The Cleveland Browns' release of linebacker D'Qwell Jackson may be another sign that the franchise is moving in yet another direction this offseason. The former Pro Bowl player had been with the team since being drafted in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, and has played in seven seasons, having missed the entirety of the 2010 campaign due to injury.
That's not to say the Browns didn't save a significant chunk of money. Jackson was the second-highest paid player on the team after signing a five-year contract back in 2012. For 2014, he was set to have a base salary of $3.93 million, and a $4.1 million roster bonus to be granted at the start of the new league year.
The Browns didn't need to save the salary cap space, however. They had nearly $50 million in space prior to the release of Jackson, according to Over The Cap. Cleveland also doesn't have much depth at the position inside linebacker position. Craig Robertson has struggled mightily behind Jackson, and there's not much else after him as far as starters go.
No, Jackson's release was likely due to a change in philosophy.
While the move may come as a surprise to some fans, Browns blog Dawgs By Nature considered it a possibility earlier in the offseason. Here's Chris Porkony on Jackson's future with the team just days before his release:
When it comes to players under contract, this is undoubtedly the biggest decision the front office will have to make this offseason, and we will get an answer sooner rather than later because Jackson is due a hefty $4 million roster bonus on March 15. By not missing any games the past two years, a contract incentive also boosted Jackson's base salary in 2014 from $2.6 million to $3.933 million.
When you factor in Jackson's signing bonus from the 5-year contract he signed in 2012 with Tom Heckert, Jackson's cap hit in 2014 is scheduled to be $9.433 million. If the Browns cut Jackson by March 15, Jackson will still account for $4.2 million against the cap, but they won't have to pay him anything in 2015 or 2016.
The Browns have accumulated a mish-mash of talent (or a lack thereof) over the last five seasons. During that time, the team has had four different head coaches. From Eric Mangini, to Pat Shurmur, to Rob Chudzinski and now Mike Pettine, the position has been the fastest revolving door in the league. Jackson's release may be a sign of an impending cleanse.
With Ray Farmer now the general manager and with Pettine the new head coach, the Browns are poised to spend their tremendous cap space on new players and let go of old ones. Pettine runs a hybrid defense with a 4-3 base front, so one of the Browns' primary objectives will be to recruit players that fit that scheme. On offense, coordinator Kyle Shanahan will look for a running back and offensive line that fits his ground-heavy, zone blocking attack.
The transition on offense will likely lead to the exodus of quarterback and former first-round pick Brandon Weeden. It could also lead to the early exit of slow right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. The running back group is also likely to be retooled.
On defense, the Browns don't have to transition their personnel much. They have a similar front to the one that Pettine used in Buffalo last season, according to Dawgs by Nature. The subtractions from the roster will depend on whether the defense is truly a "hybrid." If it is primarily a 4-3 front, that could lead to the departure of some 3-4 linebackers. If it is more of a pure hybrid, the roster on defense will likely stay the same for the most part.
With a ton of salary cap space, the Browns can essentially sign whomever they want. If they are aiming for a quarterback, Michael Vick and Matt Cassel could be stop-gap passers in front of a developing rookie. Pettine comes from Buffalo, so he could have interest in a pair of free agent safeties in Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward. Along with those additions, the Browns could re-sign Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a massive deal before he hits free agency.
The Browns also have the draft to re-sculpt the roster. Cleveland has all of its original picks, plus extra spots in the first, third and fourth rounds. The Browns could try to add a middle linebacker like Alabama's C.J. Mosley, UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt or FSU's Christian Jones. The 2014 class is massively deep at the position, something that may have factored into Jackson's release.
The draft could also serve as an opportunity to find a scheme fit at quarterback. The Browns pick fourth and 26th overall on Day 1 of the draft, and could easily fill holes at quarterback and inside linebacker with those picks. They also have early selections in the second and third rounds, which could lead to new starters at wide receiver, running back or in the secondary.
While it has taken a few tries over the last few years to find the right regime, the outgoing front office has set up the current one very well. The Browns are at the top of the league in cap space and are one of two teams with multiple first-round picks, so if there is a time to start a new philosophy, it's now. The Browns can now take advantage of their past shortcomings instead of dwelling in them.