As our position-by-position breakdowns continue, so do our examinations of each positions’ contract and salary cap impact as things presently stand, which means it’s time to move onto the Cleveland Browns’ offensive line. The Browns are one of the most spendy teams in this area, with $26,607,524 currently committed to the line, the seventh-most cash in the league. And the returns on those investments were a bit shaky in 2015, with the team’s three quarterbacks sacked a combined 53 times last season.
In terms of cash spending on the offensive line for 2016, the elephant in the room is center Alex Mack and the five-year, $42 million contract he signed in 2014. In order for the Browns to persuade him to stay in Cleveland and not leave for the Jacksonville Jaguars, with whom he signed an offer sheet while initially transition tagged by the Browns, the Browns added “player voidable” incentives in the deal. That means that Mack could opt out of the deal beginning in 2016—he has until March 4 to make his decision.
If he chooses to stay, then his $8 million in base salary—the entirety of his cap hit for the year—will guarantee on April 5. But the month that passes between March 4 and April 5 will not open him up to a trade; this isn’t possible because Mack also has a no-trade clause built into his deal. Essentially, either the Browns will lose Mack by early March (the most likely scenario) and save $8 million in the process or they will retain control of his contract rights, pay him $8 million and not be on the hunt for a new starting center.
But Mack isn’t the only looming decision staring down the Browns at the start of the new league year—there’s also the matter of what to do about right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who will be an unrestricted free agent on the open market if the Browns cannot ink a new contract (or agree to one in principle) during the weekend of “legal tampering” in the days just prior to league business beginning. Schwartz has constantly improved as the Browns’ starting right tackle over the previous four years, so much so that he’d be highly desirable to numerous other teams needing to better their run-blocking and pass protection.
This also means that Schwartz is in for a quite good payday, perhaps as high as $50 million or more for a five-year deal. This is money the Browns can spend, especially if they do get an additional $8 million from Mack opting out. But will they offer it? And what other teams may have significant, serious interest? These are all to-be-determined; the answers will greatly affect what the Browns’ ultimately salary cap situation becomes next month.
Another murky situation—albeit less-so—surrounds left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas, once a subject of trade rumors during the 2015 regular season, has been assured by the new coaching and front office staffs that they want to keep him in Cleveland for the foreseeable future, something Thomas also wants. But it cannot be ignored that the dead-money years in his contract are over. All of the money due Thomas in 2016—an $8.3 million salary, a $1 million roster bonus and a $200,000 workout bonus—can be recouped by the Browns by releasing him, saving them another $9.5 million. This, though, seems further fetched than Mack opting out or Schwartz playing elsewhere. In fact, if both of those things happen, that makes it almost impossible for the Browns to release Thomas—there’s no way this team is going to rebuild three-fifths of its offensive line this year.
The rest of the Browns’ offensive line situation is far more straightforward. Right guard John Greco will likely stick around, given he has just a $925,000 cap hit for 2016 and the possibility of the loss of at least two starters means Greco’s veteran status will be an asset. Joel Bitonio will also remain as the team’s left guard, and will have a $1,489,554 salary cap hit for the season; he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Cameron Erving, a Round 1 2015 draft pick, is also safe and could indeed take over as the team’s starting center should Mack move on, for just over $2.1 million on the season. Guard Garth Gerhart and tackle Michael Bowie are also currently under contract for 2016, with Gerhart earning $525,000 and Bowie, $675,000. But both men are products of the previous regime and Bowie has yet to prove he can stay healthy, making the two potential cuts in March.
Austin Pasztor, who took over at left guard at the end of the year when Bitonio suffered a season-ending ankle injury, is the other unrestricted free agent among Cleveland's linemen. He earned $660,000 in 2015 and in his four starts allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits and 13 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He could be considered useful depth given how well he performed when called upon, but again, he could also fall victim to being a signing of the previous regime. Still, the Browns require depth on the line and the roster will increase to 90 players in the spring, so there's certainly room and cash to pay him a moderate deal. Three other offensive linemen—Erle Ladson, Conor Bofeli and Dan France—were all signed to reserve/futures contracts in January, each worth $450,000 for the season with no dead money if they are released. Depending on what the Browns’ depth situation is following free agency, the draft and signing undrafted rookies, these three could stick around into the summer. If they don’t, though, it won’t cost the Browns any cash to cut them.
Cleveland’s salary cap commitments to the offensive line is one of their most fluid of the offseason. With Mack’s and Schwartz’s futures up in the air and Thomas not yet 100 percent safe from being released or traded to create further available cash, Cleveland’s current $26.6 million spending on the line could go either up or down, and considerably at that. Any major changes made to the line will have major salary cap consequences in 2016.