On February 2, the Cleveland Browns released a statement that basically indicated that they were going to cut QB Johnny Manziel as soon as they possibly could. Previously, the media had widely said that the first day they could release him was February 8, the day after the Super Bowl. Then, everyone caught wind of the fact that the Browns would actually have to wait until March 9. Why the difference?
I was originally going to write an explanation article on February 4, but that's when the horrific details of Manziel's incident in Fort Worth, Texas came to light. At the time, it just seemed right to put the story on hold and try to fathom just what in the hell was going on. It also added another complication to the situation: whether Manziel could be suspended or put on paid leave. Let's take a look at what we know about Manziel's whole situation and the timing of releasing him.
February 8th vs. March 9th - Rolling Over Cap Space
Like other teams #Browns rolled over unused cap space (~$20.7M) day after season ended. So Manziel cut & $4.33M cap hit can't occur til 3/9.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) February 2, 2016
Late last week, we explained how the Browns have approximately $35.99 million in cap space. Their total cap space spent for 2016 is $138.14 million, and the NFL salary cap is estimated to be $153.4 million. That would leave the team only $15.26 million in cap space. However, as Tom Pelissero of the USA Today noted, NFL teams are allowed to roll over unused cap space from the previous season, and most teams to do. Since the Browns have already done that, and we are still in the 2015 league year, that means the Browns currently have zero cap space.
Manziel's Guaranteed Money and the Timing of His Release
Manziel still has two years left on his rookie contract, including half of his signing bonus. His signing bonus was $4.318 million, and spread over four years, that means he has $2.159 million of it left against the Browns' cap. Over the next two years, Manziel also has a total base salary guarantee of $2.174 million. Combined, that means that if the Browns cut him, they would have to absorb a $4.333 million cap hit in dead money. Cutting him during the 2015 league year means that the charge would take place in 2015. As I said earlier, the Browns have zero cap space in that year, since they've already filed to have their remaining cap space carried over to the 2016 league year.
Once March 9th hits, the Browns will have that $35.99 million available to them. Cutting Manziel would mean that their cap space drops to $31.66 million, but it's the price they are willing to pay to disassociate Manziel from the franchise.
The Browns could also technically designate him a post-June 1st cut, which would spread his dead money over two years ($3.253 million in 2016, and $1.080 million in 2017), but that seems like a designation they'd rather save for somebody else, if necessary, given the limited difference in cap space.
If the Browns trade Manziel, they would still carry the dead money of his signing bonus ($2.159 million), but the base salary guarantees would shift over to his new team.
Will the League Step In?
This is where things could get tricky for the Browns. The NFL is currently investigating the Manziel case, so what if they put him on paid leave like they did with Adrian Peterson a couple of years ago? Pro Football Talk insinuates that if he were put on paid leave now, the Browns would have to scramble to clear some cap space so they could pay him in the current league year. Fortunately, an NFL spokesman has already told PFT that putting him on paid leave during the offseason, when players aren't being paid anyway, would make no sense:
"The players are off per the CBA and not being paid now," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told PFT by email. "It would serve no purpose and is not what paid leave was designed to accomplish."
Manziel could be facing a six-game suspension for violation of the league's personal conduct policy. If he is served with a six-game suspension, I believe the Browns should be able to recover 6/17 (35.29%) of his guaranteed base salary in 2016, and the team would receive a salary cap credit in 2016 for that. They could also recover the same percentage of his signing bonus in 2016, but that salary cap credit would not take effect until 2017. What is unclear to me is if the Browns would still reap these benefits if they cut Manziel on March 9th and then the league suspends him. If he is suspended before the Browns release him, I believe he'd still be under contract with the club, just without being paid.