The Browns need a new heart and soul, because starting inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson is moving on.
Jackson became a free agent when the Browns cut him Wednesday, and he’s now free to sign with any team. Although he was the undisputed leader of the Browns, his release was not surprising because he would have carried a $9.43 million salary-cap figure next season, which included a $4 million roster bonus due March 16 and a $100,000 workout bonus.
That’s a hefty price for a player who’ll turn 31 on Sept. 26, and new Browns General Manager Ray Farmer decided not to pay it. By cutting Jackson, the Browns are saving $5.23 million against the 2014 salary cap but are eating $4.2 million in dead money.
The possibility of Jackson departing had been a hot topic since December, when he discussed his contract situation with beat writers. At the time, he said he would be “absolutely” shocked if he didn’t return to the Browns for the 2014 season and insisted he would be open to restructuring his deal.
The Browns tried to restructure the contract, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement and decided to part ways. Jackson, a second-round draft pick in 2006 from the University of Maryland, was the longest-tenured member of the team.
“We had positive discussion with D’Qwell and his agent [Brian Mackler] over the last several days, and we came to the mutual agreement to go in different directions,” Farmer said in a statement. “D’Qwell is the epitome of class, leadership and professionalism. Every day of his NFL career, D’Qwell has been a solid representative of the Browns and the City of Cleveland, both between the lines on Sundays and off the field in our area community. We want to thank him for his eight years of service and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors.”
Inside linebacker now ascends to near the top of the franchise’s list of needs it must address this offseason.
Cutting Jackson creates a significant void. He played all but one defensive snap last season, called the plays in the huddle and led the team with 143 tackles to go along with 1½ sacks, one interception, eight passes defensed, a forced fumble and a recovery.
The other starting inside linebacker, Craig Robertson, 26, is an exclusive-rights free agent and can only hit the open market if the Browns don’t extend him an offer. Regardless, Robertson struggled last season.
Jackson played 97 games with 96 starts, compiling 891 career tackles, 11½ sacks, eight interceptions, five forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. He spent all eight of his seasons with the Browns, who went 41-87 with just one winning season and no playoff appearances during his tenure.
“To the people of Cleveland and Browns fans everywhere: Eight years ago I began a journey that blessed me with the opportunity to be a part of a wonderful organization and community,” Jackson said in a statement. “I want to take this time to thank each and every one of you for opening your arms and hearts to my family and me, and for making Cleveland an easy place to love and call home. It’s been an honor playing in front of you.
“I also would like to thank the Browns players, coaches and staff for their tireless work and commitment. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all and will always carry you with me.”
Jackson received an outpouring of support on Twitter after the Browns announced their decision.
•?“DQ is a leader of men,” Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron wrote. “Gave me confidence when I had none and listened when I needed someone. Most underrated player in the NFL.”
•?“Thanks [for] everything boss!” Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden wrote. “True example of a pro! @DQ52 good luck with everything!! #madeMeABetterLeader.”
•?“A tremendous leader and one of the best teammates I have ever played with,” left guard John Greco wrote. “Good luck to @DQ52.”
•?“@DQ52 I appreciate the wisdom [you] shared with me about being a man on [and] off the field,” wide receiver Tori Gurley wrote.
In response Jackson tweeted: “I’m humbled by the support I’ve received today from my teammates and the Cleveland community. You guys will always have a place in my heart.”
Jackson missed 26 consecutive games from 2009-10 after suffering two torn pectoral muscles. However, he made a remarkable comeback in 2011 and had one of his best seasons, compiling 158 tackles while playing middle linebacker in ex-Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 scheme. Former General Manager Tom Heckert and ex-President Mike Holmgren rewarded Jackson in February 2012 with a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension through 2016.
Still, the new regime of Farmer and coach Mike Pettine had plenty of cap room — ESPN.com reported the figure to be $51.2 million based on a projected salary cap of $132 million — and could have kept Jackson if it really wanted.
ProFootballFocus.com ranked Jackson 13th out of 51 inside linebackers in 2011, but he slid down the list the past two years. The website ranked him 41st out of 53 in 2012, his second and final season in Jauron’s system, and 42nd out of 55 last season, when another former Browns defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, used a 3-4, multifront scheme.
Nevertheless, Jackson is expected to receive plenty of attention from other teams on the open market. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported that seven teams contacted Jackson shortly after the Browns severed ties with him.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.