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Rookie contract hero: Myles Garrett is a problem (but not for the Browns)

Garrett looks every bit the quarterback destroyer he was advertised as being.

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New York Jets v Cleveland Browns Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Myles Garrett began his career in an extremely Browns way. He missed the first four games of his rookie season due to an ankle sprain and his opportunity to sack Ben Roethlisberger in the process.

But he recovered in time to look worthy of Cleveland’s adulation at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft. Now, in his second season as a pro, he’s turning his otherworldly athleticism into All-Pro bonafides along the edge — and giving the Browns hope in the process.

Garrett used his first showdown against Roethlisberger as a launching pad for 2018, sacking the veteran quarterback twice (and flattening him one other time to draw a questionable roughing call) in Cleveland’s Week 1 non-loss. In Week 3, he upgraded his team’s seasonal outlook by ripping Sam Darnold to the turf twice in the Browns’ first honest-to-goodness victory since the Obama administration.

Those are the kind of performances that Cleveland can count on to win a little now — and a lot later.

Even at nearly $25 million over the next three years, Garrett is a roster-building bargain

There are two positions that earn premium paychecks in the NFL: quarterback and pass rusher. The Browns have former No. 1 overall picks on rookie contracts holding down each spot, and that’s going to create a ton of savings for a team already $55 million under the 2018 salary cap.

A $7.5 million average annual salary puts Garrett in the range of defensive ends like Trent Murphy, Mario Addison, and Vinny Curry. But his production — 11 sacks in 14 games — actually exceeds what market-setting defenders like Von Miller (10 sacks) and Khalil Mack (10.5) have done over that same span. He’s shown off the speed to take the long route along the edge to spiral through the pocket:

He can big brother left tackles to create space for a quick shift inside:

He can put blockers on skates before ripping inside and sending quarterbacks scrambling into broken plays:

And he’s fast enough to chase down just about anyone trying to scoot past him off-tackle:

While there’s still a rawness to his game, Garrett’s ridiculous combination of speed, strength, and lateral quickness makes him the kind of player who commands double teams. He’s working from a base that rates him as one of the league’s elite defensive ends; that foundation suggests he’s only going to get better. And, for up to the next two seasons, he’s going to save the Browns a boatload of money — money the team can throw at impact free agents.

In 2019, he and Baker Mayfield will combine to count for $14.3 million against Cleveland’s salary cap — $6.9 million for Garrett, $7.4 million for Mayfield. Let’s say Mayfield’s sophomore season sees him play at a league-average level. That would peg his value at around $20 million per year. Garrett, playing close to the Miller/Mack/Aaron Donald stratosphere, would have a market value of somewhere between $19-$23 million.

Let’s call that $29 million in savings based on estimated production — enough to bag a franchise-altering offensive lineman (average top five salary in ‘18: $14 million) AND an elite linebacker ($15M), safety ($11.3M), or defensive tackle ($13.9M). It also frees the team up to overpay with first-year salaries and go above and beyond market value to sell Cleveland to prospective players — a tactic that will come in handy when trying to lure veteran free agents to a small-market team that’s historically been an NFL laughing stock.

Garrett doesn’t just make the Browns a better team, he makes Cleveland a better destination. He gives the team a puncher’s chance in the AFC North on the field while creating the financial space off it for the club to make moves in upcoming offseasons. That’s something on which the Browns can capitalize — but they’d better do it soon, because Garrett isn’t going to be a bargain for long.

What’s he going to cost the Browns in 2020?

Garrett could play out the entirety of his rookie contract and become a free agent in 2021, but that would be a very stupid thing — or Jon Gruden thing — for the Browns to do. Players of his caliber very rarely hit the open market; just look at the extensions Miller and Donald signed while still under contract with the teams that drafted them. That means Cleveland will likely grant him a market-resetting deal — possibly after this year thanks to the team’s current glut of cap space, but more likely in the run-up to the 2020 season.

There’s a chance an early extension for a player like Joey Bosa or Yannick Ngakoue or maybe even DeForest Buckner usurps Mack’s spot at the top of the defensive player salary rankings before then, but it doesn’t seem likely right now. So let’s say the six-year, $141 million Mack signed after being traded to Chicago winds up being the model for Garrett’s extension talks. His $60 million in guarantees set the new benchmark for locked-in cash, besting Donald’s 2018 extension by a full $10 million — though in terms of practical guarantees (i.e., the dead cap space that gives teams little incentive to cut an expensive player) Mack is only making about $3 million more than his Los Angeles counterpart.

A jump in guarantees of that size is unprecedented, and Garrett will have to go from great to transcendent to move the needle on more than $60 million signed, sealed, and delivered. But that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t pass Mack’s annual average salary, total contract, or practical guarantees along the way. After all, he’ll have two years of inflation and an NFL salary cap that should be in the neighborhood of $200 million, or about 11 percent more than it was in ‘18 when Mack and Donald inked their gargantuan deals.

With that in mind, the two sides could probably come to a six-year, $144 million extension with $60 million guaranteed and about $95 million in practical money if Garrett continues on the trajectory he’s set through his first 14 games with the club so far. That’s a whole lot of money — basically the same cost as a quarterback who can get you to the playoffs — but the way the NFL values its pass rushers would make it a smart deal for the Browns.

You know, assuming they no longer want to be “the Browns.”

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 2:

Patrick Mahomes II, QB, Chiefs (I mean, what more can we say about him right now?)

Baker Mayfield, QB, Browns (led Cleveland to an honest-to-goodness win)

Kerryon Johnson, RB, Lions (Detroit’s first 100-yard rusher since 2013)

Calvin Ridley, WR, Falcons (three receiving TDs vs. Saints)

Jared Goff, QB, Rams (354 yards, three TDs vs. Chargers)

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys (127 rushing yards vs. Seahawks)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida