Sending a strong message to ownership, Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack opted out of the last three years of his contract. He is set to test the free agent market. Mack is leaving an annual salary of $8 million on his former Browns deal, including $8 million guaranteed.
Mack hasn’t turned his back on the Browns. It may not necessarily be the end of his days in Cleveland. Mack has been vocal about the franchise and its attempt to turn things around. He praised the hiring of Hue Jackson, but has also made it clear he wants to play for a winner. According to the Cleveland Browns site, the franchise has gone 33-79 since his drafting in 2009.
The talented center has a lot more left in the tank. At 30 years old, Mack should have no problem being picked up by a team in need of an experienced lineman. The three-time Pro Bowl, All-Pro could easily become the highest-paid center in the league. Mack could stand to make $10 million. Per rankings from Over The Cap, that would put Mack at the top of the heap. No NFL center has earned that amount.
Mack had a sit-down with the Browns in February. He met with coach Hue Jackson, director of football operations Sashi Brown, and new offensive line coach Hal Hunter to discuss the direction of the Browns. He had to decide by this Friday, with unrestricted free agency beginning March 9. It is in his contract that he cannot have the franchise tag applied.
According to Mack’s agent, Tim Younger, Mack could return to the Browns and still make the salary that would entrench him as the highest-paid center. His return to Cleveland is very possible.
“Alex is definitely leaving open the possibility of returning,” Younger said. “He enjoyed his visit last week, but this is the first opportunity he has had to truly choose where he will play next season.”
A huge factor going against Mack returning to Cleveland is the need to re-sign other top free agents. Receiver Travis Benjamin, free safety Tashaun Gipson, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are on the list to leave and are key parts that need to stay in the fold.
Watching Mack walk away would be acceptable if Cameron Erving had looked better at the guard position. Erving struggled to find himself on the line and didn’t live up to the Browns’ expectation as a replacement for Mack. Though Mack was recovering from a broken leg suffered in 2014, his play improved over the remainder of the 2015 season.
Mack’s agents can begin to take offers Monday. The Dolphins’ Mike Pouncy will be the center of comparison. His salary of $8.95 million will be the deal to beat. That may cause the Browns to think of grooming Erving into the player they picked in the first round.
The Arizona Cardinals are in need of a center, but they have already hinted that Mack is too expensive. The Cardinals have invested heavily in their offensive line over the last three years. Left tackle Jared Veldheer is making an average of $7 million a year. Left guard Mike Iupati averages $8 million. Two of the team’s last three first-round picks are offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper and tackle D.J. Humphries.
At this time of year, fans of every team start to wonder if big-name free agents will fill their needs. The Rams are also in need of an upgrade at center. Like the Browns, they also have key players to negotiate with. The speculation is always interesting to watch. Most of it boils down to cap space and who won’t break the bank.
Mack should have no problem fielding offers. He has years of football left to play.
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