Denzel Ward’s extension impact on Browns salary cap

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With three moves this offseason, the Cleveland Browns have been spending Dee and Jimmy Haslam’s money like it will disappear if they don’t. Fans don’t care about very wealthy owners’ money but they do care about the salary cap. The cap is an often discussed mechanism of the NFL that seems to be so flexible as to “not be real” while being so important that teams make roster decisions based on it.

The shifting sands of the salary cap depend on where a team is in its competitive window. The Browns obviously believe they are squarely in a window to win a Super Bowl. So far this offseason they have:

  • Traded for Amari Cooper and his three years, $60 million contract

  • Traded for Deshaun Watson then gave him a fully guaranteed contract worth $230 million

  • Extended Denzel Ward’s contract for five years, $100 million with over $70 guaranteed

Last year, the team gave Myles Garrett a five-year, $125 million deal.

While the structure of Ward’s new contract is not known yet, his 2022 cap hit could be impacted. On the fifth year of his rookie contract, the former Ohio State Buckeye is set to cost $13.2 million against the salary cap. Like the shifting sands of a desert, if his cap hit is lessened in 2022 it will cost more in future years.

It is the future where things can get difficult. For 2023, Cleveland has the following locked up on contract extensions or significant free agent deals, paying good money for their positions:

David Njoku hasn’t signed his franchise tag as the team attempts to add a long-term deal with their young tight end.

In 2024, Watson and Garrett are combined to cost Cleveland over $86 million in salary-cap space. Cooper, Chubb, Bitonio and Teller will combine to cost around $70 million that year with Ward’s still to be determined significant cap hit to add to that group.

While the salary cap is expected to expand rapidly, the Browns will have over $200 million committed in salary cap space in 2024 to only 20 players. While Berry and company can shift some of that around, as many teams do, at some point the bill may become due.

For now, Cleveland is acting like most good teams do when they are in their competitive window. Signing your top players and making the rest work around them, including hitting on draft picks, is generally the key to success in the NFL.

For the first time since the return, the Browns have a great, young foundation of players and have most of them signed for a few years. The cost is great but the reward could be much greater.