One major consideration NFL teams must make when it comes to cutting veterans is what impact it will have on the salary cap situation. We’ve covered dead money here before, but essentially it is money that still counts against a team’s cap figure after a player is released. That money is the remaining guarantees on those players’ contracts, whether via their salaries, their signing bonuses or a combination.
The Cleveland Browns currently have the fifth-fewest dead money charges on their 2015 salary cap, at $6,813,020. And while they are set to carry over nearly $24 million from this year’s unspent cash to add to a 2016 cap figure of $150 to $153 million dollars, they still don’t want to have money hanging around on players who themselves are no longer around.
But luckily for the Browns—and likely as a nod to how short-tenured head coaches and general managers tend to be in Cleveland—a number of veterans on the current roster can be released this offseason for absolutely no dead-money charges, if they so choose. That’s not to say all are expendable. But it is worth noting that if the Browns do make major front-office changes between now and the new league year, and those newly-installed decision-makers have issues with certain veterans currently on the roster, those veterans go elsewhere without costing the Browns anything.
While trades are of course more preferable—the Browns would get something in return—that’s not always a possibility. Cuts happen; the less expensive they can be, the better.
Veterans with zero dead cap charges for 2016 include left tackle Joe Thomas, receiver Andrew Hawkins, guard John Greco and linebacker-end Armonty Bryant. Others, like receiver Brian Hartline, defensive end Randy Starks, tight end Jim Dray and linebacker Paul Kruger have considerably less dead money than they cost against the Browns’ cap if they stay aboard. Starks has a dead-money charge of $625,000 but a total cap hit of $3.625 million; Hartline has a dead-money charge of $750,000, but a $3.75 million cap hit. Kruger’s dead money next year is $2.4 million, versus $7.7 million if he stays on the roster. Dray will cost the Browns $300,000 to cut and $2.075 million to keep. And center Alex Mack’s dead cap cost is also zero dollars, but only because he can opt out of his deal with the Browns this offseason.
Bryant, who has served as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker this year, is the Browns’ current sack leader with 3.5 and has shown promise as a pass-rusher. And his scheme versatility makes him an asset regardless of what kind of defense the Browns may run next year, which makes his job appear safe. The same cannot be said for Starks, though, who was brought on to improve Cleveland’s run defense and hasn’t quite done so. Hartline has been up-and-down this year but does provide a veteran presence in the receivers’ room that could also be considered useful moving forward. Thomas has been a fixture in Cleveland, to be sure, but rumors swirled this year about him being on the trade block. Plus, the Browns’ offensive line took a major step backward, something that may scare the team off from paying him $9.5 million next year; though his contract could be restructured to increase its length while decreasing its yearly cost, releasing him cannot be ruled out if only because of the lack of dead money on his deal.
Hawkins, meanwhile, was Cleveland’s leading receiver a year ago. But this year, that job has fallen to Travis Benjamin (and tight end Gary Barnidge). With Cleveland’s receiving corps undersized as it is and Benjamin and Barnidge two high-priority free agents for the team (combined with Hawkins’ concussion issues), and he could be considered a roster casualty, though his $1 million salary is a relatively affordable one for the Browns next year. Greco is even less expensive, at $925,000 in salary for 2016. And should the Browns lose Mack and move on from Thomas, some offensive line continuity will be necessary, something that could preserve him for another year. Dray, though, could see his time come to an end, if only because tight ends like him are not uncommon commodities in the NFL and can be had at a lower cost for 2016.
The massive cap savings, though, for players like Thomas, Mack, Starks, Kruger and Hartline, could be tempting in other ways. If there are other players the Browns are interested in releasing but are wary of their dead-money charges, these savings could offset those charges. Receiver Dwayne Bowe is the first to come to mind—he has a dead-money charge of $4.6 million next year if the Browns cut him, but given how he’s done precisely nothing for the team this year aside from earn two first downs on his three catches, it’s quickly looking like money poorly spent. But the $4.6 million in dead money can sting far less if the Browns are making up that value by releasing others.
This isn’t to say that the Browns will release any or all of these players. But managing the salary cap means being aware of the many ways the parts of the puzzle can be moved around in order to maximize contract values while preserving cap space. There are ways to cut players without causing major harm to the Browns’ bottom line—in fact, there are ways to do it to make the bottom line even more robust. And when there are players who aren’t performing up to their contracts and a potential front office and coaching staff shakeup looming, it’s inevitable that there will be some players released. That the Browns can do it in a way that won’t financially hurt the team is just something to keep in mind as the season wraps and the focus shifts to the offseason business of football.