Generally speaking, if an NFL team is spending prodigiously on one player, position or side of the ball, they are doing so to get a high quality of on-field play in return. But, for the Cleveland Browns this year, that’s just not the case. Currently, the Browns are spending the fourth-most cash in the league this year on the defensive side of the ball—a whopping $74,583,898, compared to $58,645,272 on offense—and not getting anywhere close to that high value in on-field performance.
Of the Browns’ top 10 salary cap hits this year, six come on defense: Cornerback Joe Haden ($11.7 million), linebacker Paul Kruger ($8.2 million), defensive end Desmond Bryant ($7 million), safety Donte Whitner ($6.75 million), cornerback Tramon Williams ($6.5 million) and linebacker Karlos Dansby ($5.5 million). Linebacker Barkevious Mingo, meanwhile, clocks in as the team’s 11th-highest cap hit, at $4,458,273 and defensive end Randy Starks is 13th, at $2,968,750. Among them, only Bryant, Williams and Dansby have come close to earning their keep.
Haden and Kruger, in particular, have been the biggest disappointments. Not only has Haden missed time with rib and finger injuries but also a duo of concussions that will cause him to miss Week 10’s meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has also been a liability when he has played, giving up 24 catches on 31 targets, for 387 yards, 120 yards after the catch and four touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. He has no interceptions and only three passes defensed, and quarterbacks throwing his direction this year have a near-perfect 158.2 passer rating.
Kruger, meanwhile, has just 17 combined tackles through nine games and 1.5 sacks, a year after he had 53 combined tackles and was the Browns’ sack leader with 11, along with four forced fumbles. Mingo, meanwhile, can’t see the field, playing just 156 snaps, or 24.4 percent, of the Browns’ defensive total. Starks, signed on to help the Browns’ woeful run defense, currently ranks 35th out of 56 3-4 defensive ends ranked by Pro Football Focus. While he does have a positive grade in run defense, it’s a marginal one—a plus-1.5.
All told, Cleveland’s defense ranks near the bottom of the league. Football Outsiders has the unit as a whole ranked 27th—19th against the pass and 29th against the run. It ranks 21st in passing yards allowed, 25th in passing touchdowns allowed, dead last in rushing yards given up and 24th in rushing touchdowns. Only three other teams have given up more yardage than Cleveland’s defense this year. Meanwhile, all the other teams that have spent heavily on defense this year rank no worse than 16th on that side of the ball. What was supposed to be a strength for Cleveland has been a weakness, and they’ve spent an incredible amount of money to be this bad.
And it’s not as though the Browns can look at this high-priced, underperforming defenders and just cut them outright in 2016, replacing them with more affordable players. Cutting Haden will result in $9.6 million in dead cap next year; cutting Whitner, $4.5 million. Cutting Kruger is another $2.4 million in dead money—though that’s money the Browns may be willing to absorb, given that it’s less than his $7.7 million 2016 cap hit, cash that based on his 2015 thus far, he doesn’t deserve. Starks should also be an easy cut, with just $625,000 in dead money on his contract for 2016, but Mingo isn’t going anywhere with a dead cap charge of $2,567,182.
All the Browns can really do now is learn a hard lesson about playing people for past performance. Haden’s cash is based on a younger version of himself. Kruger’s cash is based on potential. Whitner’s comes from name recognition and the fact that the Browns had to shell out cash to win the bidding war for his services back in 2014. It’s one thing for the Browns to field a defense this bad. It’s another altogether for a defense this bad to be so expensive. They are not getting proper returns on their investments, to say the least. Point the finger at the front office, coaches and the players themselves for this development—and also mark it down as another reason why Mike Pettine, Ray Farmer and company may not get another year to try to turn this team around.