We have now seen three big deals out of the new Cleveland Browns Front Office led by Andrew Berry with the free-agent signings of Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin as well as the contract extension of Myles Garrett.
The big positive and easy takeaway is that all three players signed for slightly less than many believed based on their market value. We are only talking about $1-2 million a year but that soon adds up across a roster. A win for any Front Office, especially a very new one which can’t request a discount as a trade-off for a chance at a ring based on past performances like Patriots, Saints or Chiefs.
The downside for the Browns on these deals is the structure that the players have gotten. All are very player-friendly deals, maybe this was the reason why they got signed, we will never likely know. Let’s take a look at all three, why they were player-friendly, and where Berry has taken his inspiration from.
Here we have the Austin Hooper deal from Over The Cap:
The first thing you will notice is that Hooper has five years listed but only a four-year deal with the Browns. This is because the team has created a void year at the end of the deal to spread the signing/option bonuses over five years rather than four. Here is some more information on void years from Over The Cap. Void years tend to be used by teams that are hard up against the salary cap to push extra salary cap commitments into the future. Effectively it is a buy now, pay later scheme but without any interest. The team creates a ‘fake’ year on the contract which just voids off automatically. While this might work great for the team, pushing salary cap into future years, the bigger benefit is actually for the player as his guarantees go later and are bigger on the back end of a deal, making him harder to cut/trade.
Hooper has a $10 million signing bonus which he gets straight away but is split equally across all five years on the salary cap. He then has a $7 million option bonus (second signing bonus effectively) in 2021 which splits equally over the remaining four years at this point. Regardless of if Hooper is extended and with the team in 2024, the Browns will have to account for $3.75 million against their salary cap for him.
If the Browns wanted to move on from Hooper after his third year with the team they would be left with a $7.5 million dead cap and only save $5.75 million in cap space. This makes it a very unlikely proposition, meaning Hooper has effectively got a fully guaranteed four year deal with the Browns. Based on the past history of free agency signings across the NFL this is a risky proposition, most signings turn out too bad, so to make such a big commitment to any player for such a long time as he could turn out to just be average.
Here we have the Jack Conklin deal from Over The Cap:
Conklin like Hooper has void years but he got two of these, turning his three-year deal into a five-year deal on paper. His $15 million signing bonus is split across all of those years. This would mean a cut after year two would cost the Browns $9 million in dead cap and only give them $6 million in cap savings, effectively a second fully guaranteed deal.
If Conklin was to remain with the Browns and sign an extension then the Browns would just account for an extra $3 million in 2023 & 2024 on top of any new deal. If he isn’t with the Browns for the 2023 season then they will have a $6 million dead cap for him while he plays for someone else.
There is a trade-off the Browns have made with these two deals. Did they manage to get better players and at a cheaper number by giving them effectively fully guaranteed deals? It is an idea I wondered about in the past and if we would see a team willing to take on all the extra risk of these free agency deals in exchange for better/cheaper talent.
Conklin could be a prime candidate to convert $9 million base salary next year into a signing bonus and push this salary cap into the future. This would give the Browns an extra $7.2 million of cap space next year and move it into the future.
Here we have the Myles Garrett deal from Over The Cap:
Patrick Mahomes and Myles Garrett are the two superstars from the 2017 NFL Draft to sign big contracts this offseason. Mahomes kept his 2020 & 2021 salary cap numbers where they were from before. Garrett, on the other hand, kept his 2020 the same, moved $5 million of his $15 million 2021 number into the future, and then has a very low number in 2022 as well. This will help the Browns maneuvering through the salary cap in 2021 & 2022 while it is heavily reduced due to the pandemic.
The Browns have made several trade-offs to help agree this deal, the most obvious was a year’s shorter contract so he can get back to free agency or extend again earlier. If we look at similar deals for star players on the defensive line, they all signed six-year deals: Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Aaron Donald & J.J. Watt. A fifth and sixth year usually contains little to no guarantees so players would rather be forcing the team to renegotiate or getting to free agency as quickly as possible to get that second big payday few star players are able to get in the NFL.
The second big trade-off is a double option bonus, this effectively gives Myles a signing bonus in 2020, another in 2021 and a third in 2022. This way he has guarantees spread out all the way through the deal. His deal is backloaded due to the cheap year in 2022 so he wants the security to know he isn’t getting moved on in 2025 where the Browns could have made a big saving otherwise. For reference we haven’t seen a double option used in an NFL contract since Joe Flacco in 2013, it is very unusual in the current game because it offers a massive level of protection to the player.
The third part that is very player-friendly is that if a player is suspended then you can only challenge that option bonus in the year it is paid. Although you might still be accounting for it on the salary cap five years later you can’t reclaim that money back down the line. While the Browns and many fans including myself don’t think we will see anything like that from Myles ever again, there is always going to be a risk factor due to the short leash the league office will have him on, throw a fist in frustration again and it could easily be a suspension. The Browns would have been perfectly entitled to wait another year before getting a deal done, very few players drafted in the first round ever get an extension after year three. Teams have their players rights for seven years including the two franchise tags so waiting until year four to decide could have been perfectly reasonable given what happened last season. There could be some more detailed wording in the contract regarding suspensions but this isn’t something we have seen so far.
Overall when you pay a star player on your team you are always expecting that player to play through their entire deal. That means you can’t always take too much from the way the deal is structured, unlike free agency deals. We likely wouldn’t have ever seen the cheap year in 2022 if it wasn’t for the pandemic so maybe that means the rest of the contract structure is completely different without COVID. It will be an interesting measuring stick to use when comparing it to other deals the Front Office makes in the next two years. Do other players now expect similar player-friendly deals?
Berry’s ‘Philly Special’
It is quite clear from the deals we have seen so far that Paul DePodesta’s Guardrails aren’t how Andrew Berry is structuring deals. The Guardrails state “Be Able to Exit After Year 2 w/ No Dead $, But In No Event >3”. We can see from Hooper and Conklin deals that is is very different, I wouldn’t include the Garrett deal here as no star player will sign a deal has so little in guarantees.
In terms of contract extensions and deals, we have seen similar moves to what the Browns Front Office is making by Howie Roseman in Philadelphia where Andrew Berry spent time learning from him. I would recommend watching this 30-minute interview with Roseman where he talks about roster building. The Eagles are incredibly aggressive when they look to lock up their own players, regularly using void years and signing bonuses to push salary cap spending into future years and keep just under the salary cap every year.
The danger of playing things so close to the line the way the Eagles do is that anything less than a big increase in the salary cap each year can have a significant impact. Both the Saints and Eagles are projected to be $70 million+ over the NFL salary cap next season. It will likely mean a clear out of a large part of the middle of their roster to become cap compliant, so keep an eye on a few of their players ending up in Orange & Brown next offseason.
If the Browns are seen by agents as offering multiyear fully guaranteed deals as standard to all starting level free agents then it can quickly become the case that all starters on the team demand this style of deal. The danger is that you end up over-committing to every player you have on the roster with no way of getting out of their deals if someone’s level of play deteriorates or you find another cheaper player outperforming them and want to trade the expensive veteran away. Roster and salary cap flexibility are key in the NFL, just because a player is good at the time of signing doesn’t mean he is going to do it for the next three to four years after you give him an extension which is effectively fully guaranteed.
Teams and fans have a habit of thinking best-case scenario when looking at a player rather than accepting the chance of something going wrong being much higher. One of the first things to look for when a contract is signed is what and when is out. If the final year in a multiyear deal has a dead cap of $7.5 million to $9 million then he is more or less guaranteed a spot on the team for the length of his deal regardless of how he plays.
Unfortunately based on everything I’ve heard, not a single member of the Browns beat writers have asked about contract structure regarding any of these three deals. The Front Office could have thrown their planned contract structure out the window for the next two years while the pandemic impacts the salary cap before returning to a more team-friendly style. Unless a member of the media asks this question then it is unlikely we will know what Andrew Berry has planned until at least the 2023 offseason. You usually need two to three offseason to get a flavor of how a Front Office will manage their contracts but with everything going on it could take much longer.
Any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @JackDuffin. The DMs are open for any salary cap/roster construction questions you have.