Even though general manager Ray Farmer and the Cleveland Browns have parted ways, Farmer’s actions taken to affect the Browns’ roster during his two-year tenure will reverberate into 2016 and beyond. His body of work, taken as a whole, was close to being an abject failure, particularly in one area that owner Jimmy Haslam emphasized during his press conference to announce Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine’s ouster: Talent acquisition.
Farmer presided over two Browns’ drafts and free agency periods, selecting 18 players in the former and 14 in the latter (including twice re-signing receiver and special-teamer Marlon Moore). In the 2014 draft, the Browns were constantly trading picks, including moving down and then up in Round 1 to select cornerback Justin Gilbert and then up again later in the round to take quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Ultimately, the Browns moved around so much that they came away with six picks in 2014, none after Round 4, with cornerback Pierre Desir their final selection. Though that did afford them a large number of picks for 2015, it was a curious use of resources for a team that needed, more than anything, to develop young talent for the hopes of long-term returns.
Of the six players selected, only three have panned out: left tackle Joel Bitonio (whose 2015 season was cut short with an ankle injury), linebacker Christian Kirksey and Desir (though he’s struggled to get on the field this year). Gilbert and Manziel may both have little to no future in the NFL after on- and off-field issues their first two seasons, while running back Terrance West was traded to the Tennessee Titans by the Farmer Regime early in 2015. West was later cut by Tennessee, which means any would-be draft compensation given the Browns by the Titans disappeared.
The 2015 picks—12 of them—still have time to prove themselves, or at least the ones who remain in Cleveland. Fourth round pick, receiver Vince Mayle, couldn’t stick on the 53-man roster nor the practice squad. Hayes Pullard, a seventh-round pick, was poached by the Jacksonville Jaguars off of Cleveland’s practice squad in October. Tight end Randall Telfer and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu came to the team still rehabbing significant injuries dating back to college and have been on injured reserve all year.
That leaves the Browns with Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving, Nate Orchard, Duke Johnson, Xavier Cooper, Ibraheim Campbell, Charles Gaines Jr. and Malcolm Johnson as the 2015 picks who made any on-field contributions in 2015. And Shelton and Erving, the two Round 1 picks, still have to prove they were smart selections for Cleveland. Shelton stepped in as the team’s nose tackle, replacing Phil Taylor who was released with a knee injury prior to the start of the season, while Erving finished the year at left guard in place of Bitonio, and struggled in a position with which he was not familiar. Of these picks, only Orchard, Johnson, Cooper and Johnson (prior to his season-ending groin injury) seemed promising.
The problem, though, with Farmer and Pettine being gone is that the status of all of these young players and where they will fit into the next regime’s plans are unknown. Because of the nature of the higher-round contracts, there will have to be an acceptance of absorbing dead money salary cap hits if they are to be cut. The later-round picks, though, have manageable amounts of dead money attached to their deals (as one example, if Desir would somehow be released, the Browns would take on just $203,806 in dead money for 2016). A new general manager has no reason to be loyal to his predecessor’s draft picks, which means when Farmer failed, he put the fates of these players in limbo.
But the draft wasn’t the only area affected by Farmer’s poor ability to identify and acquire talent. Free agency has also been a struggle for him, with the pickups of Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby in 2014 and Tramon Williams in 2015 perhaps the only hits in a relative sea of misses. Other notable Farmer free agent signings include running back Ben Tate (cut during his lone season in Cleveland in 2014), wide receiver Miles Austin (who ended 2014 injured and was not re-signed despite him enjoying his time with the Browns), Jim Leonhard (a Pettine pickup more than Farmer’s), defensive end Randy Starks (a run-stopper who did not help the Browns stop the run), tight end Rob Housler (a non-factor who landed on injured reserve and was later cut) and, of course, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
Bowe is the perfect example to point to, aside from the Manziel and Gilbert picks, of Farmer’s failure as Cleveland’s GM. It’s not the fact that Bowe was signed that is the problem—it’s the deal he was given, a two-year contract worth a total of $12.5 million, with $9 million in guarantees. That’s a contract for someone who was assured to play a big role for the Browns in 2015; instead, he was a bit-player at best, with seven game appearances, and five catches on 13 targets for 53 yards. It’s a foregone conclusion that the new regime will cut Bowe; his cap hit in 2016 is $8 million if he stays, while the dead-money charge to release him is $4.6 million.
And that $4.6 million is notable. The Browns have just over $22 million in cap space presently which will roll over to the upcoming league year, giving them over $172 million to spend, assuming a $150 million per-team salary cap. They can afford the dead money attached to Bowe’s contract—luckily. Not many other teams around the league could look at $4.6 million on the books for a player no longer rostered and be capable of absorbing it. If the Browns had to deal with Bowe sans Farmer and without significant cap room, the damage Farmer did would be far greater.
Indeed, Farmer’s unwillingness or inability to spend the Browns’ significant amount of cap cash may be the only true positive of his tenure. Otherwise, his legacy is a number of failed or questionable draft picks, free agents that didn’t live up to their potential, one smart contract extension given tight end Gary Barnidge and the loss of his job in a contentious environment where his machinations did nothing to make the Browns significantly better on the field. As such, it’s not hard to see why he was fired. And it’s not hard to see what the new general manager (in concert with the coaches and Sashi Brown) will have to do to outperform Farmer’s results.
All salary cap and contract information via Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.