It's Miller Time

You've seen the Owl. Perhaps it was out of the corner of your eye, as he soared above the playing field late on a Sunday night. He is often in the shadows... but sees everything. Like wisened birds of storytales, this Owl is respected for his wisdom. <BR><BR>Bernie's Insiders is happy to provide The Owl a perch to land on and we listen carefully as he tells us what he has seen on his flights around Cleveland, Berea, and darker places. Welcome, Owl.

When it comes to contracts, general managers in the National Football League and agents representing players always seem to negotiate by the slogan: Don't do today what can be put off until tomorrow.

The college draft occurs the third weekend in April. April expires, May withers and June swoons before agents and a team's front office gets down to the serious business of getting rookies into camp.

Now another deadline is approaching. All NFL teams must be at or under the salary cap of $74 million by March 3, the day before teams can begin bidding on free agents.

The Browns are in a tight spot. They are $21 million over the salary cap. The calculation includes salaries and bonuses due in 2003, plus incentives earned on 2002 contracts. They must be under the cap to sign free agents.

Historically, the best players are snatched up in the first two weeks of free agency. It is the one exception to the "Don't do today what can be put off until tomorrow" rule because the players being sought don't belong to the pursuing team, and usually more than one team is bidding on a dominant player.

So what will the Browns do to lop $21 million off the payroll and still maintain the core of the team that made the playoffs in 2002? It all starts with Jamir Miller.

When Miller balked at his 2002 contract last summer, the Browns pacified him by including a $14 million roster bonus due Feb. 28 of this year. Both parties knew Miller would never see that money in the present contract because the contract expires after 2003. Since the contract already called for the Browns to pay him $3.975 million, his salary cap number would be close to $18 million.

The Browns need Miller. They missed his leadership as much as his 13 sacks from 2001 while he mended from a torn Achilles tendon while on injured reserve all of the 2002 season.

Miller, only 29 despite playing eight seasons (not counting last year) could get his huge signing bonus in the form of a seven-year, $30-million contract. He could be paid the league minimum for veterans - $750,000 - in 2003. Dividing the $14 million signing bonus over the seven years would mean Miller would count only $2.75 million against the cap this year.

The risk to the Browns is that Miller is an unknown because of the injury. All reports are he has made a complete recovery from the torn Achilles, but he hasn't had contact, hasn't been in full pads and has not tested it in game conditions.

More than likely, the Browns will release Miller and see what he can get on the open market. Miller owes the Browns no loyalty. If he gets an offer from another team, particularly one in a warm-weather city, he can sign without giving the Browns a chance to match or better it.

Can the Browns take that risk? They certainly have not produced anybody to replace Miller. Ben Taylor, a rookie in 2002, was injured so often in his first season the coaches can't be sure how good he can be.

This one is going to be a tough call for Coach Butch Davis. If he believes Miller can still play, the money situation can be worked out - even if it means releasing Miller first. If Davis is unsure, the Browns will hunt for a new strongside linebacker.

GIVE SOME BACK - Look for prominent players to be asked to give up money due in 2003, including the two players on the team taken with the first pick in the draft in 1999 and 2000 - quarterback Tim Couch and defensive end Courtney Brown.

Couch has a salary cap figure of $7.95 million. Brown's is even higher at $8.17 million.

Couch has already said he is willing to bend to help the Browns get under the salary cap. Brown has not made the same stance publicly, but a lack of productivity by Brown makes it difficult for him to squawk.

Because of nothing but bad luck and injuries, Brown has played in only 16 of the last 32 games. He has played in 32 games over three seasons and has just 11 career sacks. A defensive end can't be measured in sacks alone, but Brown's quarterback pressures were down in 2002 as well. He had 19 pressures in five games in 2001 and 12 in 11 games in 2002 before a knee injury put him out of commission.

The Browns could simply cut salaries of Brown, Couch and linebacker Dwayne Rudd, or they could give them a chance to earn the money back in incentives.

The one danger of incentive-heavy contracts is sooner or later, that money comes due. That's when teams have to dismantle and rebuild.

BETTER ON THE LEFT? - It has become apparent after two seasons that rushing the passer is not Brown's strength. It was a good try, but it did not work. Since Brown is a superb run defender, Butch Davis might consider putting him back at left end, the position Brown played as a rookie when he made 85 tackles.

Most teams run to the offensive right. If Brown is back on the left side and Miller is rushing the passer from the right, the Browns will be better defensively than they were last season.

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