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Cleveland Browns Salary Cap: An In-Depth Preview for 2017

It's 2017 and the NFL's business season is approaching. Which means it is as good a time as any to take a look at where the Cleveland Browns stand, financially, and what may be ahead for their big stash of cash.

The Cleveland Browns have the most interesting salary cap situation in the entire NFL heading into the 2017 offseason. No team has more money to spend and yet is among a short list of teams never guaranteed to spend a majority of their cap space. No team is younger. And with the league’s Business Season rapidly approaching, it’s good to have an understanding of the Browns’ salary cap status, as fascinating—and surprisingly uncomplicated—as it is.

Technically speaking, the Browns have up to $218,123,269 to spend this year (not counting the Jamie Collins contract, the actual per-year breakdown still yet to be released). That is comprised of the $168 million per-team cap that all 32 NFL clubs will be afforded this year, plus Cleveland’s rollover salary cap space of $50,123,269. 

Of course, a chunk of that money is already spoken for, by the way of active contracts. The Browns currently have $106,225,351 in cap commitments via active contracts in 2017, though it must be emphasized that this amount will fluctuate significantly between now and the September date in which the roster must be reduced to 53 men. The Browns also have another $5,261,546 wrapped up in dead money, or the remainder of guaranteed money on the contracts of released players. There are 12 such players currently carrying dead money into 2017 on the Browns’ books, but again, this is a number that can, and likely will, increase as players are released in the coming months. That totals $111,486,897 currently accounted for—the operative word being currently.

Just the Collins contract alone will shift the arrow on these numbers, though not to such a significant degree that the Browns will be hamstrung from spending on their own or outside free agents, extending the contracts of current players or paying their draft picks. The Browns simply have too much money. But it is good to at least have an estimated accounting-for of what Collins could cost against the salary cap in 2017.

His deal is worth a reported four-year $50 million, with $26 million in guaranteed money, giving him an average per-year salary of $12.5 million per year, the highest among active interior linebackers. But, of course, $12.5 million per year is a pipe dream; Collins will cost the Browns no less than $26 million (barring a future trade) but there’s no guarantee he’ll cost (and thus make) more. But assuming Collins has a $12.5 million cap hit this year, that takes the Browns’ assumed, at-present cap space at $84,136,372. However, it’s more than likely that Collins’ deal is front-loaded, as is the norm in the league. Let’s say he has an actual 2017 cap hit of $15.5 million; that leaves the Browns with $81,136,372 in approximate cap space, based upon their current cap configuration.

What will be interesting to monitor is just how these numbers fluctuate over the next few months and why. The Browns, as noted, are a young team, which also means they are an inexpensive team. Yes, the Browns also have first-contract players who are first- and second-round draft picks (and will have five picks in the top 65 this year) who are thus not fiscally prudent to release. But later-round picks are not safe, especially not in a still-rebuilding situation. And neither are the glut of inexpensive veterans and undrafted free agent signings. Even established, pricier veterans are not immune to release this year.

Indeed, the Browns’ top-five players, in terms of 2017 cap hits (Collins excluded) are not necessarily tethered to the team this year from a financial perspective. They are, in order (again, Collins excluded), cornerback Joe Haden (cap hit of $14.4 million), left tackle Joe Thomas ($11.5 million), quarterback Robert Griffin III ($9.25 million), cornerback Tramon Williams ($7.5 million) and quarterback Josh McCown ($5,041,667). 

All of these players have far less dead money should they be released. Haden’s is $6.4 million, Thomas’ is zero dollars, Griffin’s is $1.75 million, Williams’ is $500,000 and McCown’s is $666,667. There are, of course, caveats to these numbers, by way of guarantees, either of the salary sort or the roster bonus sort. 

For example, Haden’s dead-money charge would rise to $10.4 million, as $4 million  of his $11.1 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed on February 8. Thomas’ rises to $2.5 million, by way of roster bonus, if he’s still on the roster as of March 13. Griffin will have another $750,000 roster bonus on his cap hit if he is still a Brown on March 11. Williams’ dead money will go up to $1.5 million by way of a $1 million roster bonus due on March 11. And McCown’s will go up by another $750,000 because of another March 11th-triggered roster bonus. 

If these dates pass without any moves made regarding these five players, the odds increase that they will still be in Cleveland for the 2017 season, though of course, nothing is guaranteed. With so much cap space on hand, the Browns can take dead-money hits that other teams could never dream of affording. 

There is also the matter of free agents to consider. Given the Browns’ youth-filled roster, the team doesn’t have very many pending unrestricted free agents, or players guaranteed to hit the open, free-agency market barring a new deal done with Cleveland. In fact, there are just five: Defensive lineman Stephen Paea, punter Britton Colquitt, offensive lineman Austin Pasztor, receiver Terrelle Pryor and safety Jordan Poyer. Of these, Pryor is clearly the biggest priority, followed by Poyer and perhaps Pasztor. 

Though nothing has been finalized yet between Pryor’s camp and the Browns, he could command somewhere in the $8 to $9 million range in per-year salary or otherwise be franchise tagged at nearly $16 million if the Browns are that interested in keeping him. Again, the money is there; it’s just a matter of the negotiations working out in a way that pleases all sides.

Cleveland also has five restricted free agents, with whom they must negotiate long-term deals, give RFA tenders to (ranging from a first-round tender, second-round tender or original-round tender, with zero compensation given to undrafted restricted free agents taken away by other teams if given the original-round amount). These amounts are not set yet, but should range from around $4 million for first-round tenders to $2 million for original-round tenders. These five players are cornerback Marcus Burley, running back Glenn Winston, long-snapper Charley Hughlett, running back Isaiah Crowell and receiver Josh Gordon (granted he ever gets reinststated by Roger Goodell, never, ever a given).

Of these players, Crowell is the one to keep an eye on in the coming months. If the Browns want to keep him and cannot get a contract hammered out—and according to Ian Rapoport earlier in January, the talks had then hit a stalemate. And just because Crowell was the team’s leading rusher in 2016 doesn’t mean the coaching or front office staffs are beholden to him. Anything is possible, including a retooling of the running back position via free agency and/or the draft. As with Pryor, Crowell’s status is TBD.

The Crowell and Pryor contract dramas are the biggest (as of now) to-watch storylines as they develop over the offseason; at least the Collins situation was hammered out before the hand-wringing became self-excoriation. But it’s also worth keeping an eye on where all of the Browns’ money does—or does not—flow in the weeks leading up to the March 9 start of the 2017 league year, the weeks following it and up to and through the draft. There are numerous key dates to track, possible further roster shakeups to ponder. And there’s a very real question to answer: Just what will the Browns do with all that money?

(Key salary cap and contract data via unless otherwise noted.)

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