CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – The autopsy on the 2021 season is underway in Berea.
Executive vice president of football operations and general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski are putting their heads together with their staffs to figure out what went wrong and how they can fix it this offseason to avoid another year of disappointment.
One of the primary guardrails of the Browns front office instituted by chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta is to retain their own talent.
Berry has done a solid job of that already by awarding contract extensions to Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Joe Bitonio and Wyatt Teller but his next challenge is to prevent talent from walking away in free agency this spring while continuing the trend of rewarding their own players and shoring up the roster.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much money, and more importantly, cap space available.
According to figures provided by the NFLPA, the Browns will be rolling over $10.598 million in unused cap space into 2022 – the fourth largest rollover behind Jacksonville ($25.676 million), Philadelphia ($17.652 million) and Denver ($11.282 million).
The cap is set to rise to $208.2 million, an increase of $25.7 million compared to the 2021 season, and according to Spotrac.com, the Browns are projected to have $26.968 million in room with their rollover when the new league year begins March 16.
Here’s a look at some of the difficult decisions of existing players that await Berry in the coming weeks and months.
Baker Mayfield – Mayfield’s disappointing fourth season all but eliminated the chances that he would be in line for a massive contract extension this offseason. He will go into the final year of his rookie deal that will pay him $18.858 million once again looking to prove that he is worthy of a big money commitment from the organization.
Berry and the Browns have said that it is their expectation that Mayfield will be their starting QB, and he would “bounce back” in 2022 but it would be malpractice for Berry to not quietly explore options to upgrade the position, however, the options are limited.
It seems unlikely Aaron Rodgers would be available or the Browns could get him. Russell Wilson could be traded so does Berry try to get in on that sweepstakes? Or Deshaun Watson? Kirk Cousins? Jimmy Garoppolo?
A trade feels like the most viable option because the list of pending free agents this spring are not appealing: Nick Foles, Mitchell Trubisky, Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Flacco among others, including former Browns Tyrod Taylor and Colt McCoy.
When Mayfield was selected first overall in 2018, the expectation was that we’d shelve starting quarterback concerns for years to come. Four years later, here we go again.
Case Keenum – Keenum costs a pretty penny for a backup that the Browns are reluctant to play. He won both of his starts this past season, but the Browns stuck with Mayfield, who struggled mightily playing with that torn labrum in his left shoulder and the offense suffered as a result.
Scheduled to make $6.5 million in salary and roster bonuses, Keenum will count $7.833 million on the cap in 2022. Releasing him would save $6.5 million in cap space.
Jadeveon Clowney – Clowney signed a one-year $8 million deal plus incentives last spring after being reluctant to sign with Cleveland the year before. It was a direct hit for Berry as Clowney was the perfect compliment to pair opposite of All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett.
Clowney was outstanding in the 14 games he played. He registered nine sacks, which earned him an additional $750,000 in incentives, to go with 19 QB hits, 11 tackles for loss plus a pair of batted passes and forced fumbles.
To Clowney’s credit, he made it no secret what his priorities would be when free agency hits for him again – money – when asked about his future following the season finale. This likely is Clowney’s last opportunity to get paid in a big way and it’s impossible to blame any player for attempting to cash in.
Berry would be smart to write the check.
David Njoku – We have done a complete 180 on our view of Njoku over the last few years. The 2017 No. 29 overall pick said during his exit interview with the media on Monday that he’d love to finish his career with the Browns, and he’s certainly earned the right to stay.
Njoku, who led the team with four receiving touchdowns this past season and was third in catches and yardage, just completed his rookie contract and has proven the last two years he’s a solid fit and can be a weapon, if used, within Kevin Stefanski’s tight end loving offense.
Austin Hooper – Speaking of tight ends, Berry’s first major free agent signing has been a big disappointment. The production vs. what they are paying him just doesn’t add up.
In two seasons with the Browns, Hooper has totaled 84 catches for 780 yards and seven touchdowns.
Hooper is scheduled to make $9.5 million and will count $13.25 million against the cap. Cutting him this offseason would create just $2 million in cap savings but might be worth it. If they hang onto him this year and wait to cut him until 2023, the cap savings would then be $5.25 million.
Jarvis Landry – Landry will be rather expensive in the final year of the five-year, $75 million contract he signed shortly after being acquired from Miami in 2018. He is scheduled to make $14.3 million in salary plus over $750,000 in roster and workout bonuses.
The cash isn’t necessarily a problem. His cap figure of $16.553 million is, meaning that a restructure and or extension would be required to keep him in Cleveland. Otherwise, Berry could opt not to pay the roster bonus, thus making him a free agent and freeing up just over $15 million in cap space.
D’Ernest Johnson – The Browns extended Nick Chubb through 2024 for three years and $36 million and Kareem Hunt received a two-year extension in 2020 through 2022 for $12 million.
Johnson has proven himself to be reliable when called upon. In 49 games, Johnson averages 5.3 yards per carry and is coming off his best season that saw him rush for 534 yards and three touchdowns.
Will they spend to keep the restricted free agent, who also contributes on special teams in the return game?
Jack Conklin – Conklin missed 10 games this past season due to injury and there’s a chance the right tackle could become a cap casualty.
Conklin is slated to be paid $12 million in the final year of the three-year $42 million contract he signed as a free agent in 2020 and is a $15 million hit on the cap for 2022. Releasing him would reduce the cap charge by $6 million to $9 million in dead cap.
JC Tretter – Tretter is also entering the final year of his contract and is set to make $7.9 million next season. Set to be a $9,875 million cap charge, the Browns could save $8.25 million in cap space.
With 2020 fifth-round pick Nick Harris waiting in the wings, moving on from Tretter would not be a surprise.
Rebuilding the defense – Six starters and key contributors are slated to become unrestricted free agents: defensive tackle Malik Jackson, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, linebackers Anthony Walker Jr. and Malcolm Smith, cornerback M.J. Stewart and safety Ronnie Harrison Jr.
Who to keep, who to let walk and who to replace those that are allowed to walk with will keep Berry busy in March and April.
Denzel Ward – Ward, selected fourth overall in 2018, enters the final year of his rookie contract and he has also earned a big-time contract extension. Sure, health concerns remain prevalent, but when healthy Ward proved he remains among the best corners in the NFL after putting together his second Pro Bowl season.
Extending Ward isn’t a difficult decision. The challenge of fitting it within the cap and roster construction considering some of the questions Berry must answer – starting with quarterback – going forward won’t be easy.