BEREA, Ohio -- Here is a bad sign for the Cleveland Browns: The team has more contract disputes (six) than wins (five) accumulated last season.
While Cleveland attempts to climb out of the basement in a highly competitive AFC North division, a half dozen starters (including the kicker) are skipping offseason workouts in hopes of getting a larger contract.
Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, safety Abram Elam, kicker Phil Dawson, pass-rush specialist Matt Roth and running backs Jerome Harrison and Lawrence Vickers were missing from the start of the Browns' organized team activities last week. (Editor's note: The Plain Dealer reported Thursday that Harrison "has been participating in organized team activities this week despite not signing his one-year tender.") Roth reportedly went as far as to request a trade from Cleveland, while Jackson and Elam have publicly made statements about their unhappiness. Everyone except Dawson is a restricted free agent and has yet to sign their one-year tender.
These are problems that Cleveland's new braintrust of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert must resolve before the start of the 2010 season. Although the players in question are solid, this power pair didn't draft any of them, and thus have no personal attachments to this group.
That makes the chances of Cleveland giving out various contract extensions to unhappy players even dicier, leading to this current standstill.
"You want them all to be here," Browns head coach Eric Mangini said at OTAs. "It's voluntary right now, and they have to make the decisions that they have to make. The thing that it does do for the guys that are here is it creates extra reps for them, which is positive because we do have quite a few guys [competing] at positions."
Will anyone get paid?
The last thing Cleveland's new regime wants to do is set a precedent for being pushovers.
The Browns recently gave in to Josh Cribbs' contract demands despite having three years left on his deal. Cleveland will pay its Pro Bowl kick returner a maximum of $18.5 million over the next three years in what is a good football and public relations move by the team.
But perhaps Cribbs' deal opened the door for other Browns to seek raises. Usually, when a team goes 5-11 the previous year, things are pretty quiet on the contract front. But Cleveland has more lingering contract disputes than most teams.
Based on recent comments, it appears Holmgren and Heckert are taking a hard-line stance.
"It's really not a big deal right now," Heckert told the Cleveland Plain Dealer during a recent speaking engagement. "First of all, it's not going to happen. It's like that with everybody. Normally when guys aren't happy with their contracts, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, 'Give me a new deal or trade me.'
"It's not the first time we heard it, and it's not going to be the last. It's part of it and we'll deal with it when the time comes."
It's challenging for Cleveland's new front office to determine a player's value because Holmgren and Heckert were not around. Mangini and his coaching staff certainly have insight. But other than that, the front office must rely on game film from previous seasons.
It should be noted that four of the six players with contract disputes -- Roth, Elam, Harrison and Vickers -- are represented by agent Drew Rosenhaus. That could make for an interesting tussle. Rosenhaus is extremely persistent in getting his clients more money, and he's not afraid to use all the tricks in the book to create as much leverage as possible.
Impact on the field
If the Browns had to field a team right now without five starters and their kicker, they would struggle.
Last week in OTAs, the Browns' secondary, which included two rookie safeties (Larry Asante and T.J. Ward), was torched by veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme. Former undrafted linebacker Jason Trusnik also started in place of Roth, and the backfield rotation was run by unproven players such as rookie Montario Hardesty and second-year player James Davis.
To fill in for Dawson, Cleveland brought in journeyman kicker Shaun Suisham, who was recently booted from the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. Dawson has been angling for a new contract since 2008.
"You know he wasn't here last year, either, and I know Tom talked about it the other day, the contract-related things," Mangini said of Dawson. "I'll let Tom continue to talk about that. We're continuing to move on with our special-teams install."
Where all of these contract disputes will lead is anyone's guess. The situation will get even more interesting next month when the Browns host their mandatory minicamp June 10-12.
But Cleveland already is at a talent deficit this season when it comes to matching up against the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Having contract issues with six key contributors this offseason certainly doesn't help bridge the gap.