Whenever the Cleveland Browns finalize their new coaching and front office staffs, there will be much work to do. Draft preparations, roster analysis, film study and evaluations of pending free agents must all take place in a relatively short order. And in the latter category—free agents—the impending powers-that-be need to take a hard look at right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and make the right call: Give him a new contract.
Schwartz, drafted in the second round in 2012 to serve at right tackle after a 2011 that featured Tony Pashos, Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins take turns at the position, wasn’t a popular pick immediately. Though a Day 1 starter—who has missed just one snap out of 4,428 the Browns have played from 2012 through 2015—Schwartz’s first two seasons were struggles, particularly in 2013.
As a rookie, Schwartz gave up five sacks, nine quarterback hits and 19 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Those numbers rose to 11 sacks, 19 hits and 35 hurries in his second season, leading many to say the Browns whiffed yet again with a high draft pick.
But settling into an offensive line job can take time, especially when considering that Schwartz was on his third head coach—and offensive scheme to block for—by his third season. And he did settle in come 2014, allowing just seven sacks, six quarterback hits and 22 hurries. His 2015 has been even better. Though Cleveland’s line has struggled both in protecting the quarterback and run-blocking, neither have been a problem for Schwartz. Though Cleveland’s quarterbacks were sacked 53 times in the 2015 season, only three were Schwartz’s fault, along with eight hits and 32 hurries. He was Pro Football Focus’ sixth-ranked offensive tackle for the year and their best overall right tackle in the league. Combine that with his consistently positive performance run-blocking and it’s easy to see how valuable he is for the Browns.
Re-signing Schwartz is an even bigger priority when considering the other changes that could befall the Browns’ offensive line during the offseason. Left tackle Joe Thomas is seriously contemplating a change of venue after so many changes at coaching and front office during his nine seasons with the Browns. Center Alex Mack is all but guaranteed to exercise the opt-out clause the Browns wrote into his five-year, $42 million deal in 2014 in order to keep him away from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Austin Pasztor, who replaced Cameron Erving (who himself stepped in for the injured Joel Bitonio, and struggled mightily, leading to his benching) at left guard is also a free agent, and has proven valuable as a depth piece who is capable of starting. The Browns cannot afford to lose these offensive line assets along with Schwartz. It’s not like the Browns, who may have as much as $70 million in 2016 salary cap room, can’t pay him for his services.
And, whether it makes sense or not, right tackles generally are given contracts with full values worth around half as much as left tackles. Now, that also results in a higher percentage of guaranteed money (compared to the contract’s full value), but those guarantees are often a third of what left tackles earn. This is good news for the Browns, who don’t have to be in a bank-breaking scenario in order to pay Schwartz what he’s worth, likely something akin to the five-year, $30 million contract the Pittsburgh Steelers gave Marcus Gilbert in 2014 (one that includes a total of $7.65 million in guarantees, or 25.5 percent of the contract’s total value).
Given that the Browns have another do-over on their hands, the last thing they need is to overhaul three of their five starting positions on offensive line. Mack’s departure may be a given, and Thomas may finally throw in the towel on Cleveland, but the Browns are in position to lock up Schwartz and his ever-growing talents for the long term. Right tackles of his caliber are not a dime-a-dozen—just seven of Pro Football Focus’ top 20 offensive tackles are at the position this year—but they are easily paid pennies on the dollar compared to their left tackle contemporaries. With the Browns flush with cash, there should be no question about offering Schwartz a new deal. Whether he takes it or chooses to test the free agency waters is another issue. But the Browns cannot let Schwartz go without a fight and without giving him the type of long-term offer he clearly deserves.