The OBR’s positional reviews of the Cleveland Browns’ current roster continued over the weekend with linebackers, which means it’s now time to take a look at what the linebackers are set to presently cost the team in 2016. Indeed, the Browns’ linebacking corps is one of the most expensive positional groups for the team, second only to cornerbacks in total cap hit for the year. Cleveland is currently scheduled to pay out $21,757,013 to the linebackers on the roster as of Monday—a number guaranteed to rise to some degree after the details of Tank Carder’s new contract become public and if Scott Solomon does decide to sign his seventh-round restricted free agent tender.
Three contracts are the reason why the Browns have the ninth-most money committed to linebackers—those of Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo. Kruger’s cap hit is the highest in 2016, at $7.7 million, with a $6.5 million salary and a $1.2 million signing bonus. Because, as is typical, the bonus is prorated and Kruger’s contract expires in 2018, it would cost the team only $2.4 million to release him, something that seemed a possibility at the end of the 2015 season. But with Ray Horton back as defensive coordinator, Kruger has added on-field value to the Browns’ defense that he didn’t have under Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil, who tried to convert Kruger to a coverage linebacker with disappointing results. Horton, though, will restore Kruger to the pure pass-rusher he was signed to be in 2013, which will not only boost his standing on the defense but also assure that he won’t be a cap casualty this offseason after all.
The 34-year old Dansby, with his $6.5 million total cap hit for 2016, should also stick around for at least one more year if not play out his contract in its entirety (he is also set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2018). Though an elder statesman of Cleveland’s defense, Dansby has established himself as a locker room leader as well as a highly capable inside linebacker. He led the Browns in tackles in 2015, with 108 combined, and has also fared well in coverage, with six passes defensed last season and three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. While the cap savings would be considerable by releasing him now, it makes more financial and roster sense to wait until 2017 at the earliest to do so, when his cap hit is again $6.5 million but his dead money charge is just $1.5 million.
Mingo, meanwhile, has one season left to prove that the Browns were not mistaken by drafting him in Round 1 of the 2013 draft. While a fifth-year option is potentially in the cards for him, the Browns will not use it unless he proves he’s worth it, which has been a difficult task to achieve in his previous three seasons. Though considered a highly capable linebacker in coverage, Pettine was reluctant to give Mingo much playing time in 2015. This should change with Hue Jackson in charge of the team and Horton in control of the defense, something that would justify the just over $5.2 million cap hit he’s set to cost the Browns this year.
The inside linebacker position is currently rounded out by Christian Kirksey, the team’s Round 3 draft pick in 2014, and Carder, signed to a new contract on Monday. The terms of Carder’s deal, as noted, has not been released as of this writing, though a three-year deal with no more than $2 million in yearly cap hit seems to be a good estimate of his value, both as a linebacker and special-teamer. Kirksey, meanwhile, has two seasons left on his current contract and will make $815,625 this year, with $650,000 of that in salary. His cap hit does rise to $931,125 in 2017, with just $165,625 in dead money, a financial note to keep in mind for next year.
Aside from Kruger and Mingo, the Browns have four other outside linebackers on the books for 2016—Solomon, who was given an RFA tender on Monday, Nate Orchard, Armonty Bryant and Cam Johnson. Solomon’s seventh-round tender is worth $1,671,000 for 2016 if he signs it, which he should. This gives Solomon another chance to retain his “Bloodbath” nickname from last summer’s training camp that never bore much fruit in the regular season, slowed somewhat by an ankle injury that eventually landed him on injured reserve. Orchard, meanwhile, will try to become another coaches’ favorite as he was with the previous Browns regime, all while totaling a $1,015,069 cap hit for the year. Johnson, a December signing by the Browns to bolster their linebacker ranks after Solomon’s injury and Bryant being named inactive because of his Christmas morning arrest, is on the books for $525,000 this year but has no dead money. He could be cut depending on the coaches’ view of his talent level, though he may get a chance to participate in a few practices before they make that decision.
Of these linebackers, Bryant seems like the most likely candidate for release, given his four-game suspension for PED use to begin the 2016 season. The suspension is for a failed drug test, but his Christmas morning arrest for felony possession of the drugs Adderall and Oxycodone, a case that is still ongoing, could result in a longer ban by the NFL depending on the outcome. Bryant very well may be out of Cleveland by that time, though, given the Jackson regime’s low tolerance for illegal behavior and actions that hurt the team despite Bryant’s value as a pass-rusher. It won’t be a financial pain for the Browns to cut him, either, with Bryant set to earn $691,375 in 2016 and having zero dead money on his deal, thanks to Bryant’s seventh-round draft status and a contract with no guarantees.
The Browns have only one linebacker inching towards free agency— Craig Robertson —but all signs are pointing to the two sides reaching agreement on a new contract in short order. Robertson, who came to the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and made the 53-man roster in 2012, has been an increasingly improving player and an increasingly bigger part of the Browns’ defensive front. He was given a second-round restricted free agent tender in 2015, worth $2.356 million, which should be the jumping-off point in current contract negotiations. With the Browns possessing over $40 million in salary cap room, it should be no trouble to give Robertson a fair deal with strong signing bonus and salary guarantees. Look for him to earn around $3 million per season on average when the dust settles.
Linebacker is a position of relative strength for the Browns, though it must be noted that a lot of cash is wrapped up in a trio of players who will have changing responsibilities in 2016. It’s clear another pass-rusher is needed to assist Kruger, whether Bryant is still on the roster come September or not, and the quality of Cleveland’s depth, particularly on the outside, is something the team will have to address whether in free agency, the draft or both. There should be some movement in the payouts to linebackers this year as a result, but it shouldn’t result in drastic changes to the way the Browns spend money on the position.