Pro Bowl center Alex Mack has pulled off more than one coup this week.
Not only has he managed to coax a lucrative offer sheet out of the Jacksonville Jaguars despite the transition tag the Browns placed on him last month, but he also has hijacked local sports talk.
Who knew a center’s contract situation would dominate draft-obsessed Northeast Ohio with the Browns set to be put on the clock with the fourth overall pick in less than a month?
The fact that it has reflects the important decision the Browns face.
Mack has agreed to a five-year, $42 million offer sheet and is expected to sign it today, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Thursday. Once he signs, the Browns will have five days to match it. If the Browns match, Mack will return to Cleveland under the terms of the deal constructed by his lead agent, Marvin Demoff, and the Jaguars.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter cited an unnamed source who said the Browns figure to match “in no time at all.” ProFootballTalk.com also reported “the Browns will likely match the offer.”
Owner Jimmy Haslam and Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, Mack’s best friend on the team, expressed confidence Mack would return to Cleveland when they spoke to reporters Tuesday night before an advance screening of Draft Day at a Cinemark theater in Valley View.
Asked if he’s prepared to match anything the Jaguars might offer, Haslam smiled and said, “We want Alex to be a Cleveland Brown.”
But should the Browns match? The simple answer is yes.
There are fair points on both sides of the argument, but if the Browns match, the good would outweigh the bad.
Perceived deal breaker: The offer sheet will make Mack the highest-paid center in the NFL at $8.4 million a year, trumping the $8.16 million per year Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil received in 2011, when he signed a six-year, $49 million contract, which included $28 million guaranteed and an $18 million signing bonus. Rapoport reported the deal is worth $18 million in the first two years and gives Mack the power to void the contract and become a free agent after the 2015 season. It’s also designed so Mack would not be susceptible to being tagged if he voids the deal after two seasons, according to the report. Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports 1 reported the deal totals $26 million guaranteed, including $8 million guaranteed in the third year if Mack doesn’t void the contract after 2015. In a column for SportingNews.com, former Browns offensive lineman Ross Tucker wrote the center position “is not worth it.”
Why it shouldn’t be a deal breaker: The Browns would have paid Mack $10.039 million guaranteed next season if he had signed the transition tag. Then if they failed again to reach a long-term deal with him, they would either tag him in 2015 or let him hit the open market. Because the offer sheet pays $18 million in the first two years, it would make sense for the Browns to match it without blinking because they’d be getting Mack for less than if they had used a transition or franchise tag on him the next two seasons. Browns General Manager Ray Farmer has received justified criticism for using a transition tag on Mack instead of a franchise tag in the first place. The cost for a franchise tag would have been $11.654 million, $1.615 million more than 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. With a transition tag, the Browns would not receive any draft-pick compensation if Mack left. Still, the Browns will be able to say Farmer’s risky decision to use a transition tag worked out if they match. They’ll also be able to back up the claim that quarterback Brian Hoyer made Tuesday: “We’re not in rebuilding mode. We’re here to win now.”
Perceived deal breaker: If the Browns commit that much money to a center, it’ll throw their budget off and impede them from extending the contracts of other key players such as Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron, outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, nose tackle Phil Taylor and Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Why it shouldn’t be a deal breaker: Ex-Browns CEO Joe Banner contributed to this situation by failing to secure Mack before the 2013 season, but Banner also left the organization with superb financial flexibility. The Browns have $29.6 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. The salary cap is $133 million this year. Schefter reported it’s expected to surpass $140 million next year and exceed $150 million by 2016.
Perceived deal breaker: Mack doesn’t want to play in Cleveland.
Why it shouldn’t be a deal breaker: He would never sign an offer sheet if he were totally opposed to returning to the Browns because he knows they could match. But even if he were desperately trying to get away, the Browns would be foolish to use that as a reason not to match because it would set a precedent for other players who might have ideas about forcing their way out. If Mack returns, he wouldn’t suddenly create a toxic situation the way Peyton Hillis did in 2011. He’d continue to be a professional and try to prove he’s the best center in the league. Meanwhile, if the Browns improve under coach Mike Pettine and finally show some semblance of stability, they’d increase their chances of keeping Mack for longer than two years, despite his reported authority to void.
Perceived deal breaker: The Browns could easily replace Mack. John Greco, the starting left guard last season, can play center. Plus, the Browns have 10 draft picks and could find a starting-caliber center in the first three rounds.
Why it shouldn’t be a deal breaker: Good luck replacing a Pro Bowler and All Pro in his prime — Mack is 28 — who has played all 4,998 snaps in his five NFL seasons. In 2011, he played 13 days after undergoing an appendectomy and didn’t miss any time because the Browns were coming off a bye. Guys like Mack almost never hit the open market. He’s one of the best at his position, he’s durable, he doesn’t have off-field issues and he has plenty of football ahead of him. Another body can be plugged into his spot, but odds are the new guy wouldn’t be the epitome of reliability. In his six NFL seasons, Greco has never started at center. A rookie would need to learn the ropes in the NFL. That would not be ideal for a team that’ll either start Hoyer, who’s coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or a rookie at quarterback next season.
Perceived deal breaker: Since the Browns drafted Mack in the first round (21st overall) out of the University of California in 2009, they’ve had records of 5-11, 5-11, 4-12, 5-11 and 4-12. That’s 23-57, so a top-notch center obviously isn’t the key to success.
Why it shouldn’t be a deal breaker: By that logic, offensive left tackle and wide receiver aren’t important, either. The Browns have gone 37-75 since they drafted Thomas, a seven-time Pro Bowler, in 2007. Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards last season (1,646), but the Browns went 4-12. So if those guys leave, it’ll be no big deal? Give me a break.