If someone told you that Myles Garrett will be as good as Khalil Mack and Baker Mayfield will be as good as Aaron Rodgers, you would rightly be excited.
It is talent like theirs that give teams the chance to win a Super Bowl. I’m on record saying the Browns WILL win the Super Bowl at least once in the first five years that Baker Mayfield is with the Cleveland Browns.
However, their potential is the reason the Browns could struggle mightily against cap constraints in future years given their current trajectory.
Unfortunately, having both of these players at the same time, on veteran deals, can have serious consequences on the other 51 players that make up your roster. The key thing to look at when working out contacts is to focus on the % value of the deal against the salary cap rather than the $ value in a single year. With the salary cap increasing at incredible rates, the earnings of a player a few years ago aren’t even in the same realm of what players are earning now.
The NFL Salary Cap has increased 6.1% and 6.2% in the last two years, it is calculated by 47% of the earnings of the NFL based on the terms in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Due to this I will work on a 6.2% salary cap increase from year to year for future projections.
If we look at the salary cap implications for Khalil Mack (11.5%) and Aaron Rodgers (15.6%) for a four year window from 2019 to 2022, it will give us a good idea of what Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield could cost as a percentage of the salary cap in 2023 to 2026.
The combined salary cap percentage of Mack & Rodgers deals are:
2019 – 25.9%
2020 – 28.3%
2021 – 27.1%
2022 – 27.3%
Average – 27.2%
Looking at the 2015 to 2018 season, teams that made the playoffs during the period spent the following on average for their top 2 players:
2015 – 18.2%
2016 – 19.9%
2017 – 17.5%
2018 – 18.7%
Average – 18.6%
This is dramatically lower than what the combined salaries of those two players could be. The Browns could be spending 8.6% more on salary for their top two players than other playoff teams. This is a huge difference and places an enormous amount of pressure on the front office to make up the difference with players overachieving on rookie deals.
To project the possible effects of spending this much of the salary cap on just two players, here is a look at the four teams that spent the most on 2 players during that 2015-2018, and the record they finished with during those seasons:
Detroit Lions – 22.1%, 31-33
Arizona Cardinals – 21.2%, 31-32-1
Carolina Panthers – 21.2%, 39-25
New York Giants – 20.8%, 25-39
From what we see from the above data is that when teams have spent more than 21% of their salary cap to just two players over a four year period it would seem to indicate that it adversely affected the overall talent level of the roster. If the Browns were to pay 27.2% to just two players we would likely see a more severe decline.
Myles Garrett has two more years of his rookie deal, then a 5th year option before getting paid in 2022.
Baker Mayfield has three more years of his rookie deal, then a 5th year option before getting paid in 2023.
Re-signing a franchise player early doesn’t really reduce the cost. For instance: If you are going to sign Baker to a 15.6% on average in the four years after his fifth year option. Then you can take his 2021 salary at approximately 4.9%, his 5th year option which is likely to be 11%.
You average out that six year deal as 13.0% but the actual amount you are paying over those 6 years is exactly the same as a percentage of salary cap you have just spent lots more in years one to reduce years three to six. You are sacrificing the final year of the very, very cheap rookie deal to spread the same cost over more years.
If these two players reach the level of Mack and Rodgers then the Browns have three distinct choices in the coming few years that they can take to prepare for this in 2023. Obviously every team can cross their fingers and hope players take insanely team friendly deals like Tom Brady but hope is never a sensible strategy.
Plan 1 – Go All In To Win Now
The Browns can choose to maximise the 2019 to 2022 seasons and go all in to win as much as possible in the short term. For a team that has such a lack of success in recent times I can understand fans wishes to go crazy and have four consecutive seasons with playoff appearances.
We can then ignore the future beyond 2022 and it doesn’t matter if we become a middling team, if we have won a Super Bowl, it will be worth it.
Plan 2 – Save The Cap Space, Extend The Window
At the time of writing this article (7th March), the Browns are set to be spending $158m on the top 51 on their roster so far according to Over The Cap, $7.5m in dead cap plus set aside $3m for the draft (if we draft 8 players and cut the 6th and 7th round selections).
In total this gives you a predicted Brown 2019 Salary Cap of $168.5m. This puts us $19.7m under the $188.2 million NFL Salary Cap for 2019, we then only use that spare $19.7m to re-sign players (Higgins), extend players (Randall & Schobert) and add free agents. For every player you re-sign/add, you also subtract $720,000 for accounting as you will be letting another player go.
This will mean that we can keep the $56.5m in cap rollover announced by the NFL PA safe until 2022/2023, if we save this money and refuse to spend it on any player other than Myles Garret and Baker Mayfield we can then significantly bring down their veteran deals by front loading them. In the same way that the 49ers front loaded the contract for Jimmy Garoppolo, we can give both of the players an extra $28.25m in their first year.
If we were to extend Myles Garrett’s contract in the offseason before the 2021 season as he begins his 5th year option. We could give him the extra $28.25m alongside the 7.5% of the salary cap he would get on a 5th year option, this would mean that his four year contract of 11.5% would become a much more affordable 8.2%.
Doing the same for Baker Mayfield a year later would would turn his four year deal between 2023/2026 from 15.6% to a 12.5% contract.
This will mean that we can keep both of them on a much cheaper combined figure of 20.7%, leaving you 6.4% extra of Salary Cap space to spend on other parts of the roster alongside Mayfield & Garrett.
This will extend the Browns 2019 to 2022 Super Bowl window to a 2019 to 2026 one. This will give us an eight year window rather than a four year window, greatly increasing our chances of getting multiple Super Bowl rings.
Plan 3 – Trade Garrett!!!
We could decide to invest the $56.5m in cap rollover over the next four years with the aim of winning a Super Bowl or more between 2019 and 2022. Then look to move Myles Garrett on in a trade, the trade market is set for an elite pass rusher, you could get two first round picks for Garrett in his 5th year or possibly try to franchise tag and trade him before the 2022 draft.
By replenishing your roster with extra cheap first round picks instead of costly veterans you can build a team that can become a dynasty. Constantly add more and more young players and be forced into making tough decisions when you have too many elite players to re-sign them all.
It isn’t a bad problem to have. The Patriots constantly let talented players leave and keep building the middle of their roster while having success year on year.
It would be painful to lose a player at the level of Myles Garrett but not as painful as seeing the rest of the roster if two players are taking 27.2% of the salary cap.
The route I would take, unpopular as it may be, would be to trade Myles in 2021 and then continue to replenish the roster with younger players and maintain flexibility to fill holes via free agency when you inevitably miss at certain positions in the draft. It is essential for the front office to construct and dogmatically execute a long term plan to surround Baker Mayfield with the strongest and deepest possible roster throughout his prime to continually give the Browns the opportunity to compete for a championship year over year.
To do this effectively, the Browns will have to make tough (and at times unpopular) decisions to maintain the overall health of the team. This is not familiar territory for Browns fans, so these ideas may seem outlandish to think about today, particularly when you look at a Browns team with holes to fill and $81 million in cap space as we sit here in 2019. But we are fast approaching a time where such planning and decisions are required.
I don’t expect fans to always understand these decisions in the moment, but they will be grateful in the end if/when the Browns front office has the foresight and courage to make such decisions when the situation requires it.
*Historic Salary Cap figures used to calculate salary cap percentages from Spotrac
Jack Duffin is the co-host of the Paul Brown Podcast, a Daily Browns Podcast based out of London, England. You can follow him on Twitter @JackDuffin.