Salary Cap Tuesday: The Alex Mack Situation

What to make of the status of starting center Alex Mack and his ultimate decision following the 2015 season.

We’re a whole NFL season away from Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack having to make a decision about his future with the team. But it’s still something on everyone’s mind, given that Mack is not only the league’s highest-paid center, but a center who is worth that money. Much of the Browns’ prowess on the offensive line radiates from Mack outward, and his importance in the running game is nearly invaluable, as evidenced by what happened to the Browns’ ability to run the ball after Mack went down with a fractured leg midway through the 2014 season.

But the Browns found themselves between a rock and a hard place when it came to Mack’s contract during the 2014 offseason. In many ways, they put themselves into this mess. And now, it could result in Cleveland having to adjust to life without their seven-year starter. That isn’t an insurmountable issue, but it’s also one they would rather not have to deal with. Unfortunately, a showdown with Mack is an inevitability.

This all began with Browns general manager Ray Farmer giving Mack the rarely-used transition tag last March, which was worth $10.039 million. The transition tag gives the tagging team the right of first refusal on the player they tag; however, it also opens that team up to having to match or beat offer sheets given the player by other interested teams. If they cannot match the deal, the player goes elsewhere and if they can, the player stays with the tagging team. It’s fairly straightforward, especially after the NFLPA and NFL came to an agreement to modify the transition tag to eliminate “poison pill” contracts in 2011.

But that also does not mean there aren’t ways for interested teams to get creative with the offers they give to transition tagged players. That’s why things are interesting when it comes to Mack’s current deal. The Jacksonville Jaguars, very interested in Mack’s services and possessing of more than enough salary cap space to give him as rich a deal as they could, gave Mack an offer sheet worth $42 million over five years. But, most importantly, they also included language that would allow Mack to opt out of the deal after two years, with no cap harm done to the Jaguars if he does. It was an uncommon amount of leverage given away by an NFL team into the hands of a player, but it served a purpose—either the Browns would have to balk at such a clause, or begrudgingly accept it themselves.

The Browns had seven days to match or beat the Jaguars’ offer, but took only three days to decide that five years, $42 million and an opt-out clause after the 2015 season would be acceptable. After all, much like Jacksonville, the Browns had nothing to worry about in terms of cap space. But the leverage that Mack now has would not have happened at all if Farmer decided to give Mack a contract extension to begin with, rather than a transition tag which forces them to play by another team’s rules.

So, while Mack will be paid a full $8 million in compensation from Cleveland to continue to play there in 2016, it’s not a given that he will. His teammate, offensive tackle Joe Thomas, expressed to ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi in April that he expects Mack to exercise his opt-out clause next year, whether as a means to move on or as a way to get even more money out of the Browns—perhaps as much as $10 million. Thomas said, “I haven’t really had any conversations with Alex, but I will say I’m sure there’s a reason he put that clause in his contract, because this is going to be an important year for the Browns to prove the things they said to him during the recruiting process, prove they were true.”

Thomas continued, “So I imagine that we’re going to have to have a good season, we’re going to have to show to Alex that we’re moving in the right direction, or I’m sure he’ll probably… there’s no downside to declaring himself a free agent after this year because worst-case scenario, I guess, he can just resign with the Browns if he wanted. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he decides to opt out and become a free agent at the end of the year.”

It’s true that Mack has seen a lot—too much—during his career with the Browns. He’s had four head coaches, five offensive coordinators and six losing seasons so far. What’s the point of being the highest-paid player or the centerpiece of a team going nowhere? If Mack sees the Browns continue to tread water through and after the 2015 season, he may want a fresh start somewhere he can be part of a winning team. And if there is another coaching turnover? Then it’s going to be extra difficult to convince Mack to not opt for free agency in the offseason, as well as to bring him back for more money. Money is only one hurdle for the Browns to overcome here, and because of their glut of salary cap space, it is also the smallest.

Losing Mack next year will be a blow to the Browns, but not one they cannot weather, especially with over a year to prepare for the chance he heads elsewhere as a free agent. They drafted Cameron Erving in Round 1 of the 2015 draft, and though he seems destined for the starting right guard job this year, he could easily be moved to center next season given that he played the position—and quite well—in college. The Browns also have John Greco, who worked at center in place of Mack during OTAs while the Browns eased Mack back into on-field participation, and at least for now also have Ryan Seymour, who filled in for the injured Mack last year. The draft could also yield another center. Most everyone scoffed when the Dallas Cowboys selected center Travis Frederick in Round 1 of the 2013 draft, but as a rookie he ranked eighth at the position according to Pro Football Focus, and second in 2014. Plus, it’s also possible that the Browns could draft a center and have Seymour, Greco and Erving all on the roster for a combined cost that would only be $1 or $2 million more than the $8 million due Mack for 2016.

The interesting thing to keep an eye on is whether Mack’s contract language becomes more common around the NFL. Thomas, at least, would like to see that happen, saying to Grossi, “I just know that having the player’s option to opt out rather than strictly only the club, which is kind of the way everything is set up right now, it’s great for the players and I’d like to see more players across the league get that type of language in their contract because it gives the players some power that if the team’s not following through on their side of the bargain, that the players can walk and go somewhere else.” It provides power to players who, for the most part, are powerless to the whims of their respective teams. NFL teams decide when a player is no use to them, but Mack’s deal allows him to decide whether the Browns will be the place for him in the future or whether he’d like to continue his career elsewhere.

Cleveland’s situation with Mack is one that was wholly preventable. But with Farmer choosing, for whatever reason, to use that transition tag last year, the Browns now will have to reap what they’ve sowed. The Browns, at least, have enough time to prepare for whatever Mack chooses to do next year, and enough money if they want to make a play for him on the free agent market, should he go that route. And if Mack simply decides he’s had enough in Cleveland, there are players currently on the roster capable of stepping in at center next season. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s also not dire. Mack’s leverage does not prevent the Browns from having options, and that means Mack ultimately wields less power than he thinks.

All contract and salary cap data via and unless otherwise noted.

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