Each and every year, NFL Draft analysts employ different methods to decipher which players NFL teams like the Cleveland Browns will target in the draft. These analysts evaluate current rosters, perform deep dives into their performances last season and search high and low for any leak or potential slip up of a general manager in an interview to determine who will be selected.
While all of these have worked in the past, a recent Process the Process podcast by Josh Norris of Rotoworld and NBC Sports presented another scenario. The featured guest of this podcast was Sigmund Bloom, who was discussing various philosophies of scouting and how he identifies potential players/positions teams could draft with Norris.
One particular method in this podcast stood out, as they mentioned (39 minute mark of the podcast) looking at “declining name brand” players who are in the age range of 29-31. The focus here was that while the team may appear to be locked down at a position with one of these players, once their guaranteed money is either completely paid or minimal, the team could look to move on from that player for a younger, cheaper option.
An important aspect of this concept is that it explains why teams will draft a player at a position that is not considered a need (picks that don’t make sense at the time) much earlier than anyone expected. The replacement of this player may not occur right away, but it could happen one to three years down the road.
With this concept in mind, I decided to look at the current Browns roster to see if there were any players who fit this description or could fit this description in the next few years. Some of the names on this list may not make sense now or make fans happy, but ultimately the NFL is a business and these decisions are made year in and year out.
Paul Kruger, OLB, 29-years old
Kruger is coming off year two of a five-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Browns back in 2013, which was also easily his best in terms of production with the franchise (11 sacks, up from 4.5 sacks in 2013). The deal included $19.95 million guaranteed (according to Spotrac), of which $6.28 million was paid in a 2013 roster bonus and another $6 million in the form of a signing bonus, of which $1.2 million per year is allocated.
With the majority of his guaranteed money coming early in the deal, Kruger will only be owed a guaranteed total of $2.4 million after the 2015 NFL season. If he is on the roster for those two seasons, he will be paid $13.5 million in base salary on top of that $2.4 million. Simply put, Kruger’s contract makes him replaceable in the near future.
Now that we have discussed Kruger’s contract, do not be surprised if the Browns look to address edge rusher in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. With two picks (Nos. 12 and 19), the Browns could end up with one of the top tier edge rushers in this draft class. Add in the fact that the team lost Jabaal Sheard in free agency, and it seems more and more like a likely scenario.
Even if Kruger continues at his pace from last season, the addition of a top tier edge rusher not forced into a high snap count early will only help the learning curve. And when Kruger’s contract expires following the 2017 season, it will allow the Browns to avoid paying top dollar to keep him at the age of 31/32.
Alex Mack, C, 29-years old
A year after giving Mack a five-year, $42 million contract with $26 million guaranteed ($18 million if he only stays two seasons), the Browns are in a different situation in regard to why they may be forced to draft a center in the 2015 NFL Draft. After slapping Mack with a transition tag last offseason, the offer sheet he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars included a player option following each season after 2015.
For this reason, the Browns absolutely need to get a player from this class with the ability of stepping in for Mack should he exercise this option or if he struggles coming back from injury. The Browns will have committed $18 million to Mack in two years after the 2015 season, so it will be important to have a cheaper option lined up should he decide to exercise that option and jump ship.
Desmond Bryant, DL, 29-years old
Like Kruger, Bryant was one of the prized signings of the 2013 free agency class. He inked a five-year, $34 million contract with $12 million guaranteed. The first two seasons of his contract paid base salaries of $2 and $3 million, but that jumps to $6 million in base in 2015 and 2016, and $7 million in 2017. Add in the signing bonus allocation of $1 million each season, and the Bryant cap number the next three seasons is $7 million, $7 million and $8 million.
Now, this is not a knock on Bryant’s performance with the Browns since he signed, but more of a focus on being able to replace a player at a much lower cap number after this season. The Browns would be on the hook for $2 million if they cut him after 2015, but they would save $13 million on his contract in 2016 and 2017.
With many people stating the Browns could add to their defensive line anyways, the future contract obligation to Bryant could be motivation to go out and draft someone as early as No. 12 if the right player is there.
Donte Whitner, S, 29-years old
A fan-favorite signing of the 2014 offseason, Whitner “coming home” was a major signing for the Browns. He signed a four-year, $28 million deal with $15.5 million guaranteed , with the majority of the guarantee coming in the first two years. Following the 2015 season, the Browns are only on the hook for $4.5 million (which is $2.25 million each year for his signing bonus).
It would be a wildly unpopular move given his physical nature and love for the city of Cleveland, but Whitner has cap hits of $8.45 million in 2016 and $8.55 million in 2017. $17 million over the course of two seasons could go a long way in order to extend young, core players (like Tashaun Gipson) entering their prime following the 2015 season. So if you see the Browns call the name of a physical safety on draft day, his growth over the course of the season could be a precursor to a potential Whitner release following the season.
Joe Thomas, OT, 30-years old
Cue the hate comments, which is why Thomas was saved for last. The perennial Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer is currently in the middle of a seven-year, $80 million contract that he signed with $44 million guaranteed. However, the guaranteed portion of his contract comes to an end after the 2015 season.
Unlike the others, Thomas isn’t on this list because of the potential to be cut, though.
He is scheduled to make base salaries of $8.3, $8.3 and $8.8 million from 2016-2018, with $1 million roster bonuses each season. Thus, if he is still at the top of his game, the Browns would be able to have one of the game’s top left tackles until he turns 34-years old for just under $30 million over the final three seasons of his contract, aka, a likely discount with the rate contracts will grow over that time period.
But history says Thomas will experience some sort of decline over the next couple of seasons, which is why the Browns could look to take a player with franchise left tackle upside to play right tackle the next few years. This would give this player the ability to learn from Thomas, while upgrading Mitchell Schwartz and potentially moving him inside to guard.
However, unless the Browns really think Thomas is going to decline this year, it would be more prudent to wait until next season or the year after to make this selection. With rookie contracts going for four or five seasons depending on the round, by the time the player would make eventually replace Thomas, it would be approaching the time when he could hit the open market, and the Browns would have to pay him big money to stay here.
This thought process is very good for team building, but it does not explain the draft process in later rounds, where teams likely take best player available on their board regardless of position. Instead, use this as a guideline for if the Browns draft a position that does not make sense right away in the early rounds (one through three).
Farmer and the Browns have plenty of other needs they should address early on in the draft, but if the right player is not available, do not be surprised if you see the front office planning for the future with this strategy.