Focusing On The Center
Suppose, at the dawn of free agency today at 4 p.m. ET, you could buy a 28-year-old player, injury-free and a solid leader. All analysts would say this guy is a top-five player at his position, with seven or eight prime seasons ahead. Suppose he wanted to leave his current team and would structure a contract to make that happen. Suppose he’d been in the NFL for 80 games and started every one of them. And suppose you could do a deal with this player for, say, about 8 percent of your salary cap over the next four or five years.
And suppose the average NFL team, as of this morning, has $21.3 million to spend under the salary cap.
It would be tempting.
That is the case of center Alex Mack.
The Browns took a chance with Mack in the days before free agency dawned, placing the little-used transition tag on him rather than the costlier (by $1 million) franchise tag. Cleveland would get first-round draft-choice compensation if Mack had been franchised and jumped to a new team. But with the transition tag, the rules are different. The Browns committed to paying Mack $10 million in 2014, the average of the 10 highest-paid offensive linemen; if another team makes Mack a contract offer, Cleveland would have five days to match. If the Browns match, they would retain Mack. If they didn’t match, they’d lose him, and would get nothing in compensation from the signing team.
Late Monday, Mack’s agent, Marvin Demoff, told me he thinks he could write a deal that would be tough for the Browns to match. He also said he has not spoken with any teams about Mack, in compliance with the rules that say players who get transition-tagged cannot speak to any interested teams until the free-agent signing period opens.
“I’m confident we can come up with a structure that would have a reasonable likelihood to not be matched by the Browns—and would be in full compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement,’’ Demoff said by phone from his Los Angeles office.
(Fairness in journalism here: Demoff is also my agent. Each time I write about a client of his, I make sure you know of the potential conflict of interest, so you can make your own decision whether to believe I am writing the story fairly or not. In this case, you might believe I am writing this column strictly to help Demoff drum up business for Mack. But I feel writing about it shines a light on a player who might be, other than Jimmy Graham, the best player at his position on the market this season, and in a free-agency season in which teams have more money under the cap collectively than they have in years, I believe a column about Mack is valid.)
How will Demoff structure such an offer sheet? That’s publicly unknown right now, but clearly it has to be a structure that lives within in the rules of the CBA—and doesn’t contain a so-called fluky “poison pill’’ clause that some teams have tried to insert in contracts for tagged free-agent players in the past. The poison pill happened in 2006, when transition-tagged Seattle guard Steve Hutchinson was signed to a seven-year, $49-million deal with Minnesota, and the Vikings put in a clause saying the pact would be totally guaranteed if Hutchinson was not the highest-paid offensive lineman on his team. At the time, Walter Jones was the highest-paid Seahawks offensive lineman, so Seattle couldn’t match. The ’Hawks filed a grievance and lost Hutchinson to Minnesota. That deal led the league to forbid clauses specifically designed for the original team to be unable to match.
So if Demoff has an idea up his sleeve, one he is currently unwilling to publicize to other teams till today at 4 p.m., it’s likely he’s researched it and found it passes NFL muster. Any such offer would have to be painful or overly restrictive to Cleveland, a team that has enough money to match any deal and clearly has a ton of respect for Mack—but also a team that has had multiple chances to re-sign Mack and hasn’t gotten it done.
The most likely team to pursue Mack is cash-rich Jacksonville, with a center (Brad Meester) who just retired and a gaping hole there. But I don’t believe the Jags would want to pay a center gigantic money.
We’ll see if another team steps up. If I had to guess, I’d guess no team would step up to give Mack an offer sheet. But if one does, it will be one of the great stories of a wealthy free-agency season.
Now onto your email of the week:
I DON’T GET IT. Teams go too crazy for free-agency. It’s been proven time and time again that the way to build a team is through the draft. So why do we get sucked in every year around this time?
Great question. I am almost on your side on this, but then I see a team like Seattle, and how much the Seahawks helped themselves with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett last year. I think you’re right—the best thing is to draft and develop your own. But there’s no one single way to build a champion. Free agency helps, when you pay players what they’re worth.
THE RELATIVE WORTH OF CORNERBACKS. With defensive backs being paid better than wide receivers, do you expect to see a decline in talented offensive players coming from high school into college, and switching to a higher paying defensive role? The next Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant may play defensive back. I think the current pay structure will affect the quality of the game far more then people realize. And more shutdown cornerbacks with less skilled wide receivers will widen the gap considerably.
—Mitch Masuk, Regina, Canada
Not sure your premise is true, about corners making more than wideouts. Mike Wallace got a $13 million annual average from the Dolphins last year, but we’ll wait and see about the final tallies this spring. You are right in this way: Cornerbacks are becoming valued significantly more this year. I don’t know if it will set a trend, because a player the size of Calvin Johnson is not going to be able to play corner or safety as nimbly as lighter players. But we’ll see how it plays out.
HE THINKS TIGHT ENDS ARE OVERPAID. Maybe it is me and I do not understand. I really think it is the media. When did tight end become such a vital area that required you to pay millions of dollars for one? When was the last time a team won a Super Bowl with these so-called “best in the game tight ends?” You write about the era of the tight end and drafting tight ends high in the first round. Who was tight end for Seattle, Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, New England, Indianapolis, New Orleans [when those teams won Super Bowls]? Functional but not great. What has New Orleans won with Jimmy Graham, Atlanta with Tony Gonzalez, New England with Rob Gronkowski?
Superb question. Thanks for writing it. I think tight end is a valuable position, but there’s a reason why I’d never pay a tight end $10-11 million per plus two first-round picks: You can find valuable role-playing tight ends to help you win in the third round for a fraction of that. Dennis Pitta, Zach Miller, Jake Ballard … all contributing players on good offenses that helped teams win but didn’t dictate a victory. Now, Gronkowski is a great player and the Patriots were very close to winning a Super Bowl with him, and he’d have been the most important offensive weapon. And Pitta is a huge red-zone threat for Joe Flacco. But I agree with you: Tight end is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing.
THE JACKSONVILLE SEAHAWKS. What’s this with the Jags getting a lot of Seattle coaches and players? Gus Bradley’s coaching approach, scheme and even the music at practices seem like a replica of Pete Carroll. I know it’s a copycat league, but is this actually a good strategy for the struggling Jags?
Imitation, in this case, is smart. Gus Bradley knows the Seattle players and Seattle system, so why wouldn’t he try to replicate some of it in Jacksonville? I wouldn’t be surprised if Golden Tate is next for Jacksonville, which needs a wideout. Or two.