The landscape of the Cleveland Browns’ salary cap situation is an ever-changing one and will remain that way practically through the start of the 2016 regular season. But a few developments have taken place over the past week that has not insignificantly affected just what their financials look like as compared to the last time we took a look at their cap space and contract makeup.
The most considerable of these is the revelation reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday: The NFL, thanks to an NFLPA investigation, has been holding onto ticket revenue cash that ultimately belongs to the players as part of the salary cap pool. This money has to be returned to the pool immediately, giving teams now a cap of $156 million each. Initially the cap was set to be around $154 million—or just over $11 million more than in 2015. And that $2 million isn’t an pittance, not to teams that were inching closer to their individual caps, nor to the Browns, who were already set to be more than $30 million above it.
Thanks to this increase—as well as a few roster moves we’ll detail shortly—the Browns have just over $43 million in cap space to spend this year (OverTheCap has it at just over $42 million as of this writing, but are still anticipating a $155 million cap and not the more liberal $156 million the true number should be closer to). And more money is good news, even for a team like the Browns that isn’t likely to spend it all. That’s because it provides them with more leverage in free agency when it comes to finding adequate cash and being comfortable spending it on offers to free agents such as Travis Benjamin and Mitchell Schwartz.
Of course, this also means that teams interested in the two players—or any other free agents that the Browns may have their eyes on whether in-house or on the open market—have more cash to throw around to lure them away from Cleveland. It also will undoubtedly result in teams who initially believed they could not re-sign their own players being able to do so, potentially thinning the pool of players available to the Browns, granted those teams’ and the Browns’ interests overlapped. But that additional $2 million does make a difference; it’s money that the Browns can use to spend on players or gives them more cash in 2016 to roll forward to the 2017 league year.
Cleveland also freed up $1.775 million in additional cap room last week by releasing tight end Jim Dray, and another $3 million by cutting defensive end Randy Starks. These players, unlike say, Johnny Manziel, could be cut before the start of the league year despite the Browns technically having no cap room (having moved the excess cap to the 2016 league year back in January) because neither Dray nor Starks had any guaranteed money on their deals. The moves do increase the amount of dead money on the books to $1,613,828—$625,000 for Starks and $300,000 for Dray—and also makes finding more tight end and defensive line depth a priority in the offseason. But with just two roster moves and one NFLPA investigation, the Browns have added nearly $6.8 million to their piggy bank in just one week’s time.
And contract dominoes could fall quickly once March 9 rolls around. ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi reported on Monday reported on Monday that the Browns and Benjamin are “close” to coming to an agreement, something that could be agreed to in principle in the coming days (though of course, not announced or made official until the league year begins) given that the Scouting Combine is getting underway in Indianapolis. There is more to the Combine than just watching draft prospects work their way through strength and conditioning and on-field drills; it’s also a venue for agents and teams’ powers-that-be to press the flesh and start getting down to the dirty work of negotiating new contracts with old teams or new contracts with new ones. This is why so many reports and rumors of deals start flying this time of year—it’s not just the proximity to the start of free agency but also the Combine being the traditional home of these deals being broached.
Other examples of this Combine-adjacent time of strategic rumor-mongering include the latest reports about Browns center Alex Mack and safety Tashaun Gipson. Unsurprisingly, Mack will opt out of his contract, as is his right when the Browns gave him his current deal in 2014 to keep him away from the Jacksonville Jaguars. What is new, however, is that he could “return,” to Cleveland, signing a new deal that could cost less than the $8 million Mack is set to make currently in 2016 or, at the very least, remove the opt-outs that put the Browns in this situation to begin with. For Gipson, it’s a matter of communication—or a lack thereof. Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot reported Monday that while Gipson would like to hammer out a long-term contract with the Browns, the two sides haven’t yet negotiated in earnest and, according to Cabot (and her sources), “it appears they’re prepared to let him walk.”
But consider who Cabot’s source on Gipson likely is: Gipson’s agent. Reports such as these are often public relations moves made by a player’s agent to not only drum up in-house interest on a lucrative new contract but also as a way to sound the clarion call for other interested teams to step up and make an offer, because right now all options remain technically open. The same goes with the Mack report—that, too, was most likely out of the mouth of his agent. Benjamin's agent, too, said on Tuesday said on Tuesday that contract talks have broken down between he and the team. While this may be the case, and Benjamin could move on, this is yet another example of how private negotiations play out in the public eye. Just enough information is put out there to steer the narrative in a particular direction; if it's towards the truth is another question altogether.
And why wouldn’t Gipson’s and Mack’s camp talk about leaving while also talk about staying in practically the same breath? While their agents certainly have some idea of the draw of their clients on the open market, they still don’t know exactly what these offers are going to look like when they come down, if they even come down at all. There’s no use in closing the door to a return to the Browns before seeing what the market looks like; a day, or three or seven could pass when free agency begins without any other team offering the kind of money expected and the Browns could indeed prove to be the best option.
At the very least, the Browns’ continued amassing of extra salary cap room will make any additional cuts—Manziel, Dwayne Bowe—sting a little less, in terms of dead money. What that could mean for any free agents they want to sign could also become much more clear as the Scouting Combine gets underway and teams and agents sit down to make offers, counter-offers and truly begin contract negotiations in earnest. But it’s clear that financially, the Browns are sitting pretty; the extra $2 million the NFLPA uncovered for them is icing on the cake, though it does at the same time make any competition for players a bit more stiff now that 31 other teams also have an additional $2 million in their pockets as well.