With the start of the 2016 NFL league year in about a month, it’s a good time to check in with the Cleveland Browns’ salary cap situation to see where they stand financially. The opening of the league year marks the beginning of free agency and for the Browns, the beginning of spending—Cleveland already rolled over its leftover cash from 2015 into 2016, which means they cannot do anything, signing or cutting, until March 9.
Depending on the source, the Browns had somewhere between $17 million and $20 million in spare cash from 2015, giving them anywhere from $33,223,128 in cap room for 2016 (according to Over the Cap) to $35,029,726 (according to Spotrac). That will immediately drop by $4,333,487 when the league year begins, when the Browns are expected to part ways with quarterback Johnny Manziel, adding a dead money charge to the books. So assuming teams have a $154 million salary cap cash each, the Browns will have around $29 million available to spend.
Currently, Cleveland’s dead money charges not including Manziel total just $688,828—$362,364 for receiver Vince Mayle, cut in his rookie summer, $263,700 for Terrance West, $59,430 for Hayes Pullard and $3,334 for Darrian Miller. But it’s doubtless that this figure will continue to rise, not just with Manziel’s release but the release of other players, something all-too-common when teams overhaul their coaching and front office staffs, as the Browns did last month. The most obvious is receiver Dwayne Bowe, whose release would cost the Browns $4.6 million if they cannot find a way to keep him on the roster and make him more useful on the field than he was in 2015.
Having nearly $9 million in dead cash on the books for just two players would be steep—only the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are projected to have more than that at present. But the Browns can recoup some of that cash by releasing players whose dead money hits are significantly smaller than the cost of keeping them on the roster. But even if those types of cuts are kept to a minimum, the Browns are on good enough financial footing to begrudgingly weather the lost money. And if center Alex Mack does opt out of his contract, that gives the Browns an additional $8 million with zero dead money.
Like last year, the Browns aren’t currently spending a great deal of their money on offense while ranking in the top three teams in defensive spending, again owing to the nearly $27 million going to the cornerback position—$13.4 million of that belonging to Joe Haden, whose $10.1 million 2016 base salary fully guaranteed when the Browns placed him on injured reserve to close out the 2015 season. That’s also the highest cap hit on the team presently; it is followed by left tackle Joe Thomas with a $9.5 million cap hit this year and safety Donte Whitner, with an $8.45 million cap hit. In fact, only three of the Browns’ top 10 salary cap hits for 2016 right now are on the offensive side of the ball—Thomas, Mack and Bowe—while the rest come from the defense. The Browns, though, do rank eighth in spending on the offensive line, again thanks mostly to Mack’s and Thomas’ cap hits this year.
No matter how much cash the Browns have come March 9, there will certainly be in-house free agents that are considered priorities to re-sign. Receiver and returner Travis Benjamin is one; right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is another. Losing Schwartz—who is in line for a big payday no matter who signs him—would thus force the Browns into one of two (or both) options: Picking up another free agent, perhaps soon-to-be-former Bengal Andre Smith, or drafting one. There aren’t many top-tier right tackles set to hit free agency this year, but the good news for the Browns is that they can at least afford the cost of signing one, be it Schwartz or someone else.
The Browns will also have to make a decision about safety Tashaun Gipson, also an unrestricted free agent, as well as depth and rotational pieces on defense includingCraig Robertson, Johnson Bademosi, Scott Solomon, Tank Carder and Jamie Meder. Their fates will rest particularly on defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s plans; it does help, though, that a number of these defenders are known to him, given he was with the team in the same capacity in 2013.
The Browns aren’t in a much different financial situation than when heading into 2015’s league year. They have a significant amount of rollover cash, the ability to take on a chunk of dead money without it causing severe or even noticeable harm and have decisions to make regarding their free agent players. The difference, though, will be how the new powers-that-be approach these decisions and how the roster building process will play out as a result. But the Browns are in a position to do practically anything they want, from a financial standpoint, giving them the flexibility they need in yet another year of rebuilding.