Mailbag: What Are the Browns' Super Bowl Chances in 2021?

Answering your questions about how the Browns, 49ers, Dolphins and others have fared in free agency so far. Plus, are the Jets' waiting too long to make a decision on Sam Darnold, what is the Patriots' QB plan and what NFL figure would you like to share a Guinness with?
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We’ll wrap up a wild few days in tomorrow’s GamePlan. Until then, your questions …

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From Go browns! (@MohneyAj): What are your thoughts on Cleveland’s chances at the Super Bowl next season?

Browns, I really like how measured your team has been under still-newish GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski, even with a lot of money to spend. And new star safety John Johnson is a great example of that. Johnson did well, to be sure—his three-year deal includes a $12 million signing bonus, and he’ll take home $24 million over the first two years. But the overall numbers, $33.75 million over three years, are manageable compared to what other top safeties are making.

And the real key is that why the Rams letting him go is explainable. L.A. is completely capped out, needing to restructure a slew of guys under contract just to get in compliance. So it’s not like they just decided letting him go was the right thing to do. They had to let him go.

Anyway, that’s one example of a franchise that I think has a very solid young core of homegrown talent (Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Jedrick Wills, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward) that has added solid veteran pieces in spots (Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Austin Hooper, Jack Conklin) and is set up long-term in a really sustainable way. Somehow, all this happened in Cleveland!

So yes, I think they have a shot. To me, the difference between Cleveland being a playoff team again and one capable of getting to Inglewood next February will be whether Mayfield can take the kind of step forward as a quarterback that his draft classmate, Josh Allen, took last year.

From Jeevan Athwal (@jeevan_athwal): What do the 49ers need to do in FA or the draft to be in the Super Bowl conversation next season?

Jeevan, I think they needed to keep Trent Williams, first and foremost. Having done that now enables them to address the secondary in the draft, and it’s a decent year to be out there looking for corners. The addition of Alex Mack was a smart move, given his experience with Kyle Shanahan, to further bolster the offensive line—and the quarterback situation always bears at least a little watching, if the Niners have a shot to get a little younger there (either with a backup or otherwise).

From there? There are still a lot of things going in the right direction in San Francisco. First, they have to get, and stay, healthy. If that happens, the defensive front remains one of football’s best, and the Niners have two of the league’s top defensive players in their front seven in Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, with solid players like Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, Dre Greenlaw and Javon Kinlaw around them. The run game will be elite as long as Kyle Shanahan’s there, and George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk make up a dynamic group of targets for Jimmy Garoppolo.

If, again, they stay healthy, I expect them to contend for their second Super Bowl trip in three years.

From Stacy Armentrout (@SJArmentrout): Is Miami showing restraint simply because they don’t have a lot of cap room? Not “winning” free agency is an odd, yet good feeling!

Stacy, Miami isn’t just flush with cap space the way it was last year—the Dolphins’ cap is healthy, and they can make moves, but there are limitations if they’re going to build responsibly, and Brian Flores and Chris Grier have certainly done that in two-plus years together.

The Dolphins did have an inside linebacker need, and took care of that in a big way by bringing in reliable vet Bernardrick McKinney from Houston. Next up, presumably, would be finding a way to put skill talent around Tua Tagovailoa (or whomever the quarterback is). And I think it makes sense that they’d be waiting for the market to crash (which is happening) before sweeping in and bargain shopping for backs and receivers.

But the truth is that even before the trade for McKinney (who’ll cost another $7.75 million against their cap), the Dolphins were dealing with less than $25 million in cap space, and will be paying a top-five pick on top of that, if they don’t wind up trading down. So I wouldn’t worry too much about your team having a quieter offseason. It’s very much happening by design.

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From Louie (@Louie_Rock): Have the Jets overplayed their hand on finding a spot to trade Darnold? It feels like the QB seats are starting to fill up with Fitzpatrick in Washington.

Louie, I don’t think so, because I believe that if something landed in GM Joe Douglas’s lap that was mind-blowing, he’d have moved Sam Darnold by now. Absent that, it was important to Douglas to first get medicals on BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and see those guys throw live. Fields will be the last of the three to have his pro day—and that’s not until March 30.

So no, the timing there is not ideal. And yes, there’s the risk that teams like Washington and Chicago might be completely out now (and I don’t think Washington was every really in at all on this one). But Douglas has talked with teams that needs quarterbacks, so it’s not like he doesn’t have a feel for where everyone stands.

If he turned down, say, a Josh Rosen–type package for Darnold—a second-round pick and something else of value (player, later pick, etc.)—and that offer evaporates, it’s one thing. If it’s, say, a third-round pick on the table? It’s probably worth risking that to make sure you have all the information you need on the guys in the draft.

From Mike Durand (@MikeyD_31): What is the Patriots’ QB situation, with possible names? Who is this build for?

Mike, you’re not going to like me saying Cam Newton, but I definitely think there’s an element of that here. If there was one constant in Newton’s success over nine years in Carolina, it was Greg Olsen’s presence. For that reason, it’s easy to see why the Patriots having the worst tight end situation in football last year would’ve affected him. So getting Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry is huge for Newton. And I say that fully expecting Newton to have competition for the job over the summer.

As for the receivers added, it’s at least interesting that the one big-ticket item they brought in, former first-rounder Nelson Agholor, who arrives at a price of $11 million per year, is so stylistically different from what they’ve typically had at the position. In a way, it’s a little reminiscent of the 2017 trade for then Saint Brandin Cooks—a move that, at the time, was aimed at giving QB-of-the-future Jimmy Garoppolo a weapon to work with long-term.

The Patriots also happened to poach one of Garoppolo’s current targets, Kendrick Bourne, from the Niners. And Garoppolo, like Newton, has always had good tight end help (Rob Gronkowski in New England, George Kittle in San Francisco). Now, the idea of bringing back Garoppolo would be, at this point, wishful thinking for the Patriots. The Niners aren’t dealing him unless they get a clear upgrade in return.

But it is fun to put these pieces together.

From Christian Koulichkov (@BostonBroker33): Does Kraft being on the TV committee help Bill sign these players because they can reasonably assume what the cap will be going forward?

This, Christian, is a good question that was asked a lot, too, when the Cowboys got Dak Prescott locked up long-term, since Jerry Jones, like Robert Kraft, is so prominent in all the league’s broadcast dealings. So I asked Jerry’s son Stephen, the Cowboys COO, over the weekend directly whether or not the family’s inside knowledge of the looming TV deals helped to push the contract over the goal line.

“No,” Stephen answered. “I think all 32 owners feel like this, feel good about the future of the NFL, feel good about our media partners, and how good it’s gonna be. So I don't think it was that, other than, as you well know, Jerry being an optimistic person, and that he feels good about the future of the league. I don't know that any insight at all would’ve really affected this at the end of the day other than just you feel that the business of the NFL is gonna be really good.”

I think that answer contains your answer. All the owners know the TV deals are going to be massive, and that allowed for COVID-19 business to be done at a more restrained but relatively normal level. And that means, if you have a quarterback unsigned, you sign him; and if you have cap space, you use it.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): What do the Vikings do with Danielle Hunter this offseason?

Craig, the good news is that the Vikings have been anticipating this happening at some point. And the Yannick Ngakoue trade is a good illustration of how aware they’ve been of Hunter’s situation. Yes, over the summer, Minnesota was tight to the cap, so part of getting Ngakoue to take a massive pay cut ahead of trading for him from Jacksonville was connected to that—and Ngakoue agreed to knock his number down from $17.778 million to $12 million. But it also was with Hunter’s $14.4 million APY in mind (and keeping him the top guy on the team at his spot).

It’s been three years since Hunter did that five-year, $72 million extension, and Minnesota was smart to go in right before Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald completely blew up the market for defensive players. But the Vikings have known that this day was coming, and now Hunter is making barely half what the highest-paid player at his position, Joey Bosa, is taking home.

So I think giving him an adjustment, the same way they did when Adam Thielen’s deal fell woefully behind the market, makes sense. Yes, he’s coming off neck surgery (which I’m sure got him thinking about how much longer his earning power will last). But if you feel good about him coming off that all right, he’s still just 26 (doesn’t turn 27 until October) and had 29 sacks over his last two years (2018 and ’19). And he plays a premium position.

I don’t think it’d be bad to reinvest in him with something fair.

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From Not who you think I am (@DonRidenour): Jameis Winston reclamation project, a success this year or a failure?

TBD, Don. But it was a very smart move for Jameis to stay in New Orleans. He gets $4.5 million to sign, a $1 million base and $7 million in incentives (not dissimilar to Newton’s in New England). And to me, all of that is almost irrelevant. That he’s with the Saints counts, because Sean Payton is to down-on-their-luck quarterbacks as Nick Saban is to fired coaches—the guy most capable of rehabbing their image and reputation.

If I’m Winston, my goal is to become a starter in the NFL again, and then show that I can be someone’s long-term answer, which puts me back in position to make tens of millions of dollars again.

It worked for Teddy Bridgewater, the former 32nd pick, who parlayed two years under Payton into a three-year, $63 million contract in Carolina. It absolutely worked for another former 32nd pick—and that one, Drew Brees, is Canton-bound. So maybe Winston will become the answer long-term for the Saints. Maybe not. But if the ability to be that guy again for someone is still there with Winston, Payton’s absolutely the guy with the best chance to get it out of him.

From Matt (@Smitty_Matt): Which person associated with the NFL, past or present, would you most want to enjoy a Guinness with?

First of all, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you, Matt. Second, and maybe this is because I just watched the 30 for 30 about him, but I’d go with Al Davis. I always answer these sorts of questions with people I think would have the best stories. The late former Raiders owner (and AFL commissioner!) would have great ones.