Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Browns Contract Evaluation: The Defensive Line

It's the defense's turn to have their contract and salary cap situations placed under the microscope. First up: Defensive line. Here's the salary cap commitments the Cleveland Browns have made to their defensive ends and tackles so far in 2016.

We have now shifted our position-by-position look at the Cleveland Browns’ roster to the defensive side of the ball, beginning with the defensive line. Which means it’s now time to delve into what the Browns are currently spending on their defensive ends and tackles—and, spoiler alert, it’s not a lot. The Browns are thin when it comes to defensive linemen. At present, just five are under contract, totaling just $14,391,372 in salary cap commitments for 2016. That’s the second-lowest spending for the Browns on defense, behind safety, and 11 teams are spending less than them at the time of writing. 

Nearly half of that—or $7 million—belongs to defensive end Desmond Bryant, who was the Browns’ sack leader in 2015, with six. Bryant is under contract for two more seasons, with a cap hit that rises to $8 million in 2017. But none of Bryant’s remaining salaries are guaranteed, which means only his signing bonuses of $1 million per year would count against the cap should the Browns cut him—$2 million in 2016 and $1 million in 2017. Though it doesn’t seem likely that Bryant will be off the team this year, it is worth nothing that the Browns’ cap commitment is now much lower than it was back in 2014, when it would have cost the team $7 million in dead money to release him.

Defensive end John Hughes is next on the pay scale, with a $2.9 million cap hit for 2016—$2.2 million of that serving as dead money should he be released, making this again an unlikely move for the Browns to make this year. Though Hughes spent the majority of the 2014 season on the injured reserve-recall list, the Browns still valued his services so highly that he was given a four-year, $12.8 million contract extension in March 2015. It is a well-constructed contract though, one which includes just $3.56 million in guaranteed money, $2.5 million of that in the form of a pro-rated signing bonus that he earns in $500,000 per-year increments. Right now, releasing him would be financially prohibitive, but it’s something that could become a reality as early as 2017, when he again has a $2.9 million cap hit but only $1.5 million in dead money.

Round 1 2015 draft pick Danny Shelton has the next-highest payday on the defensive line this year, earning a total of $2,659,924, $966,985 in base salary and almost $1.7 million in signing bonus. His contract, a four-year deal worth a fully-guaranteed $11,703,667, was determined by his draft position. There is also a fifth-year option available to him and the Browns, given his Round 1 status, that will have to be ironed out in the future. But for now, Shelton is one of the league’s highest-paid defensive tackles in a 3-4 base defense not because of his on-field production but because of where he was drafted. His second year in the league should further illuminate whether or not he proves worthy of this big payday.

Also under contract are two other second-year defensive linemen, Xavier Cooper and Dylan Wynn. Cooper, a Round 3 draft pick, signed a four-year $2,907,284 contract last May, one which includes $592,284 in guaranteed money, all of which is in the form of a signing bonus. His total cap hit this year is $680,071, which could prove to be a relative steal if his playing time continues to go up. The bad news, though, is that he has no dead money on his deal so he can be released at any time without costing the Browns any money. The same goes for Wynn, who will be making just $450,000 this season after being given a reserve/futures contract by the team in January. He was initially brought on as an undrafted free agent rookie last May but was waived in September only to return in the new year. 

Rounding out the defensive line is Jamie Meder, a defensive tackle whom the Browns picked up off of waivers in 2014, added to the practice squad and promoted to the active roster in 2015. Though he had no starts last season, he had 33 combined tackles and a sack while playing no more than 35 snaps in a single game, according to Pro Football Focus. Meder is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning he has less than two accrued seasons to his name. Exclusive-rights free agents aren’t really free agents at all; Meder can only negotiate with the Browns for the 2016 season and should be given a one-year veteran minimum salary with no guarantees once the league year begins on March 9. In fact, the Browns could pay Meder even more than that—he proved valuable in his limited playing time last season and the lack of depth on defensive line, particularly at tackle, could help his odds of getting a higher-than-the-minimum payday.

Another defensive lineman, Randy Starks, was released by the Browns last week. Starks, who had a $625,000 salary cap hit for 2016, was able to be released because his contract contained no more guaranteed money. This is why he (along with tight end Jim Dray) could be cut now, before the league year, though the Browns cannot do any spending until March 9. Still, that $625,000 counts against the cap as dead money, bringing their total dead cap hit up to $1,613,828—a number, of course, expected to rise next month. 

Defensive line is not an area in which the Browns are spending a lot of money, simply because it’s an area in which they don’t have much depth. This doubtlessly will result in the Browns making additions to both defensive end and tackle during the offseason, rising the cost of the position group. Who they add and how will determine just how much this position’s costs rise in 2016, but do expect it to go up once free agency opens in March and through late April’s draft, if not beyond. 

All contract and salary cap data via and unless otherwise noted.

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