We are continuing to evaluate the Cleveland Browns’ current roster, position-by-position, and at the same time taking a look at those positions from a financial standpoint. We recently switched over to the defensive side of the ball, and that’s where we continue now with an examination of the cash the Browns are presently set to spend at the cornerback position.
Cornerback is the Browns’ most expensive position for 2016, costing them $26,953,058, the second-highest amount behind the New York Jets. Of the nearly $27 million on the books so far this year, $13.4 million belongs to Joe Haden. Numerous injuries, including multiple concussions, kept Haden to only five games played in 2015 and when he was on the field, he struggled. But because his season ended on injured reserve, his $10.1 million base salary for 2016 became fully guaranteed. He also has a $3.2 million signing bonus and another $100,000 in workout bonus for the year.
Now that Haden’s full cap hit is made up of guaranteed cash, it would cost even more for the Browns to cut him—$19.7 million in dead money to be exact. The hope is that a healthy Haden will rebound in 2016 in a Ray Horton-designed defense that served him so well in 2013, when Haden had four interceptions and 20 passes defensed. And Haden’s veteran status cannot go unappreciated, either. Haden, though, will be the NFL’s fourth-highest paid cornerback this year (pending what happens during free agency), and he will be pressed to live up to his contract, as neither he nor the Browns have any other choice.
The remaining money the Browns are set to spend on cornerbacks this year belongs to six additional players, beginning with Tramon Williams, whose cap hit this year is $6,981,250, $6.2 million of that in the form of base salary. The 32-year old seems poised to again serve as a starter alongside Haden, given the unproven nature of the younger corners on the roster. Plus, his $3.8 million in dead money may not be a manageable amount for the Browns to absorb, with other players with significant dead money charges expected to be released in the new league year. Williams’ best bet to move on, or even retire, could be in 2017. That’s the final year of his contract, one in which he has a $7.5 million cap hit but only $500,000—his prorated signing bonus—as dead cash.
One aspect of Williams’ contract of note is that he has something called “LTBE” incentives on his contract—or “Likely To Be Earned” incentives, in the form of a per-game bonus worth $18,750 in 2016. That means he can earn up to $300,000 in roster bonuses for each game he plays. But only 15 games’ worth of incentives are LTBE—or $281,250—and thus this is the amount that counts against the cap. The final $18,750 for the 16th game is a NLTBE (or “Not Likely To Be Earned”) and does not count against the Browns’ salary cap unless he gets that 16th game played in 2016. But it is possible that Williams’ final salary cap hit for the year could be $18,750 higher than it is set to be now, which means the Browns need to make sure they have that cash on hand (and they most likely will) in case Williams does indeed appear in all 16 games this season.
The Browns will have to find something for Justin Gilbert to do this year, whether it is unseating Williams from his starting job on the outside or working his way to the starting nickel cornerback job. That’s because Gilbert’s release is out of the question. Though he’s been an off-field problem child and an on-field liability in his first two seasons, his dead cap charge for 2016 will be just under $7.6 million, while he’ll cost the Browns just over $3.5 million to remain on the roster. At this point, it appears that Gilbert will play out his rookie contract but not get a fifth-year option to remain with the Brown in 2018, when he’s otherwise set to be an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps Horton and Hue Jackson can get through to Gilbert in ways Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil could not and the Browns will finally get a positive return on their investment—one that goes beyond just the money being paid to him but also the fact the team used a top-10 draft pick on him a mere two years ago.
Another 2014 draft pick, Pierre Desir, could see his role expand this year, given that he put forth a solid performance to end the year after Tramon Williams and Haden were ruled out and placed on injured reserve, respectively. But he could also be in danger of hitting the chopping block; though he has a low overall cap hit of just $701,903 for 2016, his dead money is only $203,806. With six cornerbacks currently under contract and the potential for the new coaching staff to want to make additions at the position that matches their specific vision, whether via free agency or the draft, Desir could at some point be released. With Desir possessing a great deal of potential, it seems unlikely to happen before the team gets together for practices. But it is worth keeping an eye on his spot in the cornerback hierarchy in the coming months to determine whether he really does have a future in Cleveland.
The same goes for K'Waun Williams, who has a $600,000 cap hit for the season and because he came to the team as a undrafted free agent rookie in 2014, has no dead money if he is released. But the younger Williams could be the biggest value the team has at the position. In 13 games played last year with six starts, he had two passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two recoveries and a sack, along with 39 combined tackles. He’d be battling it out for nickel cornerback duties in the summer much as he did last year. But if he can win the job for that low payday—one that could remain low thanks to Williams being an exclusive-rights free agent in 2017—the bang-to-buck ratio could be way too compelling for the Browns to want move him completely off the roster.
The two biggest wild cards at cornerback for the Browns this year, from an on-field and from a financial perspective, are the two the team drafted in 2015—Charles Gaines Jr. and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Gaines, taken in the sixth round, was the player designated by the Browns as their injured reserve-recall, and he missed the first nine games with a hamstring injury. When he returned, though, he appeared in the next six games with four starts before being again placed on permanent injured reserve after aggravating the same hamstring in Week 17. Still, with limited playing time, he had two passes defensed, a forced fumble and 15 combined tackles. But this was a draft pick selected by the previous regime and, unlike Gilbert, can be parted with for a song. Gaines’ cap hit this year is $555,534 but his dead money is just $91,603—or the remainder of his prorated, yearly signing bonus of $30,534.
Ekpre-Olomu, meanwhile, spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve after suffering a significant and devastating knee injury while practicing for the National Championship game for the Oregon Ducks. The seventh-round draft pick signed a four-year, $2,337,301 contract and has a total cap hit of $539,325 for 2016 and dead money of just $42,976. Rehab, said Ekpre-Olomu, is now behind him and that he’s working on “getting back [his] explosiveness and getting back into football shape,” in preparation to play this season. But will that be in Cleveland? Ideally, the Browns’ coaches would want to see how he responds to on-field workouts before making the final decision, but there are difficult choices that must be made at the cornerback position that could force their hand earlier. The amount of cash sunk into Gilbert thanks to the former regime’s draft decisions could have numerous negative repercussions for other cornerbacks currently on the roster; either that, or Jackson and Horton are comfortable enough with who they have now that subtractions and additions may not prove necessary.
There is only one Browns cornerback set to hit free agency this year—Johnson Bademosi, who was often pressed into coverage duties more often in 2015 than he had in his previous three seasons in Cleveland. But Bademosi’s biggest asset is on special teams on kick and punt coverage, and that’s something they may still desire him to do this year. But Bademosi made $1,542,000 in 2015 and doesn’t seem destined for a similar payday in 2016, given what we know about his ability to do much more than special teams and the level of talent some of Cleveland’s other cornerbacks possess. It would not be surprising if he was allowed to hit the open market and played out the 2016 season for another team.
Cornerback is not a cut-and-dry position for the Browns. Though at least four, if not five of the corners currently under contract are at least promising, if not starting-capable, it truly depends on how the new coaching staff views these players more than how they were valued by its predecessor. On one hand, it looks like the Browns are set at cornerback; on the other, change can often strike even the most unlikely position group based on the needs of the system. But even if the team’s younger, cheaper corners are swapped out for younger and cheaper, still, the Browns will remain big spenders at the position, simply thanks to Haden and Tramon Williams combining for over $20 million of their cap space this year.