Nobody would doubt that Andrew Berry has a well-detailed, long-term plan for the Cleveland Browns.
And at the risk of woefully under-explaining what it is, here is how it seems to be falling into place.
Berry drafts players who stick on the roster and contribute for most of their initial contract years.
He rewards a core of star players with generous contracts to play in Cleveland for years.
— PFF (@PFF) March 18, 2022
Inexpensive veterans on short deals fill the holes until he has enough drafted players that he doesn’t have holes.
If he drafts too many stars, there could be some turnover when each draft class comes due for extensions.
So he leaves some negotiating room by short-changing the tail end of the stars’ contracts.
And “short-changing,” means making the final year cap-friendly so he can cut or trade someone painlessly.
Averting Crisis in 2023
Cleveland has only 9 players under contract past 2022 at a rate of over $5 million per year.
They range from John Johnson’s $11.25 million to Deshaun Watson’s $46 million.
But in every case, the cap hit and the dead cap hits are worth more than the average salary.
This is part of the reason Cleveland is already $13 million over the anticipated 2023 salary cap.
— Brad Ward (@WardonSports) July 14, 2020
And they need to sign at least a few more players to complete their 2023 roster.
To be certain, $55 million per year for a quarterback was not part of the original plan.
But Berry has an emergency response ready, which is why the team is not adding free agents in 2022.
Cleveland will need to roll over an awful lot of salary cap space to avoid some serious pain next year.
Can Berry Carry Cap Space Into 2024?
Berry’s Browns are already over the 2024 salary cap, too, with almost a third of the roster to be found.
But the team has far more options because 6 of the 9 most expensive contracts are cap-friendly.
John Johnson’s contract actually expires, making the development of Richard LeCounte somewhat pressing.
Releasing or trading 5 other players saves a collective $55 million against the 2024 cap.
The Cleveland Browns are in agreement with Denzel Ward on a 5-year, $100.5 million contract extension, per multiple reports. pic.twitter.com/Tg0PFnoDao
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) April 18, 2022
But that is not an ideal solution when those players are named Garrett, Chubb, Cooper, Njoku, and Teller.
Berry can save more by releasing some players with a June 1st designation, a la Austin Hooper.
But that entails an accelerated dead cap hit in the following season.
Rolling over residual cap dollars from 2023 or even 2022 is a better plan.
2 Contracts of Concern For Berry
Cleveland could enter the next 3 seasons atypically under water versus the salary cap.
And Berry might need to make some unpopular personnel decisions to maintain a playoff-worthy roster.
It sounds awful now, but if Jerome Ford becomes a star, saving $12 million on Nick Chubb is more palatable in 2024.
Denzel Ward’s deal offers cap savings of $16 and $21 million in its final 2 seasons.
✍️ We have signed G Wyatt Teller to a 4-year contract extension.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) November 9, 2021
But that happens in 2026 and 2027, meaning Ward’s salary will be carried through the critical 2024 and 25 seasons.
And of course, Deshaun Watson’s 100% guaranteed contract hits the Browns with $55 million against each cap.
But it also carries all remaining dollars in dead cap ($220 million in 2023) if Watson is cut or released.
Trading either Ward or Watson still leaves Cleveland with significant dead cap hits, but substantial savings, too.
Worth Worrying About?
Our exercise here is over-simplified and if anyone can adapt on the fly, it is Andrew Berry.
Every year we see “cap-strapped” teams pull off big deals or hand out expensive extensions.
Another reason 2024 is a key date is that Berry’s initial draft class is due for their second contract.
Players like Donovan Peoples-Jones and Grant Delpit will expect hefty raises to remain in Cleveland.
— Sportskeeda Pro Football (@SKProFootball) May 27, 2022
And if any of those players reach a Myles Garrett-like status, something might have to give.
Speaking of Garrett, his contract hits the cap to the tune of $29 million in 2023 and stays close to that for 3 more years.
But Berry can save $9 million in 2024, $16 million in 2025, or $25 million in 2026 by letting him go.
And nobody wants to discuss that possibility.