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Ranking the Browns Contract Extension Priorities

Browns Digest on FanNation logo Browns Digest on FanNation 6/21/2021 Pete Smith
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The Cleveland Browns players and coaches may be off for the Summer but the front office has a busy two months ahead of them as they need to start getting extensions finalized with as many as seven players scheduled to be free agents after the 2021 season.

After rarely having more than one player worth extending and plenty of years with zero, the Cleveland Browns have at least half a dozen players they could look to extend in the next year. The fact there are so many players the Browns could look to keep on longer term deals might add an element of pressure to try to knock out at least a couple in the next two months.

It would be pretty stunning if the Browns don't get some deals knocked out in the next six to eight weeks, especially as players have confirmed their agents and the team are talking. They only have one tag they can use, so if players have a great season, it makes sense for them to test free agency. This is the time when the Browns have leverage, so they need to make the most of it.

So, it becomes about the priority to get deals done right now.

1. Baker Mayfield, Quarterback

Spare me anything along the lines of why the Browns should want to wait another year to get this one done. They thoroughly believe in Mayfield and they have every incentive to get this one done as soon as possible.

Even if they weren't sure if Mayfield was the franchise guy, it would cost them a significant amount of money to wait another year and they are conscious of the salary cap and the challenges ahead of them. Particularly when the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens could be looking to sign their quarterbacks to extensions this summer as well, waiting means that when Mayfield does come up, he will only get paid more for it.

Over the life of the deal, it could cost them as much as $30 million dollars over the length of the deal in terms of the salary cap. That money represents talent that could be placed around Mayfield. Waiting would mean Mayfield would have less talent around him, so if he's not a franchise quarterback, he will actually have less help, which is backwards.

The notion that they can pull the ripcord on Mayfield if he doesn't progress as they hope is easier said than done. Look no further than the Los Angeles Rams. Even if they didn't owe Jared Goff a mint, they still had to give up a boat load of draft capital to acquire Matthew Stafford. Anything short of a Super Bowl victory is a failure for that team and Stafford has two less playoff starts than Mayfield.

For Mayfield or any athlete at this point in their career, it's really difficult to turn down generational wealth.

Get it done, so the team can be planned around him. Ideally, get it done before Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen are signed.

2. Denzel Ward, Corner

Of the other players the Browns have, Ward may not be as proven as anyone would prefer, but he plays the scarcest position. It's inescapable that Ward misses about four games per year, but he's also an excellent cover corner. Not a Pro Bowl player to this point, but still quite good.

If Ward is going to make a jump, this would be the year. The defense is significantly improved and he will be able to play more man coverage, where he excels. If he can stay healthy and play at a high level combined with the visibility of the team, Ward could reap the rewards and then price that into future demands for a contract.

It's also going to be worthwhile to get ahead of the Green Bay Packers and a deal with Jaire Alexander, because he is arguably the top corner in the NFL right now. The Browns don't want to end up paying Ward for Alexander's success simply by having him be next in line. The good news is the Packers likely have to wait until next year to work out an extension with Alexander.

3. Wyatt Teller, Guard

Wyatt Teller was a breakout star in 2020 at right guard and he was the best run blocker in the NFL last year. Unfortunately, as great as he was, he the better part of six games with injuries.

The good news is that Teller will only be 27 this season (he's a few months younger than Jack Conlin) and the injuries he suffered are not a concern in terms the structural integrity of his legs. Best case scenario is Teller follows a similar path as Joel Bitonio did in his career where he missed time with some weird injuries and then broke through with an impressive streak of play, which has included four years without an injury and three seasons with an All-Pro nod.

The other thing that works in Teller's favor is that the Browns money on the line is largely invested in older players between Bitonio and J.C. Tretter. Those two could be places to ultimately get the money for extending Teller as well.

Last but certainly not least, guard is incredibly important when it comes to Baker Mayfield. Being that he is short relatively to the position, having strong guard play is critical and while there are a number of reasons he played poorly in 2019, it's worth noting that he was better when the guards were stable.

4. Nick Chubb, Running Back

The Browns would be fine if they cannot get a deal with Chubb, but he's one of the best in the league and he's in a great situation. Kareem Hunt will be brought up as a top 10 to 15 running back in the entire league and through two years together, Chubb averages a full yard more than Hunt.

While the arguments against paying a running back are legitimate, the idea that a front office that believes in data would see it as a non-starter should consider what the team is paying for. If the Browns are operating from the standpoint that the salary cap is for the sake of buying wins, Chubb has a great argument to be extended. Now, that deal should probably be three years with an out after two by virtue of how the position can deteriorate over time, but there hasn't been a reason to expect Chubb to fall off in the near future.

The flexibility they have with Hunt is valuable when it comes to Chubb. Hunt is scheduled to earn $6.25 million in 2022, but it's easy to move. So if they can't work out a deal with Chubb, they can keep Hunt. If they do work out a deal with Chubb, they could potentially trade or release Hunt. That would mitigate the new salary Chubb would get at least in the first year.

5. Ronnie Harrison, Safety

Harrison is the sleeper in this group and the lack of being able to predict his market is the sticky wicket that prevents from being ranked higher. The Browns value the safety position quite a bit as illustrated by their investment in Grant Delpit, signing John Johnson III while still having Harrison in the mix, a result of a trade for a fifth round pick during the season in 2020.

Harrison was a huge boost to the Browns defense once he got on the field and he had no offseason to speak of with the team. This year, he does. Harrison could benefit as much as anyone from all the talent the Browns have added this offseason, because even just thinking about the roster, he can put on the back burner.

Johnson's contract is extremely reasonable, so the Browns could easily afford to extend Harrison without going over budget for the safety position. Harrison only turned 24 in April, so his best football could be ahead of him.

If the Browns could get Harrison locked up for around $5 million per season give or take, they might want to jump on it because he might be someone that could cash in as a free agent if he has a great year.

Harrison is not only talented, but it might be the Browns opportunity to capitalize on a talent that hasn't quite fully blossomed yet but wants to guarantee themselves a lucrative career.

6. David Njoku, Tight End

The reason Njoku finds himself rated this low is entirely about proven productivity. If Njoku has a breakout 2021 season, he becomes a huge priority to get extended. His receiving production doesn't show it, but he was the best tight end on the team at the end of the 2020 season and in the playoffs.

Njoku went from a pretty good run blocker to an exceptional all-purpose blocker. He flashed brilliance in the receiving game in games that bookended the season, which unfortunately had an injury in between.

The team also bears some responsibility for not utilizing more in the passing game. If he can realize his massive potential, the tight end position is the best investment in football. They are significantly cheaper than wide receivers and arguably do more to help an offense. The Browns, given the way they run their offense, can absolutely pay both Austin Hooper and Njoku as franchise tight ends so long as they play up to that level.

7. Rashaad Higgins, Wide Receiver

Everything would suggest that Higgins is being groomed to be extended, taking on the role of Jarvis Landry for 2022. Landry is set to make $16.55 million in 2022, which is an insane amount of money. The Browns could save $15.05 million in cap space if they move on from Landry and Higgins could likely be kept for a third of the rate.

In 2018 and 2020, Higgins was a more efficient receiver than Landry and was the best receiver on the Browns in 2020. The team will likely wait on him until he can repeat the performance he had last season, both in terms of production and staying healthy, but the fact he even opted to re-sign for this year, when he could be the fourth receiver on the depth chart, at least suggests Higgins understands that if he continues to play well, he will be rewarded.

That savings of moving on from Landry for Higgins would cover Mayfield's entire pay raise that he's scheduled to get in 2022 with a little left over.

READ MORE: What We Learned From Mike Priefer's Presser

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