Browns must match spending with need

Jairus Byrd wants a contract worth $9 million per season.

That's the word from ESPN.com's Miami Dolphins writer James Walker, a gentleman who once covered the Cleveland Browns for the Columbus Dispatch.

At that salary, $9 million per season would put Byrd in the rarified air of the highest-paid safeties in the league.

Want to pay a safety that much? Want to let T.J. Ward go because you wouldn't pay him $8 million a season (an assumption) and pay another guy's player more? This is the struggle in free agency, and it's what the Browns must decide as they wade into what owner Jimmy Haslam called a crucial offseason with a boatload of salary cap space.

Free agency is often fool's gold, but the right guy for the right team makes sense. That being said, this free-agency period is one of the weakest in memory. Especially as more and more good players re-signed with their teams (Seattle's Michael Bennett and Green Bay's Sam Shields the past few days.

The Browns have to decide if Byrd is that guy, and reading their intentions is difficult. Leaks from Berea have been few and far between recently, and GM Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine have kept their intentions close to the shoulder pads.

Byrd is logically assumed to be a target based on his past relationship with Pettine. But the past couple days, rumors of Donte Whitner being a target also have surfaced.

Ward will test the free-agent waters, and numerous teams have interest in him -- including Denver, where the guy who drafted Ward (Tom Heckert) works for John Elway.

Whitner is a Cleveland/Ohio State guy. Byrd played in Buffalo a year ago, where Pettine was the defensive coordinator. He's a good player, a ballhawk who turns the ball over. That's a valuable guy.

But a $9-million-a-year guy?

Former sports agent Joel Corry wrote on CBSSports.com that Byrd might command $8.5 million per year, Ward close to $8 million and running back Ben Tate $6 million.

Some of this is inflation. The salary cap goes up, player salaries go up. It's a natural offshoot. Too, these contracts and their average per year can involve fuzzy math.

A guy may sign a three-year, $21 million contract that pays him $3 million this year and next and $15 million in the third year. That third year will never happen, of course, and it's never meant to happen. But it does give the player an ego boost, and it allows the agent to “sell” the deal to other potential clients. “See, I just got that guy $21 million!”

In reality, he got the guy two years, and $6 million.

What's interesting is that given all the Browns' needs, safety has been the hot position they're rumored to be addressing.

A safety over a running back or receiver would be an interesting way to prioritize things.