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Browns money guide: How to manage $53 million in cap space

2/27/2015

CLEVELAND -- Having a healthy salary cap is the NFL equivalent to having too much oatmeal, or having too many jackets in the winter.

Nice, sensible, necessary, not overly exciting.

If Cleveland Browns fans are looking for good news after a brutal two months, it’s this -- a team with a pretty good roster has $53,777,486 in cap space as of this week, according to ESPN stats and info. The Browns have a cap value of $106,604,471, with the adjusted cap value sitting at $161,908,285.

With help from J.I. Halsell (@SalaryCap101), a former Redskins salary-cap analyst, here is Cleveland’s exact spending situation:

As it stands (before player cuts and new signings), the Browns must spend roughly $71 million in cash over the next two years to be compliant with the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Why?

Because the CBA requires NFL teams to spend at least 89 percent of the cumulative salary caps from 2013-16, which, for the Browns, projects to $492.17 million in spending by the end of the 2016 league year.

How much have the Browns spent during that span?

To date, Cleveland has spent or committed to $420.99 million. Splitting in half, the Browns could spend $35.5 million in each of the next two years. Or, if they are feeling aggressive, spend a cool $50 million before September. The Browns likely want a larger cushion of space for next year.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the Browns are entering March with plans to spend about $40 million in the next eight months. There is a reasonable plan for such spending. All free agency deals are one-year totals while assuming the signing bonus is prorated over the length of the deal.

Rookie draft picks: $7.9 million.

This takes into account the Browns’ two first-round picks and the rest of the lot. This is essentially money all teams must pay, give or take a few picks.

Free agent quarterbacks: $8 million.

Sorry, Sam Bradford fans. Don’t expect the Rams to part with him without at least a second-round pick in their hands, maybe more. I’m not expecting the Browns to offer more than a third. They want to stay true to the build-through-the-draft plan.

There is no obvious home run out there, so the Browns will do what they can -- $4 or million for Josh McCown, maybe $5 million for Brian Hoyer, or $6 million for Ryan Mallett. The Browns have discretion here, but no quarterback will command enough to stress the team's books.

Splashy free agent signing: $8-9 million -- Buffalo outside linebacker Jerry Hughes

Mike Pettine is a fan of Hughes, who acquitted himself well against Joe Thomas in the Bills' Week 13 win against Cleveland. Thomas had three penalties in that game. Pettine, a former Buffalo coordinator, spent one season with Hughes, who seems the perfect complement to Paul Kruger's strength game and Barkevious Mingo's lateral speed.

In this case, filling the outside linebacker need in free agency allows the Browns to attack nose tackle, wide receiver, and tight end high in the draft.

If Hughes commands $10 million a year, that is probably too steep for a draft-precedent team. Getting him for $8 million would be a win for the Browns.

(Free agent fallback: Baltimore WR Torrey Smith at $7-8 million)

Restricted free agent tenders: $6 million

The restricted tender numbers aren’t out yet, but my guess is a first-level tender -- a placeholder where an opposing team must relinquish a first-round pick to cut a deal with the player -- will be somewhere in the $3.5 million range, with a second-level tender around $2.4 million, and a third-level in the $1.5-million range (just projections).

If the Browns truly believe safety Tashaun Gipson is a cornerstone in the defensive backfield, they will either slap him with a first-round tender or cut a long-term deal now. If the Browns give him a second-level deal, no doubt Gipson’s camp will shop him around.

Linebacker Craig Robertson could get a second-level tender. Both players are valued, and it makes sense to keep them.

In-house free agents: $7.5 million -- Cornerback Buster Skrine at $5 million a year (possibly higher) and Miles Austin at a one-year, $2.5-million deal.

Coaches have made clear they would like Shrine to return. Skrine will have a good market, but the Browns should be able to make a competitive play for him.

Austin would be a reasonable re-sign. The offense was better with him in the lineup.

Otherwise, I’m suspecting the team will let most free agents walk.

Special teams: $2 million for Ted Ginn

Give Ginn, an effective returner and Cleveland native, a two-year deal with a couple of million up front in signing and roster bonuses.

Total cap spending: $40.4 million

Bottom line: The Browns could spend on a receiver, but it’s hard to imagine Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb or Jeremy Maclin leaving their current spots. Smith might command closer to $8-9 million, a bit pricey for the Browns’ taste. Hughes is a safer play. Draft a receiver in the first and fourth rounds, re-sign Austin, and ride with what you have.