By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Every year, the last open locker-room session before the season finale gives Browns players with unsettled contract issues a chance to bid farewell to Northeast Ohio, its sports fans and the reporters who have covered their careers in Cleveland.
Defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson was not ready to engage in that type of conversation Friday after the Browns (4-11) wrapped up practice in preparation for their last game of the year Sunday on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8).
Jackson would carry an $9.43 million salary-cap figure next season, which includes a $4.1 million roster bonus due in March. The Browns are about $46 million under the projected 2014 salary cap of $126.3 million, according to CBSSports.com, so they have plenty of room. Still, Jackson’s contract might command more money than CEO Joe Banner wants to devote to an inside linebacker who’ll turn 31 on Sept. 26.
Jackson, though, said he would be “absolutely” shocked if he doesn’t return to Cleveland next year.
“From what I know, I’m a part of the plans,” Jackson said. “I’ll be here next year. … We got a good, solid foundation here. I love what we’re doing. The things that we’re doing are first rate, so that’s been an improvement from years past. So I’ll be the first in line to say I want to be here for the future. No one from the front office has let me know or my agent know that I wasn’t a part of their plans.
“I don’t even like talking about [not being a member of the Browns]. I know it’s a business and things change all the time, but as far as I’m concerned, I haven’t thought about that one time. I feel good in my position where I am. It’s going to be a decision they have to make, and I’m sure it’s already made. But if someone thinks I shouldn’t be here, I have one more game to show why I should. I’ve survived a ton of coordinators and head coaches, so I’m up for the challenge.”
Asked if he’d be open to restructuring his deal, Jackson said, “I pay my agent some good money and hopefully he can come up with something to make both sides happy. If that was the case, I trust my team would get something done.”
Center Alex Mack, strong safety T.J. Ward and right guard Shawn Lauvao aren’t as confident they’ll be sticking around. They’re all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents March 11. They’re also starters in the prime of their careers who insist they would like to come back.
“Cleveland is a very easy place to come back to,” said Mack, who played in the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season. “I like the coaches. I like the players. I have a house here. So without a doubt, it would be very easy to come back.”
But why would any of them want to resume their careers with the Browns? The team has gone 41-86 since drafting Jackson in the second round in 2006, 23-56 since drafting Mack in the first round in 2009 and 18-45 since drafting Ward and Lauvao in the second and third rounds, respectively, in 2010.
“There’s no guarantees anywhere,” Mack said. “Look at the [Kansas City] Chiefs last year. They had kind of a rough year, and this year [they’re] going to the playoffs. Things can turn around quick, and we were hoping this would be the year that everything turned around quick, but you never know.”
Mack, 28, said he feels wanted by the front office, but he wouldn’t elaborate. He makes the calls for the offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage and has played every snap in his career.
“He’s probably the best I’ve seen, and he has to be one of the best in the NFL at understanding the mental side of the game and getting everybody on the same page blocking wise,” left offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. “... Alex is a Gumby-like person. I think his durability is one of his best assets.”
Ward, 27, said Tuesday he had no idea whether the team would try to re-sign him, and Lauvao, 26, said the same thing Friday.
“If I’m here, so be it,” Lauvao said. “If not, it’s a good opportunity. This is the NFL. There’s a lot of turnover. Most of the team is new guys. I live with Alex [Mack], so we talk about it all the time. That’s just how it goes.”
Jackson, the longest-tenured member of the Browns, has seen plenty of teammates come and go. But he’s hoping Mack and Ward, the organization’s most notable potential free agents, won’t join the departed. ProFootballFocus.com ranks Mack first among centers and Ward fourth among safeties.
“That’s the way you build a solid team — you keep your young talent,” Jackson said. “T.J.’s having his best year as a pro. Alex has been steady ever since he’s been in the league. He’s one of the top centers in the league in my opinion. You keep those core guys. Then you build your team around those guys. If you look around the league, the good teams hold on to their solid talent.”
Jackson’s consistent production and leadership has kept him in Cleveland despite suffering torn pectoral muscles in back-to-back seasons (2009 and 2010).
“D’Qwell has been a coach’s dream as far as leadership, intelligence,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “He demands a lot from himself and his teammates. He really is a locker room coach [with] some of the things he says after the game and at halftime.”
Opponents have noticed, too.
“D’Qwell Jackson is an excellent middle linebacker,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said a few weeks ago. “I’d say one of the best pass-coverage linebackers in the league.”
Jackson has played under four coaching staffs. He has played virtually every snap this season and leads the team with 134 tackles.
“Now I’m stuck to Cleveland,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be hard to go somewhere else and play. I know it’s the nature of the business. Things may change, and I’m fully aware of that. Right now, I’m a Cleveland Brown through and through.”
Tight end Jordan Cameron practiced Friday for the first time since he suffered a concussion Dec. 15 in a 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears. An independent neurologist was set to examine Cameron after practice to determine whether he can face the Steelers.
“If I’m healthy, I’m going to play,” he said.
The Browns listed Cameron as questionable for Sunday along with cornerback Joe Haden (hip pointer), left guard John Greco (sprained knee) and right guard Lauvao (thigh contusion). Greco practiced all week on a limited basis. Haden sat out all week. Coach Rob Chudzinski said a game-time decision will determine whether Haden faces the Steelers. Lauvao sat out Thursday and Friday.
The Browns also ruled out left guard Jason Pinkston (concussion), tight end Andre Smith (strained calf) and nose tackle Phil Taylor (concussion). They listed defensive end John Hughes (knee, elbow) as doubtful.
Ward returned to practice Friday after sitting out Thursday with an illness and an injured shoulder. He’s one of eight Browns players listed as probable.
Hit to the wallet
The NFL fined New York Jets rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson $15,750 for roughing the passer when he unnecessarily drove Browns quarterback Jason Campbell to the ground and landed on him with his full weight in the second quarter Sunday.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.