Cleveland Browns Salary Cap: Taking a Look at the Early 2015 Potential Sunk Costs

In this week's look at the Cleveland Browns' salary cap, we examine the five players who could be "sunk costs," for the team in 2015, or players who are being paid more than they contribute, whether based on snap count or performance vs. paydays.

In our look at the Cleveland Browns salary cap last week, we broke down the players who proved to be per-snap values for the team in Cleveland’s Week 1 loss to the New York Jets, as well as those whose per-snap dollar values were incongruently high. This week, we’re going to take a look at the Browns who are looking like sunk costs, at least through two games. “Sunk costs,” in this sense means players the Browns have invested significant cash into without getting the on-field equivalent in return. It’s not just per-snap value that is taken into account here but also what the player in question does with those snaps and whether his on-field work lines up with what he is being paid.

Topping this list is wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, whom the Browns signed to a two-year, $12.5 million contract in March that includes $9 million in guaranteed money. Bowe has a $4.5 million salary cap hit for the Browns in 2015, and though that takes up just 2.78 percent of their total cap spending for the year, it’s still a lot of money considering what he’s done for the team thus far: A whole lot of nothing.

Thanks to a long-lingering hamstring injury that dates back to the summer, Bowe hasn’t managed to get on the field much. According to Pro Football Focus, he played just eight snaps in his Browns’ debut in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans, and drew just one passing target and zero catches. For a veteran who was brought in to stretch the field and who anticipated returning to his 2010 form, this is not the start that neither the Browns nor Bowe had anticipated. And it’s certainly costing the Browns a lot of money to have Bowe mostly on the bench. He’s currently earning $264,705 per game, but that number jumps to $33,088 per snap so far. Unsurprisingly, this has led to some within the Browns organization wanting to move on from Bowe—likely the coaches—but because of the cost of doing so, it’s not going to happen. The Browns may have a lot of cap space, but that doesn’t mean they want to guarantee throwing money away by releasing Bowe now.

Bowe may become increasingly healthier and thus a bigger part of the Browns’ offensive plans as the season wears on. And the Browns had better hope so, given how much money they paid him in anticipation of being a focal point of their passing offense. The same can also be said for Brian Hartline, though at least Hartline has been on the field for 70 snaps in two games. The bad news, though? His snap counts went down, from 50 of 71 in Week 1 to 20 of 49 in Week 2, and the switch from quarterback Josh McCown to Johnny Manziel saw his targets go down from five (with two catches) in Week 1, to two targets and no catches against the Titans.

Hartline’s contract is not as pricey as Bowe’s, totaling $6 million over two years with $3 million guaranteed. But with a $2.25 million cap hit for 2015 and a current price tag of $1,891 per snap, and those snaps not paying off on-field dividends for the Browns, Hartline, too, is becoming another sunk cost at wide receiver. Again, like Bowe, Hartline could rise like a phoenix. After all, he spent the summer building considerable chemistry with McCown that could return if McCown can keep hold of the starting job, and it’s chemistry Hartline can work to build with Manziel should McCown be sent to the bench.

If McCown is shelved in place of Manziel, even when cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol, that would also be another example of a sunk cost for the Browns this year. The decision hasn’t been made yet, but should that come to pass, the Browns will be taking quite the hit for a bench quarterback for the remainder of 2015. Cleveland signed McCown to a three-year, $14 million deal in the spring, that includes $6.25 million in guaranteed money. His highest cap hit of those three years comes this season, which makes sense—for months now, the Browns had anticipated McCown serving as starter for all 16 games and 17 weeks.

At $230,392 per game, McCown is somewhat of a bargain as far as quarterbacks are concerned. But because he played only 19 snaps before suffering his concussion, he’s currently earning $12,125 per snap. Though there is intangible value to consider with McCown, who is a willing mentor for Manziel and already a respected teammate in the Browns’ locker room, that’s still a lot of money suddenly wrapped up in an anticipated starter who may not start again. But, like Bowe and Hartline, McCown was brought in to make a positive, full-season impact for the Browns and was paid accordingly. And circumstances are now such that he’s costing the Browns more than he’s providing them.

Two other Browns players aren’t “sunk costs” in the traditional sense, but they aren’t playing up to their 2015 paydays: Center Alex Mack and cornerback Joe Haden. The biggest upside about the two is that they are playing a full complement of snaps so far this year, with Mack playing 120 and Haden, 140. But Haden has the Browns’ highest salary cap hit of the season, at $11.7 million, while Mack is the highest paid center in the NFL, earning $8 million this year. And they aren’t exactly living up to their paychecks. 

After years of being one of the NFL’s very best centers, Mack currently ranks 21st athlete position according to Pro Football Focus. He has a negative grade as a run-blocker—the exact thing the Browns hoped would improve after Mack returned from his 2014 leg fracture—and has committed two penalties. He’s also given up one quarterback hit and one hurry so far. Haden, meanwhile, is tied for 81st among cornerbacks, out of 99 graded, and is the lowest ranked of Cleveland’s corners. He has given up nine catches on 15 targets so far, for 133 yards, 25 yards after the catch and two touchdowns. Though he also has two passes defensed, opposing quarterbacks have a collective 128.9 rating when throwing his direction.

There’s a reason why Mack and Haden are paid what they are. Even with the the two playing 99.9 percent of the Browns’ snaps through two weeks, they still make a lot per play: $3,922 for Mack and $4,915 for Haden. Whether Mack’s struggles are related to the health of his leg or whether Haden’s struggles are a result of him being outmatched, physically, by the receivers he’s tasked to defend, the two do seem to have lost a step early in the year. These are steps that can be regained as the season rolls on, to be certain, as Haden and Mack are consummate professionals and centerpieces of Cleveland’s defense and offense, respectively. But right now, the Browns are spending more money on Mack and Haden than their two-week performances warranted.

The good news for all five of these players is that things can change drastically over the course of the next 14 games. Though the Browns aren’t getting their money’s worth from Bowe, Hartline, McCown, Mack and Haden right now, it’s still September and there is ample time for the Browns to get proper returns on their investments. It’s worth keeping an eye on these five players, though, to see whether they can ever live up to their 2015 contracts.

All contract information via unless otherwise noted.

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