The Jacksonville Jaguars met with free agent center Alex Mack on Friday evening, as we reported on Saturday. The Cleveland Browns hit Mack with the NFL's transition tag, to the surprise of many. It was almost a dare for teams in free agency to negotiate a contract for the Browns.
Under the NFL's transition tag, Mack is free to visit and negotiate with NFL teams as if he were an unrestricted free agent. The difference however, is that if a team comes up with an offer sheet for Mack, the Browns have five days to match the offer if they choose.
In the past, the transition tag was a risky proposition for team's because you could insert a "poison pill" into contracts that made it virtually impossible for the player's original team to match. Once made famous by the Minnesota Vikings giving an offer sheet to then Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson, where the Vikings added a provision to his deal that stated if he was not the highest paid lineman on the roster, his full salary would then become guaranteed. The Seahawks could not match this offer because they had just signed Walter Jones to a deal bigger than the Hutchinson offer, which would have immediately trigger the "poison pill" and wrecked the Seahawks salary cap.
There have been a few other instances of the poison pill, including guaranteeing a players full contract if they played a certain number of games in a specific state and so on which effectively rendered transition tags rather worthless. When the NFL and the NFLPA agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, they league made poison pills illegal in offer sheets.
That doesn't mean you can't get creative with the contracts.
"I'm confident we can come up with a structure that would have a reasonable likelihood to not be matched by the Browns -- and would be in full compliance with the collective bargaining agreement," Mack's agent, Marvin Demoff, told Peter King of TheMMQB.com.
So the question remains: How can the Jacksonville Jaguars sign Alex Mack?
There has been some speculation that in order to make a deal the Browns would scoff at, the Jaguars would have to make the first three years of any offer pay out somewhere between $22 and $25 million guaranteed loaded with roster and workout bonuses. That doesn't sound considerably outrageous for either the Jaguars or the Browns, both of which have plenty of cap room remaining in 2014 with $25.1 and $30.8 million available, respectively. The issue for the Browns begin in 2015 and 2016, when some other players are in line for new deals.
The Browns, unlike the Jaguars, have a handful of their own players they may want to re-sign to long term deals and who won't be cheap. Currently for 2015 the Browns have players such as Joe Haden, Phil Tayor, Jabaal Sheard, Jordan Cameron, Ahtyba Rubin and Brian Hoyer scheduled to be free agents. A few of those players are going to be rather costly if the Browns plan to hang on to them. Not only will those players be hitting the market, but players like Josh Gordon, Ben Tate, and Mitchell Schwartz will be playing on the final year of their current contract.
This isn't to say the Browns couldn't afford the deal if they wanted to keep Mack, but it could make things tight going forward. The Jaguars on the other hand don't really have anyone on their roster that will command a big contract in the next two seasons and will be brimming with salary cap space going forward, especially if the team drafts well.
Currently the highest paid center in the NFL is Carolina Panthers Ryan Kalil (6-years, $49M), followed by New York Jets center Nick Mangold (7-years, $54M) and Seattle Seahawks Max Unger (4-years, $25M). Kalil and Mangold received $19 and $16 million in guaranteed money, respectively.
Simply put; The Jaguars are going to have to over pay a bit, and early on, in the contract to make the Browns back off matching the deal.