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Browns over salary cap, but Berry has things under control | Jeff Schudel

Feb. 24—"Manipulate" is a word that conjures thoughts of shady dealing when it is used to describe how an executive of a sports franchise goes about his business.

A better word to describe Browns general manager Andrew Berry at this time of the year is to say he and his staff are experts at "massaging" the salary cap.

The Browns were projected to be about $20 million over the cap for 2024 when the 2023 season ended. Even then, Berry wasn't worried. But on Feb. 23, the NFL announced the salary cap for 2024 will be $255.4 million — a whopping increase of more than $30 million from the 2023 cap of $ 224.8 million.

The adjusted number means the Browns are "only" $6.3 million over the cap. That gives Berry and his crew plenty of room to restructure contracts of players with the highest salaries and still have money left over to lure free agents or re-sign some of their own free agents.

The Browns do not have to allocate money for a first-round draft pick because their first-round pick belongs to the Houston Texans as partial payment in the March 2022 trade to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson. That fact, financially, anyway, works in Berry's favor.

"As we look at the contract management space, it's not something that we think about just at the time or one year at a time," Berry said last month at his season-ending news conference. "It's something that you really do spend multiple years planning for. That's an area that we're very confident in. We view it as a strategic advantage for us and we'll continue to operate in a way that allows us to maximize the team."

Watson carries a cap hit of $63,977,000 in 2024. His base salary is $46 million. The cap hit is high in part because he has a restructure bonus of nearly $9 million from when his contract was adjusted last year to create salary cap space. The same thing is likely to happen in the next couple weeks with the 2024 league year set to start March 13.

Players do not lose money when a contract is restructured. Part of the player's 2024 salary is converted into a signing bonus. The player gets the bonus money as soon as the ink dries; the team gets to stretch out the bonus through the life of the contract.

Watson is under contract to the Browns through 2026. He hasn't produced like he did in 2019 and 2020 with the Texans, but that's a subject for another story — one that has been written many, many times already. He has played in only 12 of a possible 35 games with the Browns.

Eventually, there will come a time when the Browns will no longer be able to kick the Watson can down the road, but the way Berry sees it, that won't happen in this decade. In other words, the Browns are already thinking about a contract extension for Watson.

"When we made the trade, we really looked at it as, 'Hey, this is something that we'll evaluate like a 10-year time horizon because these guys play,'" Berry said in his season wrap-up. "Obviously, we want him on the field more often than he's been.

"He can't help the shoulder injuries this year, but we're really pleased with him. He's very talented. He's very hardworking. He's adaptable and we really feel good about him moving forward."

Wide receiver Amari Cooper has the second-highest cap hit among Browns players at $23,776,000. Redoing his contract would require an extension because he is not under contract for 2025. Cooper, 31, is indisputably the Browns' best wide receiver.

Denzel Ward is next with a cap hit of $23,462,822. He is under contract through 2027, so his deal can be reworked.

Nick Chubb is the tricky one. He has a cap hit of $15,825,000. Chubb suffered a left knee injury in the second game of 2023 when the Browns were playing on "Monday Night Football" in Pittsburgh. Four separate surgeries repaired all the damage. Three were performed at the same time in September. Chubb's ACL was repaired in November.

Chubb, 28, has a base salary of $11,775,000 for 2024. He is not under contract beyond the upcoming season. Restructuring his contract would require an extension.

"Nobody wants to see that carry in Pittsburgh be the last time he carries the ball for the Cleveland Browns," Berry said. "Obviously there are things that we'll have to work through, but that would not be our intention. We obviously will work to keep him on the team."

Chubb would carry a dead cap hit of $4 million if he is cut.

Not all the restructuring has to be done before the 2024 league year begins next month — just enough to get under the $255.8 million salary cap.

I didn't know that

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