CLEVELAND (AP) — Alex Mack was as good as gone. The Browns pulled back their Pro Bowl center in a snap.
Acting quickly after Jacksonville signed Mack to a five-year, $42 million offer sheet, Cleveland wasted little time and matched the deal for Mack, who will remain with the Browns for at least two more years.
The 28-year-old Mack will receive $26 million guaranteed in the deal, which he can void after two seasons. Also, the Browns are not allowed to tag or trade him. That’s the steep price they’ll pay for allowing another team to do their negotiating, and for letting one of their core players test the free-agent market.
“We have talked about keeping our own players and this is a positive for us,” general manager Ray Farmer said in a release. “Alex is a quality person and player that truly brings to life what playing like a Brown means. The ending is positive for everyone. Keeping our young, good nucleus of players is vital for clubs and specifically the Browns, and therefore this is a good step.”
Farmer was able to be upbeat at the conclusion of a strange saga that began when the club placed a $10 million transition tag on Mack at the outset of free agency. If they had lost Mack, it would have been yet another blunder by the Browns, who have lost at least 11 games in each of the past six seasons and are on their third head coach in three years.
They took a major risk in first letting Mack explore what his professional life could be like outside Cleveland. Then the Browns were in danger of losing him by permitting the Jaguars to structure a contract Cleveland might not be able to equal.
Fortunately for the Browns, they have salary-cap space and owner Jimmy Haslam had stated several times he was committed to keeping Mack, who has not missed a single snap in five seasons with Cleveland.
“I think we’ve made it very clear that he’s the kind of person, the kind of player we want in our organization,” Haslam said earlier this week.
But for a few hours Friday, Mack appeared to be headed for Florida and a fresh start before the Browns locked him up.
Mack has kept a low profile during free agency. The brief tug-of-war between the Browns and Jaguars, two teams who seemingly should have higher priorities than a center. A California graduate in legal studies, Mack, who is working toward a master’s degree, said at the end of last season he liked playing in Cleveland. However, his flirtation with the Jaguars has damaged his image with some Browns fans.
It’s tough to fault him for testing free agency. After all, the Browns have gone just 23-57 since he joined them in 2009, and Mike Pettine will be Mack’s fourth head coach in six years.
Mack has shown plenty of loyalty toward Cleveland. He’s been on the field for 4,998 consecutive plays with the Browns, who drafted him with the No. 21 overall pick in 2009. In his third season, Mack played despite a severe attack of appendicitis that landed him in surgery the following day. He has developed into one of the game’s top centers, lauded for his blocking ability, leadership and helping Cleveland’s quarterbacks read defenses.
With Mack in the middle and Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas on the left side, the Browns have one of the AFC’s top offensive lines. They didn’t want to weaken one of their biggest strengths and will have Mack around to snap the ball to their quarterback for at least two more seasons.
Now they go back to working on who will line up behind him.