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It's baptism by fire for Browns new decision-makers

Mar 05, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

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The Morning Kickoff …

Doing business: Browns President Alec Scheiner affirmed on Tuesday that GM Ray Farmer is making all the key football decisions.

"Ultimately, that’s Ray Farmer's job, and Ray's an expert,'' Scheiner said in an interview with one of the club’s radio partners, WKRK-FM. "He's been doing this so long, he's such a smart guy, and all of us just follow his lead.”

I know that time flies, but Farmer has been a general manager only since Feb. 11 – less than a month. That is not exactly a long time.

In conjunction with coach Mike Pettine – who is also a rookie – Farmer is in the midst of some crucial decisions that will determine whether the Browns climb out of their hole or dig a deeper one. A lot is going on.

The release of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson

A $4 million roster bonus due on March 16 was a convenient excuse to sever ties with the undisputed team leader. But make no mistake, this was also a football decision made by Pettine.

Pettine is used to having playmakers at inside linebacker – Ray Lewis in Baltimore, David Harris with the Jets, Kiko Alonso in Buffalo. On video review of the Browns’ season, Pettine saw a lot of tackles by Jackson but not as many plays as he was used to.

Jackson is at the stage of his career where he can fill a role with a Super Bowl contender, but not lead a losing team out of the wilderness. He deserves to experience a winning situation as former teammates Mike Adams (Broncos) and Phil Dawson (49ers) recently have.

The challenge for Pettine and Farmer now is to replace Jackson with a young player capable of producing more on the field. The leadership void, I believe, can be filled by the natural maturation of existing players on defense.

The transition tag applied to center Alex Mack

Mack should have been re-signed before it got to this point. That’s not Farmer’s fault. The coaching and front office changes delayed a new contract and caused the Browns to react to Monday’s deadline of using a franchise or transition tag.

By applying the $10.039 million transition tag -- rather than the $11.6 million franchise tag -- Farmer saved about $1.6 million, at least temporarily, on the salary cap. But using the tag, in my opinion, lessened the chance of securing Mack to a long-term contract.

Mack can now elect to play the 2014 season for a guaranteed salary of $10.039 million – a preposterous sum for a center. And then he can re-enter free agency all over again in 2015 and expect even a higher guaranteed salary.

If Mack really wanted to stay in Cleveland, he would sign the transition tender ASAP – as did Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds – and enter into serious talks for a long-term deal.

By holding off, Mack will measure interest from other teams. I doubt that another team will make a competitive offer knowing the Browns – with all that cap room – can match.

Ultimately, the Browns are looking at the prospect of grossly overpaying a center for one season and then possibly losing him for nothing in 2015.

The cool shoulder shown safety T.J. Ward

Ward’s agent, Josh Arnold, issued a statement on Tuesday that essentially verified the Browns are not overly interested in re-signing Ward.

At the same time, Pettine is eyeing the situation with free safety Jairus Byrd, whom he coached last year in Buffalo. Failing several attempts to secure a long-term deal with Byrd, the Bills refrained from franchise-tagging him a second year in a row. Byrd likely will enter free agency on March 11.

If the Browns let Ward leave in free agency and were able to sign Byrd, I would say that was a good trade-off.

The Oregon teammates came out in consecutive drafts. Byrd was 42nd overall in 2009, Ward 38th in 2010. Byrd is a ball-hawk free safety, Ward a hard-hitting strong safety. In the pass-happy era of the NFL, Byrd’s value may be higher. But Ward is appealing to teams with other needs and no doubt will find a suitor.

This is an either/or proposition because both safeties will command big dollars and no team would devote the sum of both contracts to the safety positions.

Pettine may be a strong attraction for Byrd. But there are other attractions out there.

Byrd’s father, Gil, is defensive backs coach for Lovie Smith with Tampa Bay, which has a geographical advantage over Cleveland. And Byrd’s college coach, Chip Kelly, may come calling to reunite him with the Eagles – a playoff team.

So the competition for Byrd could be fierce. If the Browns let Ward walk, they better have Byrd in hand – or else they have created another need.

These are not easy transactions, quite a baptism by fire for Farmer and Pettine.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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