Mort & Schefter: Browns still face uncertainty up front

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Cleveland nearly bid goodbye to Joe Thomas this week, passing on a trade that would have sent its left tackle and a mid-round pick to Denver in exchange for a first- and a second-round pick.

But while the Browns held on to their rock, they are getting closer to losing Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to another team in free agency -- and there's nothing they can do about it, thanks to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jacksonville was the team that signed Mack to a five-year, $42 million offer sheet in April 2014. Cleveland matched the deal, despite how unfavorable and distasteful some of the contractual terms were.

  • Jacksonville included a no-trade clause that prevented the Browns from being able to entertain any offers for Mack ‪before Tuesday's trade deadline.

  • The Browns are prevented from using either their franchise or transition tag on Mack to tie him to Cleveland, even if he doesn't want to stay.

  • Mack can void the last three years and $24 million remaining on the contract after this season, which he is likely to do. By voiding the contract after this season, Mack puts himself in line to land a hefty guaranteed bonus, and maybe more significant, gives himself a chance to play for a franchise capable of contending sooner rather than later.

The Browns have known this is coming and have even taken steps to safeguard against it. They used one of their two 2015 first-round picks on interior offensive lineman Cameron Erving, a player capable of succeeding Mack when he leaves. Erving is now the backup right guard, and will be there tonight when the Browns play the Bengals. But Cleveland knows he can easily slide over to center next season if needed.

Chances are, it will be. Mack wanted to leave in 2014. He positioned himself to try to leave again, in 2016. This time there's nothing the Browns can do about it. Mack is from Santa Barbara, California, and still calls that state home. Perhaps he will have the chance to return there.

But one of football's top offensive linemen has opened a perfect running lane -- right out of town. - AS

Denver takes a shot

The Broncos making a play for Thomas, the Browns' All-Pro left tackle, was admirable even if it fell short. Thomas doesn't miss games. He plays at a high level and is on a path to a Hall of Fame career. His salary is reasonable (in the mid- to upper-$8 million range) and if anyone can understand the value of a left tackle, it is Broncos general manager John Elway, who had Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman at left tackle when he finally won a Super Bowl.

Ryan Clady, the Broncos' Pro Bowl left tackle, has spent the season on injured reserve and his durability is now a major question. The team moved second-round draft pick Ty Sambrailo to left tackle, but he ended up on injured reserve this week with a left shoulder injury.

Sambrailo probably isn't the left tackle of the future, either. The injury is to the same shoulder he hurt in fall 2013 at Colorado State. Jim McElwain, his coach at the time, said before the draft that he felt bad because Sambrailo did the "team thing" and played the 2013 season instead of opting for surgery until January 2014. It never allowed Sambrailo to rebuild his strength in the weight room because he was rehabbing from surgery.

"I still believe Ty can be a 12- to 15-year player in the NFL," said McElwain, now the coach at Florida. "He's athletic and he's nasty. It's just going to take him awhile to get his strength where he needs to be."

While the effort to acquire Thomas fell short, the Broncos did secure tight end Vernon Davis from the 49ers in another deal. For coach Gary Kubiak, that gets him back to the three tight-end versatility that he envisioned when the Broncos selected Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, who tore his ACL in offseason workouts. Three tight ends can assist in the protection of Peyton Manning, not to mention create more creases in the running game that finally showed signs of life against the Packers. - CM

Impact of Bradford trade still being felt

Philadelphia's game Sunday against the Cowboys is big for the Eagles. But in a way, it's also big for -- of all teams -- the St. Louis Rams.

In the noted Eagles-Rams trade that involved QBs Sam Bradford and Nick Foles, the Eagles sent their 2016 second-round pick to St. Louis while acquiring a conditional 2016 fourth-round pick in return. The condition of the pick was simple: The Rams would hold on to their selection if Bradford played 50 percent of the Eagles' offensive snaps in 2015.

Through seven games, Bradford has been behind center on all 477 of the Eagles' offensive plays. If he continues that trend on Sunday, it's very likely he'll end up meeting the 50 percent mark, even if he were to not play the rest of the season for whatever reason.

So Bradford's start Sunday will be designed to help the Eagles try to win the NFC East. But it will also likely benefit his former team by the time the 2016 draft rolls around. - AS

Patriots roll on, despite adversity

Forget about the Patriots' unbeaten mark -- look at who has lined up to do it. New England doesn't start a single first-round pick on offense -- not one, not even close.

The Patriots have an undrafted rookie starting at center (David Andrews) and a fourth-round rookie at guard (Shaq Mason). They lost their high-priced starting left tackle Nate Solder, forcing them to insert Marcus Cannon, whose own injuries have necessitated even more changes at times.

Injuries such as those could -- and have -- derailed other teams' seasons. Yet New England's offense keeps humming along as if obstacles are illusions.

The public and those within the league now expect New England to be able to plug in players anywhere -- whether it is on the offensive line or in the secondary. Don't forget the Patriots lost defensive backs Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard from their Super Bowl team and haven't missed a beat.

It's why there has been some talk -- and there will be much more -- about whether these Patriots can polish off the rest of their schedule and finish this regular season unbeaten, just as they did in 2007.

The more they win, the more comparisons between this year's team and the one from 2007 will be made. Just look at a side-by-side statistical look through seven games:

Does this mean the 2015 team will go unbeaten? Hardly. The Patriots are preparing for Sunday's game in New England against a tough Washington team. There will be some stiff tests along the way, most notably against the Giants on Nov. 15 and the Jets on Dec. 27, both at MetLife Stadium.

But the longer this New England streak goes, the more the comparisons will be made. - AS

In Tennessee, ownership is the issue

By all accounts, Titans CEO and president Steve Underwood is a capable leader. He acts as the liaison between the Titans (in Nashville) and the ownership that resides in Houston. Underwood himself has a ranch in Houston, where he settled until he agreed to serve again temporarily as the franchise's leading executive when Tommy Smith stepped down in March. Thus, when Underwood led the news conference Tuesday after Ken Whisenhunt had been fired as the coach, he had some interesting insights.

Underwood mentioned that the lead owner, Amy Adams Strunk, had been considering the move for "weeks." Mind you, the NFL just completed Week 8; Whisenhunt was in his second season, his first with top draft pick Marcus Mariota, who had just missed two games.

Underwood also alluded to Strunk's inquiries about how the team's slow start was affecting business and ticket sales. This same mentality is what led to Mike Munchak's ouster just when there were signs the team had a decent chance to turn the corner.

Whisenhunt didn't endear himself to those inside the building, according to sources. He had a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. It's a debatable discussion. Many notable coaches have pretty much embraced that philosophy. As for the "building," it is a another catchphrase for people who work inside the building at all levels.

Former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson seemingly had a my-way-or-the-highway approach as well, but he firmly believed organizational morale was essential to a winning environment. That meant everyone, including administrative assistants, equipment personnel, ticket managers -- everyone -- had to feel they were part of something important. One connected team source said Whisenhunt had people in the building "on eggshells."

Of all the topics Underwood shared publicly, the one that bothered many Titans fans is that the team was not for sale. Others in league circles believe the team will be sold, and that it is necessary to have local ownership.

Here's one sample communication from a prominent Titans supporter this week: "As a suite-holder, it's a disgrace to this city! Every aspect. The stadium, the food, the marketing, the game ops, every aspect is AWFUL. It's one thing to have a bad product but it's fun to go to a game with your family. Not the case here!!! It's a freakin' joke!!! Too cool a city to have such a poor effort. Worst run organization I've ever seen!!!! As a season ticket holder...PLEASSSE tell me we can get a new owner!!!"

Mike Mularkey is filling in as coach on an interim basis. He was always a favorite of current general manager Ruston Webster, but Webster's future remains in question, too, because if Strunk is listening to the fan base, there's only one change coming that will be music to Nashville ears: new local ownership. - CM

Raiders finding a formula

Historically, the Raiders-Steelers matchups used to mean something. When the Raiders play Sunday in Pittsburgh, it finally will mean something again. As it stands, the Raiders (4-3) and Steelers (4-4) are in AFC wild-card contention. It's only Week 9, but this game has an air of anticipation that has been lacking for more than a decade.

And while Ben Roethlisberger would figure to be the QB to watch, it is Derek Carr, the Raiders' second-year quarterback, who is generating the buzz. Carr has been sizzling since the Raiders came back from a Week 5 bye; he has thrown for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in a road win at San Diego and at home against the Jets.

Both wins were vital to the Raiders' resurgence. The Chargers were a divisional foe and the Jets, like the Steelers, are projected as one of the AFC teams that could grab a wild-card slot.

The Jets' defensive front against the Raiders was closely watched by AFC scouts and coaches. The knock on Carr out of Fresno State is that he was a bit skittish when pressured. However, once again, the Raiders' offensive line, the execution by Carr and the play calling by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have allowed Carr to be sacked just eight times in seven games.

Musgrave's hiring is a salute to coach Jack Del Rio. He actually fired Musgrave as the Jaguars' playcaller after the 2004 season, but it wasn't personal. The Jaguars' decision to draft Byron Leftwich proved to be a poor match for Musgrave's West Coast system.

With Carr in place as the Raiders' second-round choice in 2014, Del Rio saw Musgrave as an ideal match, and Musgrave's expanded view after one year as the quarterbacks coach under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia didn't hurt the cause. - CM