As we break down the Cleveland Browns’ current roster, position-by-position, it’s also valuable to examine the amount of money the Browns have committed to each position. With Fred Greetham doing so with the running backs this week, it’s time to focus on the financial obligation the Browns have to their crop of five (and a fullback) for the 2016 season. With just running back Duke Johnson and fullback Malcolm Johnson the only drafted players at the position, the Browns have one of the cheapest groups of running backs in the league, with the position expected to cost them just $2,835,857 for the year barring other additions. Only eight teams are currently on the hook for less money to their backs on the season.
Their most pricey back for 2016 is Johnson, who has a $732,523 salary cap hit which includes $545,000 in base salary and $187,523 in signing and workout bonuses. Given the way new Browns head coach Hue Jackson worked with a similarly-styled back in Giovani Bernard with the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson should play a major role in Cleveland’s offense this year as both a runner and receiver. He was not the team’s leading rusher in 2015, carrying the ball just 104 times for 379 yards and no scores, but he was their third-leading receiver, with 61 catches for 534 yards and two scores and led the team in yards after the catch, with 440. Knowing what we know about Jackson and Johnson could prove to be quite a value to the Browns this year, giving forth production that may command a larger paycheck in the future. That’s the benefit in finding key contributors in Round 3 of the NFL draft.
Cleveland’s leading rusher from 2015, Isaiah Crowell, is the second-highest paid back on the Browns roster presently, with a $603,334 salary cap hit comprised of $600,000 in base salary and $3,334 in signing bonus. He rushed 185 times in 2015, for 706 yards and four scores but was less involved in the passing game as Johnson, with 19 catches for 182 yards and two scores. Thinking back to Jackson’s time spent in Cincinnati, with Bernard joined by Jeremy Hill, who has much in common with Crowell in terms of style and type of usage, and he should again be part of a one-two punch in the run game. But it’s also possible that Jackson has another back in mind to bring aboard, whether in free agency or the draft. Crowell has proved useful in Cleveland in his two seasons, but with a dead cap charge of just $6,667 if the Browns release him, there’s no guarantee he will keep his job under the new regime.
The same can be said for Raheem Mostert, picked up off of waivers from the Baltimore Ravens in December mainly to serve as a returner on special teams and as insurance at running back. Because of his prorated contract, the Browns paid him a mere $76,764. But because he initially signed a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in May of 2015, worth $1.58 million, the Browns pick up the rest of that contract when adding him on the waiver wire. This means he is set to make around $526,667 in Cleveland this year should the Browns retain his services. That’s hard to guarantee.
The position is rounded out by Glenn Winston and Terrell Watson, two unknown commodities with uncertain futures in Cleveland. Winston was a favorite of the previous coaching staff but couldn’t get on the field, first dealing with a knee injury that landed him on the PUP list to begin the year and a concussion to end it. He had only one carry in 2015, earning minus-eight yards and his major supporters—mainly former head coach Mike Pettine—are gone. Winston has a cap hit of $600,000 this year but zero dead money if he’s released, which makes him a candidate to be cut at the start of the league year on March 9. Watson, meanwhile, has a bit more job security simply because the Browns signed him to a reserve/futures contract in late January, a move made by the new coaching and front-office staffs. His cap hit for this year is $450,000 and like Winston, has no dead money should he be released. Between these two backs, though, Watson has the best chance to make it all the way through to training camp in the summer, at the very least.
Finally, there is the fullback, Johnson. Johnson was used sparingly as a rookie, playing just 13.9 percent of the Browns’ offensive snaps and 24.8 percent of their special-teams snaps, according to Football Outsiders, before being placed on injured reserve with a groin injury in early December. He was targeted five times in the passing game, with four receptions for 15 yards. The appeal of Johnson, whom the Browns drafted in Round 6 last year, was that he can not only work as a blocking fullback but as a receiving H-back, running routes in a manner similar to the Oakland Raiders’ Marcel Reece. He’ll cost the Browns $554,862 in total cap hit for 2016, $525,000 of that in the form of salary. He would thus cost $89,589 in dead money to cut, thanks to his fully guaranteed prorated signing bonus that pays $29,863 per year. If cut, it would be a surprise occurrence if it happens before the end of training camp.
Though the Browns have five running backs and a fullback under contract for 2016, it doesn’t mean it will stay that way once the league year begins and the Browns can start cutting players and signing free agents. Duke Johnson, Malcolm Johnson, Crowell and Watson seem to the the four at this time who have the most job security, but no matter the fates of Winston and Mostert it’s inevitable that more backs will come aboard to round out the 90-man roster and increasing the cash the Browns spend at the position as a result. And if among those signings are some of the higher-profile free agent backs such as Matt Forte, Chris Ivory, Lamar Miller or Alfred Morris, the amount the Browns spend on running backs could double. Whatever the Browns’ and Jackson’s vision is for the running game this year, the backs currently on the roster plus the amount of available cap space will allow them to be as creative and as thorough as they want to be when making additions or subtractions at the position.