Now that the Cleveland Browns have decided to match the offer sheet the Jacksonville Jaguars gave free-agent center Alex Mack, there will be plenty of debate about the real winners in this.
We’ll save you the time. The answer is everyone.
Let’s start with Mack. He will be under contract for $42 million over five years, with $18 million guaranteed in the first two years and another $8 million guaranteed in 2016 if he doesn’t void the deal before that season. In a league in which the teams often have control over a player’s fate and can retain potential free agents with franchise and transition tags, Mack has gained leverage.
Mack is the one who will decide where he will play in 2016 and beyond. He will be 30 then and have the option to continue with the Browns or hit the free-agent market for another nice payday. Perhaps by then he’ll be convinced this new Browns regime won’t continue the mistakes of the past and maybe, just maybe, Mike Pettine will still be the head coach and Ray Farmer the general manager. Even then, Mack has a hammer he can drop. He can tell the Browns to sweeten the next three years on his deal or he’ll opt out.
Mack went from having little say over his future to having a whole lot. With a $10 million salary coming his way in 2014 when the team designated him its transition player, he basically agreed to one more year at $8 million in exchange for his freedom. The Browns cannot place the tag on him at any point, per a clause in the contract. Mack’s representatives also put a no-trade clause in there, which was designed to prevent Cleveland from matching the offer and then dealing him away.
Some have questioned why Mack didn’t get himself a void after this upcoming season to gain his freedom sooner. They’re forgetting the Jaguars had to agree to whatever is on the offer sheet, and a one-year void is not desirable for a team. The Jaguars weren’t just complicit in a scheme to poke at the Browns. They made an honest play for a very good player.
Of course, the Jags surely understood there was a good chance the Browns would match. They wound up right where they started, which is to say there was nothing lost or gained on their end.
But we said everyone wins here. And Jacksonville did, too. For years, the Jags have been battling against the perception they’re not a prime destination in the NFL. The fact they haven’t been consistently competitive for a while is both a result of that belief and a contributing factor to it. Yet, Mack identified the Jaguars as a team for which he’d like to play. From the sound of things, he was uncertain on the plane ride there. By the time he was heading home to California, following meetings with energetic coach Gus Bradley, general manager Dave Caldwell and others, he was sold on the future of the Jags.
A top free agent wanted to be a Jaguar. That’s a win in the perception department going forward.
That’s where the Browns take the biggest shot here — from an image standpoint. They could have easily locked Mack into taking a one-year deal if they’d just given him the franchise tag for an extra $1.6 million. That would have scared off all suitors.
Instead, the Browns played a game of chicken with Mack. They told him to go find a long-term offer and then bring it back via an offer sheet. That’s exactly what happened, and now they’ve let another team dictate the terms. Given Mack had been trying to find ways to get paid over the long term while giving himself short-term protection, he surely must have proposed a long-term deal with an option to void like he got from Jacksonville. In other words, the Browns just matched a deal very similar in structure to one they were previously unwilling to do.
The Browns have been battered and bloodied in this fight. But they’re still standing.
They will welcome back a Pro Bowl center at a rate that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid center, though not by an exorbitant amount. (Mack’s $9 million average per year over two seasons is less than $1 million more than the Carolina Panthers’ Ryan Kalil. At $8.4 million per year over the length of the deal, Mack has an edge of $200,000 per season.) Pettine, Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam will also have two years to show Mack they’re not the same old Browns. Consider it a probationary period.
And don’t expect Mack to be bitter now that he’s returning to Cleveland. He’s smart and he’s a professional. He’ll say the right things and won’t pout. Truth be told, he’s not against playing in Cleveland right now. If he were, he’d have never signed an offer sheet. He’d have tried to pull a Carson Palmer and told the Browns he’d hold out until they dealt him.
But Mack saved himself and the Browns that trouble. And in the process, he gave the Jaguars a bit of a boost.
Much as it doesn’t fit the win-loss model of NFL offseason debates, the fact is everyone has benefited on this one.