Cleveland Browns: Transition Tag Decision Still Haunts Offensive Line


How does one key roster move decision back in 2014 still impact the Cleveland Browns to this day?

The Cleveland Browns have elected, once again, not to use their franchise tag, as the NFL’s tagging period ended Wednesday. This is the fifth year in a row that the Browns, who could have tagged wide receiver Terrelle Pryor this year, have not exercised their option to tag.

The last player to receive the franchise tag from Cleveland was kicker Phil Dawson in 2012. However, the Browns have used a different type of tag recently, as they placed the transition tag on center Alex Mack in 2014.

Ultimately, there are three different tags that teams can use – the exclusive tag, non-exclusive tag and transition tag. The exclusive tag allows the team’s exclusive negotiating rights with the player.

The non-exclusive tag allows other teams to enter negotiations with the player. If the player signs a contract with another team, the original team can either match the contract or allow the player to sign with another team, which would then send two first-round picks to the original team.

The transition tag is nearly identical to the non-exclusive tag. The only difference is the original team will receive no draft pick compensation if they do not match the contract.

So, in Mack’s case, he was able to sign a contact with another team. If the Browns did not match it, they would have received no compensation. And that is exactly what happened.

Mack signed an offer sheet with the Jacksonville Jaguars – five years, $42 million – which included an opt out after one season. The Browns matched the contract, but the opt out clause proved to be deadly.

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Last offseason, Mack opted out and ended up signing with the Atlanta Falcons. The move left the Browns’ offensive line in shambles last year. Guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco missed time with injury. In addition, fellow linemen Cameron Erving and Austin Pasztor were below-average players all season.

Five different players started at the center position alone. The only constant was NFL Pro Bowler Joe Thomas at left tackle. The questionable move by the front office at the time has the team’s offensive line in need of major help entering the offseason.

Currently, the Browns have one healthy starting-caliber offensive lineman on the roster – Thomas. Bitonio and Greco are both recovering from lisfranc surgeries, and their timetables are still up in the air. Erving has been extremely ineffective in his first two years in the NFL and Pasztor is a free agent.

Right now, Mack would look really solid anchoring the interior offensive line. Unfortunately for the Browns, this is a very weak offensive line draft class.

According to Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and his pre-combine position rankings, he sees just four offensive linemen as top 50 prospects. In terms of top 100 prospects, Miller has 10 offensive linemen listed, with six coming at tackle, and two each coming at guard and center.

That said, while the demand is there for NFL teams, the supply is not. There are still a few things working on the Browns’ side though, especially in terms of free agency.

According to Over the Cap, the Browns are projected to have over $102 million in cap space when free agency begins. That is far and away the most in the NFL.

There are also plenty of solid offensive linemen that are going to be free agents. That list includes Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler, Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford, Dallas Cowboys guard Ronald Leary, Baltimore Ravens tackle Ricky Wagner and Green Bay Packers center J.C. Tretter, just to name a few.

That said, the issue is, has been and always will be will they want to come to Cleveland? The Browns’ decision to transition tag Mack in 2014 is still negatively affecting the team in the 2017 offseason. Would he still have left Cleveland had he been franchise tagged?

That question is an unknown. However, the Browns could have franchise tagged him a second time, at least giving them more time to rebuild the interior offensive line.

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Now, Cleveland is left both without Mack and without multiple viable starters heading into the offseason. With the many question marks that come with the offensive line draft class and free agency, the Browns could be staring down this same issue next offseason.