will be an integral part of the Browns’ latest attempt to build a run-stopping defensive front and will likely play both defensive end and tackle in head coach Mike Pettine’s and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s hybrid scheme.

Because the Browns do have a rotational defensive line, giving Starks a total compensation in 2015 rivaling what he would have been owed from the Dolphins was out of the question. But given what the Browns want Starks to do, both on and off the field, they are getting a relative bargain at just under $3 million in total money spent for the year.

But it’s the leadership that he provides for a defense that is quite young up front that is also an asset. His former Dolphins and current Browns teammate Brian Hartline said of Starks that, “he really counseled guys, helped guys off the field, helped guys learn from what he’s experienced. And I really mean it when I say he brings it every day, wants to get better in practice and he’s a gamer. So he’s definitely a guy you want on your side.” Starks’ former teammate in Miami, Karlos Dansby, also lobbied hard for Starks to give Cleveland a chance. “He told me that they need somebody in the defensive line room with leadership,” Starks said to Ulrich.

Players are not just paid for what they can do on the field, but also the off-field intangibles they possess to make a team better. Starks’ leadership will matter as much to the defensive line as his assistance as a run-stopper. Cleveland’s line will be a crowded place, but Starks will make his presence felt even when he’s not getting snaps. His influence will stretch beyond just his playing time. For that, the Browns are getting a significant value.

TE Rob Housler

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There seems to be little question that tight end Rob Housler is going to outperform his $1 million base salary for 2015. Housler, a defense-stretching, pass-catching tight end, will take over where departed free agent Jordan Cameron left off—but without the shoulder injury that saw Cameron limited to only 424 receiving yards last year. In fact, it’s possible that Housler ends the 2015 season as the Browns’ leading or second-leading receiver.

The reason for Housler’s low salary and cap hit this year is simple—he hasn’t been very productive in his career. In four years with the Arizona Cardinals, Housler caught only 105 passes for 1,133 yards and just one touchdown. Last year, amidst chaos at quarterback and as part of an offense that did not rely heavily on passes to the tight end, he saw just 17 targets and had a mere nine catches for 129 yards and no scores. Housler needs to prove it in order to earn a big-money, long-term contract. But the good news for the Browns’ bottom line is that they may just have one of the NFL’s most productive tight ends on their hands for a steal.

Housler, speaking with the Browns’ official website after the team signed him in April, cited a desire for opportunities for receiving targets and the assuredness he’d get them in Cleveland as the reason he came aboard. He said, “If you have the targets, then you can have the stats. Without trying to spitball any numbers or anything, there is that opportunity here. I think with [coordinator John DeFilippo’s] offense, he’s going to spread it around. I saw that chance to be here and make an impact.”

Housler has spent the entirety of the team’s OTAs with the first-team offense—as expected. Though fellow tight ends Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray will still have their roles to play on the offense, the pair will mainly serve as blockers while Housler gets the bulk of the tight end receiving targets. Gribble noted that Housler has “lined up at a variety of spots, including the outside,” meaning that Housler won’t be limited to the middle of the field between the numbers like many teams prefer to use their tight ends. Though the Browns are likely to be a run-first team, having someone like Housler to take the top off of defenses on deep passes much as a wideout does will bring another dimension to the offense. Housler will prove to be far more valuable to the team than his 2015 payday would suggest.

OL John Greco

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There may be no player who provides the Browns with the highest financial-value-to-talent ratio than offensive lineman John Greco. Greco’s cap hit for 2015 is entirely in salary, worth $2.825 million this year. He has no additional bonuses due him and his total salary cap hit makes up just 1.75 percent of the Browns’ total spending. For an offensive lineman who played all 1,078 of the Browns’ snaps in 2014 and played every one at a high level, Greco could easily be worth twice what the Browns are paying him this year.

Not only did Greco play every snap last year and start all 16 games, he played exceptionally well. He began his career as depth for the St. Louis Rams and then evolved from a bit-player for the Browns when he came aboard in 2011 to a starter by 2013. In 2014, he was Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) 11th-best offensive guard and seventh-best right guard. He had a positive, 11.9 grade as a run-blocker, second only to left tackle Joe Thomas on Cleveland’s line, while giving up just two sacks, six quarterback hits and 12 hurries on the year.

Greco’s starting job is in jeopardy with the team selecting Cam Erving in Round 1 of the 2015 draft. Erving has spent OTAs working at every position on the line save left guard, where Joel Bitonio isn’t giving up ground any time soon. It is expected that Erving will either take Greco’s job at right guard or Mitchell Schwartz’s right tackle position. But with center Alex Mack still being limited in OTAs for precautionary reasons, Greco has been getting a number of snaps at center, proving that Erving isn’t the only Browns’ offensive lineman with positional versatility.

No matter what happens with Greco this year, his 2015 salary represents a huge value for the Browns. Not only has he proven he can start at right guard and play better than the majority of his NFL contemporaries, he also provides the Browns with higher-quality depth than most other lines can boast should he lose his job to Erving. He can step in at center if Mack should fall injured again, or resume his right guard duties if Erving ends up beating out Schwartz at tackle. What Greco gives the Browns is worth far more than what he is being paid this year.

All contract data via unless otherwise noted

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