CLEVELAND, Ohio — Every now and again, a question pops up from a reader: Why do the Browns still have so much cap space?
According to overthecap.com, the Browns currently have the most cap space in the NFL. So, naturally, some fans and readers ask why they aren’t using it? Are they being cheap?
The short answer is no.
The long answer: There are a number of reasons the Browns still, after all their forays into the trade market and free agency over the last few seasons, carry so much cap space. Here are a few:
They have cost control at expensive positions
The biggest reason the Browns have so much flexibility is their best players at expensive positions are all still on rookie deals. Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett are all still playing on their first contracts and, in fact, only Garrett is currently eligible for an extension. (Players aren’t eligible for an extension until after their third season.)
Garrett is already in line to receive a big payday, even after his 2019 season was stunted by suspension. Ward, meanwhile, made a Pro Bowl his rookie season and the passer rating against Ward in coverage was 58.3 in 2019 according to Pro Football Focus, the tenth best in the league among corners. So he’ll get paid big money at some point, too — just not yet.
Mayfield acknowledged earlier this week the importance of his third season. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, both taken a year ahead of Mayfield, are in line for big-money extensions and a strong season by Mayfield means a payday isn’t far off for him, too. If a team believes they have their quarterback, they pay him, whether he’s won a Super Bowl like Mahomes or still carries some question marks.
The Browns can also add left tackle to this list, as Jedrick Wills will start at one of the league’s premier positions.
Eventually, this will flip. But the time to pay those bills hasn’t come yet, even if it’s looming. Nick Chubb is eligible for an extension after this season and is a free agent after 2021. Larry Ogunjobi is a free agent after this season. Greedy Williams was a second-round pick, so he has a four-year deal carrying through 2022.
You can drive yourself crazy worrying about the cap in 2023, but the point here is more about how many key players the Browns have who they consider core players and who are young and relatively cheap right now — and, in most cases, they couldn’t pay them right now if they wanted to.
Bad drafts and instability have meant lots of losing but not many big contracts
When the Browns exercised fifth-year options on Garrett and David Njoku this offseason, it was the first time they used the benefit on a homegrown player since they picked up Phil Taylor’s option, who they drafted in 2011.
The Browns simply haven’t picked many players worthy of extensions and big money over the years. After Taylor, the first-round selections have been Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden in 2012, Barkevious Mingo in 2013, Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel in 2014, Danny Shelton and Cam Erving in 2015 and Corey Coleman in 2016. None of those players merited big-money extensions and none of them are even still on the teams they joined after leaving Cleveland — if they remained in the league at all.
Meanwhile, when the Browns have extended players they’ve drafted, it hasn’t always worked out. Christian Kirksey struggled with injuries his last two years in Cleveland and is now in Green Bay. Duke Johnson was traded to Houston last season, a little over a year after signing his extension. Joe Haden signed a big extension in 2014, but was released right before the start of the 2017 season.
Joel Bitonio has been a rare win, a second-round pick in 2014 who signed a five-year extension in 2017 and is one of the rocks along the offensive line and one of the leaders in the locker room.
Meanwhile, constant turnover in the front office and coaching ranks has often led to a roster cleansing followed by a stunted rebuilding plan. There’s no excuse for letting a player like Mitchell Schwartz walk away, but it happened in 2016 following a front office and coaching shakeup and the Browns have only now found a suitable replacement.
Would a player like Joe Schobert have received a reasonable extension if not for a regime change in the middle of his breakout seasons? Maybe, but instead, he left in free agency.
Even when the Browns have had wins in the draft worthy of extensions, outside factors have made it so those players — outside of a select few — got rich and found success in other uniforms.
They have still managed to add high-priced players
The reality is the Browns have added players in various fashions who make a lot of money. In 2017, they paid big dollars for right guard Kevin Zeitler and also added center JC Tretter, who signed an extension last season ranking fifth among center in average per year, according to Over the Cap. We mentioned the Bitonio extension earlier.
In 2018, they acquired Jarvis Landry and gave him a 5-year, $75 million extension. A year later they acquired Odell Beckham Jr., meaning they now have nearly $30 million tied up in two receivers. They also added Olivier Vernon, who will make more than $15 million in this final season of his contract.
Sheldon Richardson signed a 3-year, $37 million contract last season. This offseason, the Browns paid a premium to add Austin Hooper at tight end and Jack Conklin at right tackle.
These are just the players who have worked out. There are others the team has spent to add who haven’t, like Kenny Britt in 2017, who signed a four-year, $32.5 million contract.
Rolling over space
Because of the makeup of the roster and the decision to jettison high-priced players and focus on acquiring assets in 2016, the Browns always had leftover cap space to roll over. To simplify, it means they’ve had the ability to raise the amount they could spend by taking unused cap space and pushing it to the next year. As an example, they had $56.6 million to roll over from 2018 to 2019.
It’s the fuzzy math world of the NFL salary cap and the Browns have used it to ensure they’ve had plenty of money available to play in free agency.
What does it mean?
Well, it means the Browns don’t have so much cap space for lack of trying. They simply went to the extreme in building a young roster which, in the modern NFL, also means cost control.
And, let’s be honest, the best way to build a roster is through the draft, developing your own talent and then paying to retain it. The Browns haven’t drafted well enough to follow that model until recent years.
The good news: if you want to see this team really spend, it’s coming and it will happen thanks to the development of young talent which will, hopefully, translate to wins.
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