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How long do the Browns control the rights to Josh Gordon?

Assuming they aren’t looking to ditch Josh Gordon, the Browns should be able to comfortably keep the receiver for two more years before he hits free agency.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Gordon must have the longest rookie contract in NFL history.

Taken in the 2012 NFL supplemental draft, his rookie contract was for four years, which means that under normal player circumstances, he should have been an unrestricted free agent during the 2016 offseason. As we all know, though, Gordon’s career has been anything but regular circumstances.

The clearest way to explain Gordon’s status is by asking the question, “How many accrued seasons does he have?” Any season in which Gordon spends 6 or more games on the roster or on IR counts as an accrued season. Let’s go year-by-year:

  • 2012: Played in 16 games as a rookie; definitely an accrued season.
  • 2013: Played in 14 games; definitely an accrued season.
  • 2014: This is where things have always been shaky. Gordon was re-instated for the final six games of the regular season. He played in the first five of those six games, and then the team suspended him for the final game of the season. Heading into 2015, we kept hearing that Gordon and his representatives were appealing to count this year as an accrued season. We never heard a verdict, but the impression is that he did not win his appeal. Not an accrued season, but it still counts as year three of his rookie contract.
  • 2015: Should’ve been the final year of his rookie contract, but was banned. The final year of his contract tolls to 2016.
  • 2016: Was set to come back, but decided not to, and was never technically re-instated. The final year of his contract again tolls, this time to 2017.
  • 2017: Gordon has officially played in one game, so the final year of his contract is locked in. However, the most number of games he can play in is five games. Not an accrued season, but is the final year of his contract.

Tallying it up, only 2012 and 2013 count as accrued seasons for Gordon.

Per NFL rules, the Browns can (and will, unless they are dumb) tag Gordon as an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA) in 2018. This designation applies to players who have less than three accrued seasons in the NFL and could be around $790,000 for a one-year deal, per Joel Corry of CBS Sports. If the Browns make an offer to an ERFA, no other team would be able to sign the player.

Assuming that Gordon plays in 2018, then he would be set to be a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) in 2019. The Browns could try to work a long-term deal out with Gordon, but let’s say that Gordon kind of wants to get to free agency as soon as possible. At the same time, if the Browns don’t want to risk losing Gordon (especially with no compensation) just yet, they would slap a 1st- or 2nd-round tender on him. The numbers will jump by 2019, but a 1st-round tender seems likely, which could be a 1-year deal around $5 million. If no team coughs up a first round pick for Gordon, he’d stay with the Browns through 2019.

Then, finally, Gordon would be an unrestricted free agent in 2020 — eight years after he was first drafted!

The good news in all of this is that if Browns fans’ optimism indeed continues to pay off with Gordon, we won’t have to watch him succeed with another franchise right away.

Hat tip to Joel Corry of CBS Sports for helping confirm some of the details contained in this post:

There was also a nugget in Gordon’s MMQB article by the reporter that goes along with the details. That article says, “He’ll be a restricted free agent after next season.” Since the article was written during the 2017 season and “next season” should be the 2018 season, then the sentence really means, “He’ll be a restricted free agent after the 2018 season,” which would be during the 2019 offseason.

I think we’ve finally settled it!

Note: if it ever turns up that Gordon won an appeal in 2014, then you would throw the ERFA designation out the window and shift the timeline up one year.