The NFL Draft is still about a month away, but the Browns’ new regime will face a crucial decision this week that will affect the organization for years to come.
Browns transition-tagged Pro Bowl center Alex Mack will sign a five-year offer sheet from the Jacksonville Jaguars by Friday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported today. The deal will be designed to make it as difficult as possible for the Browns to match because Mack wants to play for the Jaguars instead of returning to Cleveland, according to the report.
Once Mack signs the offer sheet, the Browns will have five days to match it.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas expressed confidence Mack would return to Cleveland when they addressed the media Tuesday night before an advance screening of Draft Day at a Cinemark theater in Valley View.
However, Browns coach Mike Pettine didn’t seem nearly as optimistic about Mack’s contract situation today during a conference call with beat writers. Perhaps he had received word of Mack’s plan to sign an offer sheet from the Jaguars before ESPN reported it.
“It’s a situation that’s very fluid,” Pettine said. “I’m not that comfortable talking about it because it is an ongoing contractual thing. Anytime you’re in a situation where it’s a tag, I just feel like guys feel like, ‘Hey, nothing’s happened so far.’ So there might be some optimism there, but it’s something that’s very fluid, and it can change day to day.”
Haslam suggested the Browns are prepared to match anything the Jaguars would offer. If the Browns match the offer, they’ll secure Mack under the terms of the deal constructed by his lead agent, Marvin Demoff, and the Jaguars.
“We remain optimistic that Alex Mack will be a Cleveland Brown for a long time,” Haslam said Tuesday. “We want him to be. I think we’ve made it very clear that he’s the kind of person, the kind of player we want in our organization.”
The exact financial terms of the offer sheet Mack, 28, to which Mack has reportedly agreed have yet to surface. Still, the deal is expected to make Mack the highest-paid center in the NFL by surpassing the six-year, $49 million contract Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil signed in 2011. Kalil’s deal includes $28 million guaranteed and an $18 million signing bonus.
ProFootballTalk.com reported the Jaguars' offer sheet includes a provision that can void the deal at Mack's election to as little as two years. The deal pays about $18-$20 million fully guaranteed in the first two years and about $27 million guaranteed in the first three years, according to PFT.
Asked if he’s prepared to match anything the Jaguars might offer, Haslam smiled and said, “We want Alex to be a Cleveland Brown.”
The Browns have the means to outbid the Jaguars if they choose to do so. They have $30.8 million in salary-cap space, most in the league, according to the NFL Players Association. The Jaguars have 25.1 million, ranking third in the NFL.
Mack visited the Jaguars last week and came away impressed. He had dinner with General Manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley on Friday night before leaving Saturday morning.
Despite the meeting, Mack’s best friend on the Browns, Thomas, said Tuesday he was confident Mack would return to Cleveland for at least next season. If Mack signed the transition tag that the Browns placed on him last month after the two sides failed to reach a long-term deal, he’d be locked into a one-year, $10.039 million deal that would make him the highest-paid player at his position by about $2 million.
“There’s no doubt that he’ll be here at least this year,” said Thomas, who’s under contract with the Browns through 2018. “I think that’s for certain. I certainly hope we can sign him to a long-term deal and keep him here for much longer than I am here.”
Thomas obviously thought Mack would sign the transition tag, and it appeared to be the most likely scenario all along. But with Mack on the verge of signing the Jaguars’ offer, the Browns will have a tough decision to make.
Will they devote a record-setting amount of money to a center when they’re hoping to extend the contracts of Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron, both of whom are scheduled to become free agents in 2015? The Browns are also expected to eventually seek long-term deals with other key players like outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard and Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Haslam, Pettine and General Manager Ray Farmer were part of a contingent that traveled to California to meet with Mack at the beginning of March in an attempt to strike a long-term deal. A few days after the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the Browns placed a transition tag on Mack.
NFL Network's Michael Silver reported that after the Browns used the transition tag on Mack, they told him they wouldn't hold him hostage if he wanted to leave.
Farmer has received some criticism for using a transition tag instead of a franchise tag. The cost for a franchise tag would have been $11.654 million as opposed to $10.039 million for a transition tag. But if Mack had been franchised, any other team that signed him would’ve been required to surrender two first-round picks to the Browns.
Because the Browns used a transition tag, they would not receive any draft-pick compensation if Mack leaves.
If the Browns lose Mack, it’ll be a significant blow to the offense. John Greco, who started at left guard last season, can play center in a pinch, but the team would likely need to draft one.
The 6-foot-4, 311-pound Mack was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career last season (he was an injury replacement in 2011). He also was named second-team All Pro.
Mack has played all 4,998 snaps since the Browns drafted him in the first round (21st overall) in 2009 out of the University of California. ProFootballFocus.com ranked him fourth among all NFL centers last season.