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The Browns’ Phil Savage: A Gambler in Nerd’s Clothing

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A consensus seems to be emerging that the flurry of activity at Cleveland Browns Central initiated by ringmaster/general manager Phil Savage last week is a bold initiative to win now. Maybe, but one thing that is indisputable is that Savage’s moves are the biggest gamble of his career, by a large margin.

In two very distinct ways, Savage has sacrificed the immediate future. He has essentially set ablaze three early round draft picks in the 2008 draft and the various benefits that tend to inure from them if you draft well while at the same time creating potential salary cap hell a few years down the road. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation and a reminder that in football, like most other enterprises, there is no potential for growth without some risk.

But whether Savage’s maneuvering turns into a growth opportunity or a short-term stroke with long-term pain is far from clear. There are various schools of thought on this, but the conventional wisdom is that you build teams through the draft, not free agency. Paying and often overpaying for someone else’s rejects is supposed to be more of a supplement, the final piece or two of a team on the precipice of going deep in the playoffs. Rarely do you see a team, particularly a successful team, part with draft picks.

Where the Browns fit into that matrix is uncertain. They accelerated their growth last year via both the draft and free agency so they aren’t exactly in a total rebuild mode. But with one of the worst defenses in the entire league, the Browns don’t exactly meet the definition of a successful team quite yet, let alone a Super Bowl contender. That’s why most in the league aren’t quite sure of what to make of Savage and the Browns at this point.

Perhaps to blunt this inevitable criticism, Browns head coach Romeo Crennel told the media on Monday, if it helps, just think of quarterback Brady Quinn as this year’s number one pick, defensive lineman Corey Williams as this year’s second round pick and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers as this year’s third round pick. Dangling that observation in front of someone with a computer and an outlet is like dangling a bottle of hooch in front of Mischa Barton.

See, the problem with such goofy analogies by a head coach who has enough trouble keeping track of time outs is that they are, well, goofy. (Would the Browns have drafted a quarterback of Quinn’s caliber in the first round this summer given the re-signing of Derek Anderson?) But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not fair to debate his real point: whether the Browns are as well positioned with their recent acquisitions as they would be had they instead held on to their draft picks.

The real benefit of the two trades, even at the expense of the second and third round picks, is that it let the Browns obtain players with an established NFL resume. Draft picks, even early round ones, are still a crapshoot and will always be until some fail-safe mechanism for evaluating the inherent ambiguities of young athletes is invented.

But that same benefit of swapping draft picks for existing players is also its downside. Williams, for example, illustrates both sides. A former sixth round pick, he’s nonetheless been an effective defensive tackle for the Packers, certainly more effective than anyone the Browns had on the defensive line last season. Likely he’ll have a better 2008 than anyone the Browns could have obtained with their second round pick. But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether, in four years or less, that mythical second round pick they now don’t have could surpass Williams in production.

Rogers is even more of a conundrum. To be charitable, the word out of Detroit is hardly encouraging. Rogers has a history of accomplishment with an equal amount of attitude and defiance. He’s overweight and almost seemed to balloon up purposely to make some sort of bizarre point with the Lions management last season. But these were hardly unknowns. Indeed, Crennel admitted as much saying that he felt that that there would be enough stabilizing influences inside the Browns locker room to keep Rogers on track. Certainly that can happen, as was the case when both Corey Dillon and Randy Moss went to New England. But Gerard Warren in Denver didn’t work out too well, so it isn’t always the case that the players can police their own.

Even if both Rogers and Williams have more upside than comparable 2008 draft picks, Savage’s actions on Friday have to be considered as a whole and not piecemeal.

This is where the salary cap implications kick in.

Assuming that the NFL and the players ultimately solve their differences with respect to the collective bargaining agreement and a similar salary cap stays in place for the foreseeable future, the signings of Anderson, Williams, Rogers, and Donte’ Stallworth have the potential to linger far longer than any 2008 contributions. While the full details of the contracts of each haven’t been disclosed yet, what has been reported with respect to guaranteed money is quite instructive and not just because it will require owner Randy Lerner to dip a bit further into his fortune.

Williams is slated for at least $16 million in guaranteed money on his six-year contract. Stallworth has about $10 million in guaranteed money on a seven-year contract, and Rogers has $18 million guaranteed on a six-year contract. Anderson has somewhere between $14.5 and 15.5 million in guaranteed money on his three-year contract. Since salaries are rarely guaranteed, these dollars likely represent a combination of signing and roster bonuses, perhaps easily achievable performance bonuses as well.

If each played out the term of his contract, the bonus would hit the salary cap on a prorated basis. In the case of Williams, for example, his bonus is worth $2.66 million of salary cap space each year, based on the length of his current contract. The problem comes if one or more of them don’t stick around.

Like most long-term contracts, the salary piece probably ramps up in later years since the guaranteed money is usually paid up front. Thus, when the salary to be paid in later years — coupled with the cap hit for the bonus in that year — begins to exceed the player’s value to the team, he’ll be cut. Think Orpheus Roye. Heck, think Donte’ Stallworth.

When that occurs (not if), the remaining prorated share of the bonuses is then accelerated into the year the player is cut. Thus, the team ends up with less salary cap to work with even though the player is otherwise gone. It’s exactly why former Browns head coach Butch Davis essentially purged the Browns only playoff team several years ago.

These may be problems for another day and another season, but they most certainly are on the horizon. Much can happen between now and then, but the Browns can’t be successful each and every year playing this kind of shell game with free agents at the expense of draft choices. At some point, the lack of draft choices this year will become more noticeable in much the same way as if the Browns had squandered the choices with poor decisions. It’s what put the Browns in the hole Savage is trying to dig them out of now.

The gamble Savage took may be the final jump the Browns need to become a force in the league, but if Savage wants to keep it that way, there is much more juggling he has to do. If he isn’t successful, then another rebuilding program isn’t too far in the future for this franchise and Savage can go back to doing what he loves best, scouting.

Only it will most certainly be with another team.

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About Gary D. Benz

  • Josh

    Gary –
    I can summarize your article in a couple simple statements.
    This time of year when a team signs free agents or makes trades for players that people have heard of (at least knowledgeable football fans) it makes a splash and is viewed as daring.

    No one knows the future. I’m not sure if I’d feel any better if we had any of those draft picks and needed to find run stoppers and a second WR. Not to mention, do you really think its not an advantage to have guys who have played a few years as opposed to rookie draft picks who have never played at this level?

    Whether or not the Browns are really SB contenders yet isn’t entirely the issue. In my opinion they’ve turned the corner from a perenial expansion roster void of first string talent, to a team with legitimate stars to build around.

    Do you really think there is such a large gap between the bottom and the top of the NFL? I think with even a mediocre run defense (say ranked 15th) the Browns would not only have won the division but also probably advanced at least a round in the playoffs.

    My final assessment is that your article really doesn’t say anything. Savage is taking a risk with free agents as opposed to taking a risk with draft picks. And don’t forget that the Browns #1 pick in the 2008 draft is now a one year veteran of their team.

    Best,
    Josh

  • Gary

    Josh:

    The Browns have taken a step forward with these signings just as they did a year ago. The drafting of Joe Thomas helped tremendously as well. They are now much closer to being a legitimate contender than anytime since they returned. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a gamble. There are too many examples of teams that “went for it all” only to wind up in salary cap hell down the road and without a Super Bowl ring to show for it. That doesn’t mean that will happen to the Browns, but Savage has certainly introduced that element with the signings, the length of the contracts (done for cap purposes) and the guaranteed money.

  • nicolas

    i think crennel has a point. i dont think that, given where cleveland would be drafting, the talent they would acquire in the draft would be significantly better than the talent they acquired FOR those picks. The QB’s who are worthy of a later first round pick are probably on par with quinn, the #2 WR’s in the draft are probably on par with stallworth.

    granted, they WAY overpaid for stallworth, but perhaps they’re thinking he can have the same kind of runoff success playing behind braylon edwards that he had playing behind moss. not even a remotely outlandish assumption, but certainly not worth a seven year contract. (i personally would have thrown a take-it-or-leave-it four year 20 million deal at him. that seems about what stallworth is worth)

  • Chris McVetta

    Gary,

    Are you saying that Phil Savage is the NFL-equivalent of a “North Coast Opie” in elf’s clothing?

    Regardless, I have the utmost faith in Phil Savage – AND his talent evaluation abilities.

    That being said, I am also not completely comfortable trading away all of our draft picks either – but I think Savage has done a great job in free agency this year (and beyond), nonetheless.

    However, I don’t necessarily agree with paying Derek Anderson the kind of “Tom Brady money” that the Browns have given to D.A. in the meantime.

    I would have LOVED to trade Anderson to the Dolphins in exchange for a shot at Darren McFadden – but, with Bill Parcells large and in charge, that probably was never going to happen.

    Whatever the case, I can at least gasp a sigh of relief knowing that the Browns have TWO good quarterbacks in their offensive arsenal.

    Or so it would seem…

  • Eric S.

    Gary, nice piece, you’re a good writer.

    I’ll agree that these moves were indeed gambles, but you failed to point out that this is a very weak draft class. In my opinion, that’s what motivated Savage to move the picks. I also think Savage realized that there was no QB coming out this year that had Quinn’s ability- so looking at BQ as this year’s first rounder is very logical.

    Let’s just say, I’m not sold on Matt Ryan, and honestly, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Quinn starting for the Browns in ’09.