Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Same Page

Anyone that had any concerns that the order in which Cleveland Browns’ owner Randy Lerner hired a general manager and a head coach might cause a bit of a disconnect between the two positions can now put those concerns to rest. New general manager George Kokinis gave his first substantive (relatively, anyway) interview since being hired and demonstrated that indeed he and Eric Mangini are on the same page. (See the interview with the Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi here)

Unfortunately for those Browns fans that think their interest and investment in the team entitles them to a modicum of information about what might be taking place within the repainted walls of Berea, having Kokinis and Mangini on the same page simply means that they prioritize their enemies similarly, the media first and then the fans. Kokinis, in much the same way as Mangini in his non-press conference press conference a few weeks ago, managed to say virtually nothing of note about what the team plans in terms of free agency or the draft.

Though the list of Browns’ free agents isn’t impressive, it is worth knowing, for example, if Kokinis plans on placing the franchise tag on safety Sean Jones, about the only pending free agent worth contemplating. Kokinis didn’t say which way he was leaning, but wouldn’t rule out using the designation in “the 11th hour.” Translated, “maybe, maybe not.”

This means that Kokinis and Mangini have either decided that Jones is expendable or that they can get him under contract easily. A reasonable guess is that they view him as expendable. Even if they won’t say, the decision process they have to go through on Jones more or less takes you down that road.

Kokinis and Mangini have several ways they can go on Jones. They can let him go, unrestricted, into free agency without caring whether or not they can resign him. Alternatively, they can use the tools available under the collective bargaining agreement to more or less ensure his return. The problem with using those tools is that it will involve a significant raise over his current $2 million salary. For a team that’s worried about the cost of administrative assistants in the front office, doubling or more Jones’ 2008 salary might seem a tad distasteful.

One of the tools at hand to ensure his return is to put the franchise tag on Jones, in one of two ways. Another tool is to designate him as a transition player, meaning that they retain a right of first refusal should he receive an offer from another team, which also pretty much guarantees he’ll be back.
If the Browns decide to put the franchise tag on Jones, it can be with either the designation of “exclusive” or “non exclusive.” As an exclusive franchise player, Jones would be guaranteed a one-year contract for a minimum of $6.145 million, based on the current top 5 salaries at the safety position. With that tag, Jones would definitely be back with the Browns because he would have no opportunity to negotiate with other teams.

But even placing the “non-exclusive” tag on him pretty much assures he’ll be back. A non-exclusive franchise player is guaranteed the higher of the average of last year’s top 5 salaries at safety (which is about 10% or so less than this year’s average) or 120% of his current salary. In Jones’ case, he’d get the average of last year’s top 5 because it is certainly more than 120% of his current $2 million salary. More importantly, as a non-exclusive free agent, Jones can negotiate with other teams. If he gets an offer, the Browns have the option of matching it or getting two first round picks in return and letting him go. Jones is a decent player but he isn’t worth two first round picks to any team. Thus the likelihood of any other team signing him with that status is nil.

If the Browns place the “transition” tag on Jones, then he is guaranteed around $5.13 million, which represents the average of the current top 10 salaries at his position. Jones would be free to negotiate with other teams with the Browns retaining a right to match any offer. Unless another team goes off the reservation, which is unlikely, the chance of Jones getting an offer the Browns wouldn’t match is slight.

Given the problems with the defensive backfield, it would seem that Kokinis and Mangini would want to at least tick this one issue off their list by ensuring Jones’ return. Any of these alternatives would appear better than simply letting Jones test the free agency market and risk the loss and the opening it creates. Despite the Browns’ recent belt tightening, which followed the belt loosening they did to rid themselves of Romeo Crennel, Phil Savage and Mel Tucker, the salaries associated with the franchise or transition tags aren’t particularly outrageous. While Kokinis didn’t elaborate on the issue (or any other, for that matter) it’s hard to understand the Browns’ potential reluctance given the team’s few, legitimate defensive backs. If they let him go, they are banking hard on Daven Holley’s return, particularly since Mike Adams, a serviceable back up, also is a free agent who probably won’t be back.

Making this somewhat more puzzling is the simple fact that the Browns don’t have salary cap issues. According to, the 2009 salary cap number is $124 million. Before last week’s roster cuts, the Browns cap number was $113 million. Cutting Antwan Peek, Ken Dorsey and Terry Cousin saved another $4 million. That puts them $13 million under already and that’s before the roster is shed of, for example, Willie McGinnest and his $3.66 million salary cap figure. In other words, the Browns have plenty of room in which to maneuver.

But as with most things these days out of Berea, fans aren’t likely to know until something actually happens. Even then, don’t expect much of an explanation. Get used to reading between the lines.

Maybe what this all comes down to is Derek Anderson, though Kokinis wouldn’t acknowledge that either. What to do about Anderson and the $5 million roster bonus he is due in March probably trumps any issues with respect to Jones or any other player. For all the criticism rightly heaped on Savage, he does deserve credit for negotiating a club-friendly contract with Anderson that essentially has given the new regime more flexibility than they probably initially imagined.

There is no question that Anderson couldn’t have picked a better time to have a breakout season. After toiling in the league and drifting ever toward the “perennial backup” label, Anderson picked his free agent year to light up the scoreboard. Even with Brady Quinn sitting in the wings, it put Savage in a difficult spot given how scarce a commodity quarterbacks are in the league. Yet Savage found a way to get a deal done that essentially put off Anderson’s free agency for another year. Ostensibly a 3-year $26 million contract, it has an escape hatch this year if the Browns’ don’t pay Anderson the $5 million roster bonus that’s due in March.

For Kokinis and Mangini, this scenario couldn’t be better. They can either leverage Anderson for additional draft picks, although not at the level Savage probably could have gotten last year, or keep him and concentrate on the rest of the roster this off season. If they let Anderson go, then they have to find another couple of back ups, which is actually harder than you might think. See, Ken Dorsey. See, Bruce Gradkowski.

But just as with Jones, fans have no idea what Kokinis is thinking with respect to Anderson other than the ubiquitous “you really have to fit Derek within the whole structure of the whole football team.” If you think that’s insightful, just delete “Derek” from that sentence and insert the name “Jamal” or “Brady” or anyone else on the roster. You get the idea.

This isn’t to suggest that Kokinis needs to spill the beans on any of these issues in a way that disadvantages them in talks with other teams. But there is a way to provide insight without telling a reporter when you expect the ground war to begin. Apparently, though, virtually everything about the Browns’ operations is tantamount to battle plans and the only ones that suffer for the lack of information is the fans.

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