There were some monumental failures that took place under the watch of former Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer that won’t be forgotten for a good while, even if what grows from the experience—the housecleaning that followed the 2015 season—makes the franchise better in the long term. But there was the possibility that Farmer could have added one more poor decision to the list and luckily for the Browns he managed to avoid it—though he tried hard enough to try to make it happen.
This would be the failed pursuit to re-sign tight end Jordan Cameron in 2015.
Cameron, a Browns’ fourth-round draft pick in 2011, came to prominence not based on his contract-year performance in 2014 but rather his production in 2013. After two years of catching just 50 percent of the passes thrown his way and scoring one touchdown, he broke out in his third season, catching 80 passes on 118 targets for 917 yards and seven scores, earning him a Pro Bowl nod. He had a productive year despite the Browns cycling between three quarterbacks.
Though his 2014 was not as good—he went back to being a 50-percent catcher (literally: He caught 24 of 48 pass targets) and had 424 receiving yards and two touchdowns—much of that was, at the time, explained away by his numerous injuries. Cameron missed six games that season with shoulder issues and concussions but it was widely assumed that a healthy Cameron would regain that 2013 form in short order.
The Browns were definitely free-agency players for Cameron’s services, trying numerous times to get the tight end to agree to a long-term deal to have him remain in Cleveland. But tight end frenzy is real in today’s NFL and Cameron was among a number of higher-profile players at the position to hit free agency in 2015. Others included Julius Thomas, Charles Clay, Owen Daniels, Lance Kendricks and Jacob Tamme. There were many flavors of players at the position but teams in need would doubtlessly hone in on the one or two that interested them the most. Cameron was also among the youngest of the group, making him even more attractive.
The Browns made overtures, nearly to the point that a new deal was considered all but done. But the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills both had interest in him; ultimately, Cameron chose the Dolphins and the Bills landed former Dolphin Clay. The Browns, meanwhile, planned for Jim Dray, Gary Barnidge and Rob Housler (who never panned out as intended, then landed on injured reserve and later released) to hold down the tight end position for 2015. And it was all for the best: Barnidge broke out, earning himself a contract extension, while Cameron floundered with his new team. Yet again, he caught 50 percent of his passes (35 on 70 targets) for a mere 386 yards and three scores.
But it isn’t just Cameron’s performance, nor the increasing evidence that Cameron’s 2013 was the exception rather than the rule that led to this being an accidental bullet dodged by Farmer, but rather the deal that Cameron agreed to with the Dolphins, one that was not dissimilar to the one the Browns offered him. Cameron’s contract with the Dolphins was a two-year deal worth a maximum of $15 million and had—wait for it—$12.5 million in guaranteed money. Where have we heard that number before? Oh yes: The Dwayne Bowe deal that Farmer put together that very same spring, one of the worst thought out contracts given any player in recent years.
Had Farmer succeeded in keeping Cameron in Cleveland, it would have set off a cascade of dominoes that would lead to the current regime having yet another mess of his to clean up or manage. Cameron would have remained the primary pass-catching tight end in 2015, shouldering out Barnidge for touches. That, in turn, would have prevented Barnidge from having his strong season and there would have been no reason for his new contract. The Browns (sans Farmer and company) would then have to decide what to do about Cameron: Cut him, as they did Bowe, and add another few million in dead cash to their salary cap or be forced to let him play out the final year of his deal knowing that he’s not worth the money (this year, Cameron will be making $8 million and that would have been $9.5 million had he not agreed to a $1.5 million salary reduction).
While that’s a lot of hypothetical thinking, it is clear that Cameron hasn’t been worth the money that was being thrown at him as a free agent just over a year ago. Farmer, of course, is not absolved in this situation simply because he failed to get the deal done; after all, he was trying to get Cameron to sign an equally absurd deal as the one ultimately handed to him by Miami. But it does mean that the new regime, one so focused on the future, doesn’t have to assess yet another bad, financially expensive decision made in the past and try to ameliorate it.