By DraftBrowns Contributor, Ryan Alton
Greetings from Absentia! As many of you probably know, I had taken leave of Twitter for the sake of Lent but I couldn’t possibly sit idle without weighing in on All Things Browns as free agency simmers to a low boil. Honestly, being the non-practicing Catholic that I am, I’m finding this whole Lent thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and I’m fairly certain my pathetic attempt at suddenly discovering Will Power will soon cede to the forces of not-so-hot sports takes, sarcastic quips and hashtags. It’s only a matter of time. Until then, I remain ever thankful I still have a forum to espouse my thoughts. So on with it…
I do not like this Alex Mack situation one bit. No sir. Just before I made the knee-jerk decision to ban myself from Twitter, the Browns announced that they had placed the Transition Tag on Alex Mack. It was a bold, seemingly out-of-nowhere move that forced even the well-versed #NFL4Lifers to dust off their trusty pocket CBAs. From the beginning, I didn’t like the move. The tag, as we’re aware by now, gives the Browns the right to match any offer that Mack signs from another team in free agency. Considering the oodles of cap space the Browns
have had, this seemed like a shrewd (perhaps sneaky) ploy by the NEW-new brain trust in Berea to ensure one of the best players on the roster not be allowed to seek greener pastures on the open market.
On the surface, it seems brilliant. Slap on the tag, don’t allow Mack to become unrestricted, scare off other suitors with your ability to match any offer, watch the big money dry up in the first week of free agency, and ultimately convince Mack, if he wants the BIG money, his best bet is to re-sign with you. Genius! I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that was the play. And it may eventually go that way. But as free agency rolls along, I’m finding I like the decision less and less.
When word first came down about the transition tag, I tweeted “I’m ok w/ tagging Mack with the caveat they better sign him long-term. If they pay him $10 mill this season and then he walks, it’s stupid”. While saying “it’s stupid” wasn’t quite delivered with the eloquence I had intended, it’s the best I could do under the confines of 140 character limits. Two weeks later, I stand by what I said. Throwing $10 million out the window? Dumb. Stupid. Boo!
However, I’ve found my concern has grown as free agency has unfolded. With Mack’s agent, Marv Demoff via Peter King (whose agent is also Marv Demoff), making the rounds saying they have no intention of signing off on the tag anytime soon, it places the pressure back on the Browns to remain somewhat frugal in free agency. Because they can’t overspend on other players and then have to scramble to match any offer Mack brings to them, the Browns need to be very calculated in every step they take until the Mack situation is eventually resolved. In this respect, I feel like the Browns may have shot themselves in the foot, which seems silly considering the financial advantage they appeared to have had over other clubs heading into last week.
For now, the plan is working, as potential suitors for Mack seem to be falling by the wayside with each passing day; but that doesn’t help to ease my concerns with the situation the Browns have put themselves in with the Transition Tag. It appears that Mack is hell-bent on leaving one way or another. It seems like a waste to pay a guy $10 million for one season, only to lose him in the next. Meanwhile, that’s $10 million that can’t be spent on other free agents to help the team in the short-term, or on current Browns that will need to be re-signed in the near future to ensure success in the long-term. Unless Mack re-signs and stays in Cleveland, it just seems like such a waste.
Someone wise once told me: “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” With that ever-helpful piece of advice in mind, I can think of two other routes I would’ve much rather seen the Browns take with Alex Mack.
Option 1. Forget the transition tag and put the franchise tag on him. As ludicrous as this once sounded, to pay a Center the average of the Top 5 Left Tackles in the NFL for one season, at least the Browns would’ve gotten compensation in return if Mack signed with another team. Also, seeing as another team would’ve had to give the Browns two first round picks to sign Mack, any threats by Demoff or other teams to sign him would be virtually non-existent. The absence of having to worry about matching whatever offer Mack receives on the market alone would’ve been worth the extra million or so the Browns would’ve had to pay if Mack signed the Franchise Tag. They would still run the risk of losing him next year, and at a steeper price, but at least they wouldn’t have the added problem of Demoff holding their cap space hostage for the next four months. (Mack has until July 22 to sign the transition tag or accept a long-term deal with a club.)
Option 2. Let Mack walk and use that $10 million to sign another center (or draft one with one of the TEN picks they have) and maintain the flexibility to do whatever else you choose in free agency. Though the Browns have signed several players and did an admirable job plugging holes thus far in the player signing period, I can’t help but feel like they missed the boat on some guys due to the looming situation with Mack. I can’t stand the fact that a team with so much cap space seems to have hindered their own ability to use it because they made the choice to give Mack and his agent the leverage via the transition tag. In my opinion, it defeats the purpose of having the tags, which were designed to allow teams to have the power to keep their best players. But if the best player doesn’t want to stay with his team (and Mack clearly does not), then the team has to accept reality and do what’s best for them in the long-term. Instead, it feels as though the team has hamstrung itself in the short-term and will only lose the player in the long run anyway. It just doesn’t make much sense to me. But then again, there’s probably a reason I don’t work for the Browns or any other professional sports franchise for that matter.
And now for the rest of my thoughts on the Browns and free agency…
The Browns got MILDLY better and MILDLY older for MILDLY more money. I haven’t been on Twitter but I’ve had my ear to the ground and I imagine the drumbeat to the sound of the narrative goes something like this… “The Browns just overpaid for older players when they could’ve just paid Ward and D’Qwell and addressed other needs!” Amirite? I figured. Here’s another angle… The Browns paid more to acquire players who are better at what the Browns want players at those positions to do. And oh, those players happen to be marginally older than the players who were here before. *shrugs* I’m sure you’ve seen the individual player comparisons by Pro Football Focus by now, so I’ll spare you. But it’s clear that Karlos Dansby at 32 is better than D’Qwell Jackson at 30. And what the Browns are losing in run defense with 27 year old TJ Ward, they are making up for in coverage with 28 year old Donte Whitner. And let’s not forget the ever so popular, “it’s a passing league” mantra of late. Because it’s true.
Here’s the other problem with the “It’s the Browns, so it sucks” company line… the players who were here before were part of a losing culture that the Browns are trying to change. I’m not saying that those players are directly responsible for the inability of the team to find its way out of the doldrums, but it’s clear that nothing TJ Ward nor D’Qwell Jackson brought to the table was enough to overcome perpetual 11 and 12 loss seasons. Not only will Whitner and Dansby bring a new attitude to the defense, but they will bring a winner’s mentality instead of whatever had been here before. That alone may be worth the price of their services. Of course, it’s March, and none of this really matters for another six months. But for now, I’m calling upgrade for sure.
Fly Baby Hawk, fly. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Cincinnati Bengals for letting it be known they would gladly match the offer the Browns supposedly had on the table for Restricted Free Agent Wide Receiver Andrew Hawkins a few days ago. In actuality, there had not been an offer yet but somehow parameters of a deal leaked and the Bengals were quick on the draw to say they would match. Unfortunately for them, this allowed the Browns to reassess their offer to Hawkins and restructure it before it became official. (The Browns would not have been able to restructure once the offer was signed, sealed and delivered to the league office.) Once the new deal was completed, flush with front-loaded money the Bengals would be fools to match, Hawkins signed the deal and the Browns submitted it to the league. Officially. The Bengals still have until Tuesday to match the deal, and they may, but it’s hard not to snicker at the thought that their immediate response to the incomplete deal allowed the Browns to see their hand and sweeten the pot so that the Bengals will have a difficult decision to make in the coming days.
In the end, I really hope the Browns land Hawkins. He is a dynamic playmaker who can excel in space as a slot receiver. He is far more than a straight line runner, which the Browns already possess in third-year receiver/returner Travis Benjamin. (Sorry Donte, Benjamin means no Ted Ginn Jr.) Painfully underutilized in Cincinnati under former Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden, I can’t wait to see what wrinkles Kyle Shanahan can install in his offense to get the ball to Hawkins in space for the Browns. Fingers crossed, the Bengals decide to sit this hand out.
Looking forward. Through three days, it’s hard to not like what the Browns have been able to do in Free Agency thus far. I’m not doing backflips but I hope that they are able to, despite the Alex Mack albatross, add some additional pieces now that the market has settled a bit. The signing of Ben Tate would be welcomed, though with his injury history, I imagine it doesn’t preclude them from drafting a running back in the mid to late rounds. Additionally, I’d like to see them add a cornerback to compete for the spot opposite Joe Haden and an offensive guard to solidify the interior of the line. Unfortunately, it seems anyone with the ability to come in and start right away has been snatched up elsewhere. But I won’t mind if the Browns find it more advantageous to add positional depth at bargain basement prices while looking to the draft to add the talent to build a contender for the long-term.
Of course, the jury is out how each collected piece will fit into the grand scheme of things. We’re at the point where we’ve seen big names come to Cleveland in free agency only to flame out and never materialize into the hopes we’ve shared for each of them. All I can do is pray this time is different and that somehow, the moves made from this “most crucial off-season”, from the owner on down, pay dividends when it matters most. And if I’m praying, then perhaps I should stick to my Lenten pledge. Thanks for reading and Go Browns!