Can Mack, agents outmaneuver Browns?

One of the most interesting things to watch when free agency begins next week will be what happens with Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.

In one corner with Mack is one of his agents, Marvin Demoff, who is one of the smartest, shrewdest negotiators around. Very few “get over” on Demoff.

In the other corner are the Browns, who clearly feel that by giving Mack the transition tag they ensured they could and would keep him in Cleveland.

Call it a free-agent chess match, with rooks and knights moving frequently.

The one thing the Browns did was ensure Mack would be wealthy.

Because he’ll sign a long-term contract with a team that will have to be lavish to make the Browns not match it, or he’ll play for the transition figure of $10.04 million in 2014.

There are those who wonder why the Browns didn’t just franchise Mack and make sure he’d stay. No team would give up two first-round draft choices for a center, and the cost was “only” another $1.6 million. But the Browns chose the transition tag, figuring that kept Mack’s pay a little closer to the top centers. The team no doubt figures with its cap room it will be able to match any offer.

Mack’s other agent, Tim Younger, threw a bit of a curveball at that thinking, though, telling USA Today he will treat the market as if Mack is unrestricted.

Last weekend, the Browns sent a contingent of folks including line coach Andy Moeller, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, coach Mike Pettine, GM Ray Farmer and even owner Jimmy Haslam to talk to Mack. They didn’t discuss the transition tag. The discussion was about football philosophy, and the team had no obligation to tell Mack he’d be transitioned. The team is simply using a tool to try to keep him, as Mack will use his free agency to see what's out there.

What’s interesting is that he is so determined to see what might be available -- almost as if his corner has something surprising up its sleeve.

“You only get to play this game so long,” Mack told USA Today.

Mack’s stock has risen as free agency has approached. ESPN’s Bill Polian has rated him the fourth-best player available, but two of the three players ahead of Mack have been franchised -- New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Carolina’s Greg Hardy.

At $10.04 million, Mack is overpaid for a center -- his value given his position and where he ranks in the league is probably closer to $6 or $7 million annually.

But his value to the Browns is important. He anchors the interior of the line, he fits in Shanahan’s zone-block system and he’s adept at line calls. If he leaves, he’ll create another need to fill -- much like the departure of D’Qwell Jackson created a need or the impending departure of T.J. Ward will create a need.

Nobody is indispensable. Those three were with the Browns for years and the team hasn’t won more than six games the past six seasons. The Browns can lose with or without them.

But adding more needs to a 4-12 team increases challenges.

Without the transition tag, Mack would have been in demand. With the franchise tag, he’d have been off the market. As the transition player he is somewhere in middle -- able to solicit offers but restricted in what he can take.

Demoff is the wild card.

If anyone can make it more interesting than the Browns may like, it’s him.