Browns contract talk: Denzel Ward is keeper, but floor for extension is more than $19 million a year
If the Browns want to retain Denzel Ward, they will at the very least need to make him among the three highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL.
That's the view of former NFL agent Joel Corry, a contract and salary-cap expert for CBS Sports who also hosts a podcast called “Inside the Cap with Joel Corry.”
The Browns tried to get a contract extension done with Ward before this season began, but the Nordonia High School and Ohio State product essentially ended up betting on himself in 2021. He disclosed his agent, Tory Dandy, and the Browns had engaged in extension talks last offseason.
Ward landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday, so he won't play Sunday when the Browns (7-9) host the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) in Cleveland's season finale at FirstEnergy Stadium.
But Ward had the best season of his career in 2021 and earned his second Pro Bowl selection last month. He compiled 43 tackles, a half sack, a team-high 10 passes defensed and three interceptions in 15 games.
“He's a keeper,” Corry said Friday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “Here's the problem: He's represented by Marshon Lattimore's agent, so you're not getting him done for less than Marshon Lattimore — that's $19.4 million a year — minimum. When I was an agent, if I had a player at a position I did a year earlier and I thought they were comparable, that was my floor.”
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A former teammate of Ward at Ohio State, Lattimore signed his new deal with the New Orleans Saints in September.
Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams sits atop the cornerback market with an average annual salary of $20 million. Marlon Humphrey of the Baltimore Ravens makes $19.5 million per year.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Ward is due $13.294 million guaranteed in 2022 because Browns General Manager Andrew Berry exercised the fifth-year option on the player's rookie deal this past April. Ward is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March 2023.
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Spotrac.com projects the Browns to have about $36.4 million in salary-cap space in 2022. OverTheCap.com's projection is $39.6. Both estimates would put the Browns in the top half of the league's 32 teams in terms of most cap room.
“I'm calling Ramsey a two-year-old deal. It was done in 2020. We'll be in 2022. I want to be the highest-paid guy if I'm Ward,” Corry said. “I'm that caliber of corner. He made [the Pro Bowl] as a rookie. He made the second one this year. That's two in four years. If you let him play the fifth year and maybe he has three Pro Bowls, you're definitively making him the highest-paid guy.”
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Wide receiver Jarvis Landry is among Cleveland Browns players who could be released in cost-cutting moves
The combination of Jarvis Landry's contract and lack of production this season gives rise to legitimate questions about whether the Browns will release him in the offseason.
The five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is under contract through next season, when he's scheduled to make $15.05 million in salary and bonuses, with a salary-cap hit of $16.55 million, according to spotrac.com. His dead cap hit would be just $1.5 million if he's released.
“It makes him prime to be released, given his productivity this year,” Corry said.
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The only reason Berry should think twice about cutting Landry is the receiving corps hasn't been productive this season, Corry said. A restructured contract might be the only way the two sides can continue their partnership.
Landry has missed time this season with injuries and COVID-19. In 11 games, he has compiled a team-leading 46 catches on 79 targets for 495 yards and a touchdown to go along with six carries for 40 yards and two TDs.
Highlighting the bizarre nature of Landry's season, his close friend and fellow receiver Odell Beckham Jr. forced his way out of Cleveland in early November. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, whose future with the Browns is murky after he played hurt for nearly the entire season, never established a satisfactory connection with Beckham.
“He's having the worst year of his career,” Corry said of Landry, “but how much of that is the quarterback? Because OBJ all of a sudden catches touchdowns like they're nothing for the [Los Angeles] Rams. He couldn't get in the end zone to save his life in Cleveland.
“Do you really want to pay [Landry] $15.1 million on a $16.6 cap number? But at the same time, you don't have a lot of established wide receivers. You don't have to make an early decision on him because there's no March roster bonus that forces your hand. So I might go out and pursue his replacement in some level of free agency, and when I know I'm going to sign someone, that's when I'll let him go.”
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Another Browns player whose future Corry wonders about is starting center JC Tretter, who said Thursday he plans to play next season.
Tretter is among the NFL's top centers, but when he missed a 24-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers due to COVID-19, 2020 fifth-round pick Nick Harris had a good outing.
The president of the NFL Players Association, Tretter is under contract through the 2022 season, when he's set to make $8.25 million, with a cap hit of $9.875 million and a dead cap hit of $1.625 million if he's released, according to spotrac.com.
“You've got Nick Harris waiting in the wings, and there's $1.625 million in dead money if you decide to [release Tretter and] go in the other direction,” Corry said. “I know it's a small sample size. Harris played well in his one start. If they wanted to make that move, would they be confident that he could be the starting center?”
Jadeveon Clowney headlines list of Browns players with expiring contracts
Jadeveon Clowney is an impending unrestricted free agent the Browns would like to re-sign, and fellow defensive end Myles Garrett is trying to convince him to stay in Cleveland.
Clowney said on Dec. 31 he's open to coming back, but contract extension talks had yet to begin between the team and his agent. Free agents can sign with other teams starting at 4 p.m. March 16. Negotiations between their agents other clubs can begin legally at noon March 14.
In April, Clowney signed a one-year contract with the Browns worth up to $10 million with incentives. The former No. 1 overall pick with a long injury history played his greatest number of games in a season since 2018. In 13 games this season, he has tallied 35 tackles, seven sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
Corry pointed out Clowney has signed one-year, prove-it deals the past two years because he's been seeking “huge money.” It didn't work out in 2020 with the Tennessee Titans because torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee led him to sit out the final half of the season. His first Browns season went well, though.
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“If he's ever going to get a payday, he's almost getting to now-or-never time,” Corry said. “He's going to be 29 [on Feb. 14].”
The key for the Browns with Clowney will be structuring a contract to continue to guard against injuries.
“I'd want to stick huge per-game roster bonuses in any deal I get with him just so if he's hurt, at least I get some cash and cap relief,” Corry said. “... If he's looking in the $20 million per year range, I'd let him test the market, keep the lines of communication open, and if he can't get it, then that's how New England has done it with some people in the past. Let them go test the market, see that it isn't where it develops, kind of like [Patriots linebacker Dont'a] Hightower a few years ago, and go from there. If he has more reasonable expectations, then I'd be open to doing a long-term deal.”
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Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku could surprise with what he commands in free agency
Tight end David Njoku is another player with an expiring contract who the Browns want back.
Njoku played this season on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, which Berry exercised for $6.013 million guaranteed. When the Browns drafted Njoku in the first round (29th overall) in 2017, Berry was their chief talent evaluator as vice president of player personnel.
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In 15 games this season, Njoku has caught 34 passes for 464 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns.
“The thing is New England screwed up the tight end market for every other team because they paid Jonnu Smith $12.5 million per year and Hunter Henry $12.5 million per year, and I was shocked those deals came in where they did,” Corry said. “If I'm David Njoku, I'm thinking, 'Hey, Jonnu Smith never caught more than 45 passes and never had more than 450 yards in a season before he got paid. I want that type of money.'
“[Njoku has] that first-round pedigree. He is athletic and can stretch the field, so he might be someone who surprises people in free agency relative to his statistics.”
Tight end Austin Hooper hasn't lived up to the four-year, $42 million contract to which Berry signed him in 2020. In 15 games this season, Hooper has tallied 38 catches for 345 yards and three touchdowns.
“If you really want to keep [Njoku] around and you don't have a lot of faith in Harrison Bryant to step in and be that second tight end, then I don't think you ever get Njoku for less than Hooper," Corry said. "You've already established you're willing to pay a tight end $10.5 million a year."
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But releasing Hooper to free money for Njoku would not be appealing to the Browns, given the move would cost them a dead cap hit of $11.25 million in 2022. The amount would drop to $7.5 million in 2023.
“If you get rid of Jarvis, you don't have any money invested in receivers, so that makes paying two tight ends easier,” Corry said. “Even if you swap Jarvis out for another receiver [in free agency], you don't have the investment at receiver when you had OBJ and Jarvis. If you had OBJ and Jarvis, there's no way you could even think about paying two tight ends. It would be either Hooper or Njoku, but I can see a universe where they're both there and both being paid, and then you could move on from Hooper next year. It would make more sense financially, at least from a cap standpoint.”
D'Ernest Johnson is a notable Cleveland Browns player who will be eligible for restricted free agency
Third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson has shown he can play, carrying the ball 75 times for 411 yards (5.5 average) and two touchdowns and catching 18 passes for 127 yards in 16 games this season.
Johnson just happens to be on the same team as star running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
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Johnson will be eligible for restricted free agency in the offseason. The Browns would need to submit a qualifying offer to him before 4 p.m. March 16. Corry predicts Johnson will receive the lowest level of the existing tenders — known as right of first refusal — for a projected $2.4 million as opposed to a second-round tender for an estimated $3.9 million.
“If you stuck a second-round tender on him, then Kareem Hunt's probably gone,” Corry said. “You're probably trading him.”
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BROWNS SOON-TO-BE FREE AGENTS
Jadeveon Clowney, DE
Dustin Colquitt, P
Ronnie Harrison Jr., S
Rashard Higgins, WR
Chris Hubbard, OT
Malik Jackson, DT
Takk McKinley, DE
David Njoku, TE
Malcom Smith, LB
M.J. Stewart Jr., CB
Anthony Walker Jr., LB
Stephen Carlson, TE
D'Ernest Johnson, RB
Chase McLaughlin, K
Montrell Meander, S
Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE
Michael Dunn, OT
Hjalte Froholdt, G
Blake Hance, OT
Malik McDowell, DT
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.