Can the Cleveland Browns Afford to Let T.J. Ward and Alex Mack Walk in Free Agency?

Updated: December 21, 2013

The front office of the Cleveland Browns led by CEO Joe Banner has made it clear through their actions that the 2014 season is when they expect a big jump in the team’s win total.

The 2014 offseason, like just about every other offseason since the Browns returned in 1999, is being tagged as the most important offseason since their return. The Browns will certainly be as active as any team in the draft, and most likely make one or two significant signings in free agency. Their first order of business though will be to decide whether or not to re-sign two of their most respected players in safety T.J. Ward and center Alex Mack.

Both Ward and Mack will be unrestricted free agents heading into the offseason, and they will most likely be looking for contracts that will make them among the highest-paid players at their position.

Let’s first discuss Ward.

Ward has always been a great run-stopping safety that has brought a real physicality and attitude to the secondary since being drafted by the Browns in 2010. But this year, Ward has really taken his game to the next level by really improving in coverage and taking on a leadership position. At only 27-years old, he is just now hitting the prime of his career.

How can the Browns (who win four or five games every year) be in position to let a player they drafted leave right when he is coming into his own as a playmaker, on a team that has so very few?

Banner is notorious for his salary cap management skills and putting a premium on certain key positions, while filling other positions with mid-to-low draft picks that are still playing on their rookie contracts. Banner would probably say that the safety position isn’t of high value, and the organization needs to save their money to re-sign players at the “difference-making positions” (i.e. quarterback, pass-rusher, receivers, defensive line and offensive tackles).

The emergence of Tashaun Gipson has made it even easier on the front office to justify not bringing back Ward at the money he is going to demand on the open market. Undrafted rookie safety Josh Aubrey (who head coach Rob Chudzinski recently praised in his press conference this week) is an internal option that the coaching staff and front office could be comfortable with replacing Ward.

Like Ward, Mack also happens to play a position that Banner doesn’t seem to value as highly. Yes, Mack is one of the Browns Top 10 players and very durable (only second to Joe Thomas). But, when Banner was in Philadelphia, the Eagles won five NFC Championship Games and went to one Super Bowl with two undrafted players starting for them at center – Hank Fraley and Jamaal Jackson. That’s one of the likely reasons behind the stashing of center Patrick Lewis on their regular roster most of the season until the team needed roster room to add a couple quarterbacks. Lewis was then designated to the practice squad (Lewis was signed off the practice squad by the Jaguars this week).

The team could still use the franchise tag on either Ward or Mack if they can’t come to an agreement on a long-term contract.

If they don’t bring back Ward and Mack, they still have the potential to make the playoffs if Brian Hoyer can come back and play to the level of where he left off and they draft a couple impact players.  It’s tough to say which loss will hurt more without seeing their replacements, but in this writer’s opinion, if the team chooses to franchise tag one of them, it should be Ward.

Many teams are able to find solid centers in the lower rounds of the draft – even if they aren’t quite the quality of Mack. It’s harder to find an all-around safety like Ward who can adequately cover big, athletic tight ends that have become such a big part of the high octane offenses around the league.

However, if Ward and Mack are dead set on getting big money, it would make more sense for the Browns to let them walk. The Browns are still a few years away from being a complete team and they can’t afford to be giving Mack and Ward huge contracts when they still need to fill more important positions.

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