We at the OBR have wrapped up examining the offensive side of the ball in our position-by-position breakdowns, concluding with the wide receivers. Which means we will now look at the receiver position’s impact on the Browns’ current spending and salary cap situation. And like we’ve seen before, this one is also on the murky side.
Presently, the Browns have committed just over $14.7 million to their receivers for 2016 thus far, though that number could rise to $15.8 million within the next 30 days should Josh Gordon be reinstated by the league from his indefinite suspension. That means, barring the Browns opting to cut him or trade him to another team should he indeed be reinstated, he will be paid $1,086,406 for the season. This is a highly reasonable cap figure given Gordon’s history of suspensions and also dirt-cheap should he put forth a repeat performance of his stellar 2013 season. And it’s also low enough for the Browns to be comfortable with the risks inherent to keeping someone with his history on the roster. It doesn’t seem likely that a reinstated Gordon would play anywhere else in 2016.
The bigger problem is what to do about Dwayne Bowe and his now-notorious contract given him by former general manager Ray Farmer. Bowe is entering the final year of a two-year, $12.5 million contract that included $9 million in guaranteed money. This means that Bowe is set to make $8 million in 2016—$6.15 million in base salary, $1.75 million in signing bonus and a $100,000 workout bonus. But, as we know, Bowe was ineffective at best in 2015 and invisible more often than not, catching only give passes for 53 yards. That’s certainly not worth an $8 million cap hit for this year, but releasing him will cost the Browns $4.6 million in dead money and a trade for this contract would be impossible. Much like with the impending release of quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Browns may have to just release Bowe and eat that dead money, because paying $4.6 million for Bowe to do nothing is better than paying him $8 million to do next-to-nothing.
After Bowe, the rest of the Browns receivers currently under contract have much smaller salary cap hits for the year. Brian Hartline, who at many times in 2015 was Cleveland’s quarterbacks’ go-to, has a cap hit of $3.75 million this year but only $750,000 in dead money. Though entering his eighth year in the league, he won’t turn 30 years old until November and his veteran status could help him remain with the Browns. But, as is worth noting again, Hartline was a priority free agent signing of the previous regime; who knows exactly what Hue Jackson, Sashi Brown, Andrew Berry and others think of Hartline or of any player signed or drafted by Farmer and Mike Pettine. And when looking at Hartline’s cap hit versus the dead money, it’s hard to say his job is completely safe this year. Hartline’s fate depends on a multitude of factors.
Another intriguing situation is that of Andrew Hawkins'. In a world where the Browns’s roster is (currently) populated with undersized and speedy receivers, Hawkins looks like he could easily be a salary cap casualty come March. His cap hit is just $1 million and his contract has no more dead money attached, so he can be released and the Browns can save a bit of money. And that doesn’t seem far-fetched; after posting 63 catches for 824 yards and two scores in 2014, he had just 27 receptions for 276 yards in 2015, and appeared in only eight games, landing on injured reserve following Week 10. But he does have an ace up his sleeve that could save him: The hiring of Jackson.
Hawkins was already in Cleveland when the Cincinnati Bengals named Jackson their offensive coordinator in 2014, but Jackson had been with the Bengals for the previous two seasons, as secondary coach and then running backs coach and was familiar with the entire team’s roster, including Hawkins. So if Hawkins provides a particular skill set that Jackson prizes and the fact that Hawkins is already a known quantity to him, then Hawkins’ job could be saved, so far as Jackson regards Hawkins in a positive way.
Also in question are the fates of receivers Taylor Gabriel and Marlon Moore. Of the two, Moore has the higher salary cap hit for 2016, at $896,666 compared to $600,000 for Gabriel; Moore is also the only of the two with any dead money for the year, at $133,334. But with a dead cap charge that low, it’s practically nothing. And it’s really going to depend on the ideal makeup of the offense whether or not both men stay. Moore has the higher upside on special teams, but returned only three kickoffs in 2015, for 77 yards, while adding 81 yards and a score on seven receptions. Gabriel’s ceiling as a receiver, meanwhile, trumps Moore’s, but yet his 28 catches in 2015 netted just 241 yards. Keeping either or both is possible, given that neither contract is expensive; however, that’s also reason to move on from both receivers. How active the Browns are in free agency in pursuing wideouts and their draft strategy at the position will shed further light on the Cleveland futures of Moore and Gabriel. It would not be surprising if the Browns wait a while before deciding the fates of both.
Rounding out the under-contract receivers is Rannell Hall, initially a UDFA rookie signing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in May, 2015. Tampa waived him in September and the Browns picked him up and placed him on the active roster in December, which earned him $76,764. He will be making $525,000 in 2016, but as Hall was mainly an emergency depth signing, one made by the old regime, he’ll have to make some kind of positive impression in a practice situation to stick around—if he even makes it that far.
The Browns have three receivers set to be free agents of one status or another: Travis Benjamin, Terrelle Pryor and Darius Jennings. Pryor is a restricted free agent, which means the Browns can match any offer given him should they want to keep him aboard. To give Pryor a third-round RFA tender, it would be worth $1.696 million. A veteran minimum deal, meanwhile, would pay him in the $600,000 to $700,000 range. Jennings, as an exclusive rights free agent, would make even less. He was certainly promising at times both in the 2015 pre- and regular seasons, but his future depends on what the Browns choose to do with the likes of Hawkins and Gabriel as much as what he’s already produced on the field in his one year of experience.
And that leaves us with Benjamin, the only Browns receiver set to be an unrestricted free agent come March 9. Finally enough time had passed since Benjamin’s 2013 ACL tear, and he had the best season of his career in 2015, catching 68 passes for 966 yards and five scores and returning 28 punts for 324 yards and a touchdown. And it was a good time to break out—Benjamin is going to be paid well this year, whether by Cleveland or another team. For now, though, it looks like things are headed in the direction of him remaining with the Browns. His agent, Ronald Butler, sounded optimistic about a deal getting done at the start of free agency. The question, though, is how much does Benjamin get, how much of it is guaranteed and what the length of the contract will be.
This isn’t going to be a bank-breaking contract for the Browns. But it will still have major impact on the team’s spending on offense and at the receiver position, in particular. It could offset by the money saved by releasing Bowe, or Hartline or Hawkins. So while the Browns may be pushing $15 million in receiver spending right now, that final number may not be too much higher after any would-be Benjamin contract agreement. The dollars that will be pushed around—and the players those dollars represent—may result in the Browns’ receiver spending not changing too much but the state of the position looking quite different than it does right now.