Browns in Real Danger of Losing $37 Million Fan Favorite to Free Agency

The Cleveland Browns might lose Nick Chubb this offseason by way of cutting him for salary cap purposes. But even if they don’t, there is still a high chance the running back leaves in 2025.

The problem for the Browns and Chubb boils down to money. The four-time Pro Bowler is coming off of a catastrophic knee injury that cut his sixth NFL campaign by 14-plus games. He’s entering the final season of a three-year, $36.6 million contract in 2024 that carries a salary cap hit north of $15.8 million.

The value Chubb’s deal represents is vastly higher than many teams are spending on their top two or three running backs in the modern NFL, and if Chubb has a bounce back season in 2024, he’s going to command another sizable contract.

“Despite [his] consistency, much of Chubb’s free agency value will be tied to how he fares after his knee injury,” Alex Kay of Bleacher Report wrote on Tuesday, March 26 in an article predicting players who might “reset the free agent market” at their positions in 2025. “If he’s able to quickly shake off the rust and prove that a pair of knee surgeries hasn’t negatively impacted him too much, he could be in line for a handsome contract next spring.”

Browns Face Complicated Decision on RB Nick Chubb

The Browns want Nick Chubb back next season but it will require a contract restructure.

Cleveland finds itself in a uniquely interesting and complicated spot with Chubb given the timing of his impending free agency and his most recent injury, as well as the team’s salary cap situation and roster makeup behind its star running back.

The Browns can remove free agency from the equation and keep Chubb, a fan favorite, for the foreseeable future by offering him an extension. That decision can drop Chubb’s 2024 cap hit significantly, depending on how Cleveland structures the deal, and keep his salary less onerous for a season or two after.

However, Zac Jackson of The Athletic reported in February that the team doesn’t expect Chubb back at full strength until the second half of 2024. That timetable severely limits the Browns’ ability to gauge the running back’s health and make a corresponding offer that is responsible and team-friendly.

Cleveland has a viable replacement for Chubb in Jerome Ford, who posted something of a breakout sophomore season and is playing on an exceedingly cheap rookie deal for the next two years. Ford will probably never be elite, while Chubb was arguably the best RB in football over the last half decade, but Ford’s value is arguably greater given his price-to-production ratio.

From Chubb’s perspective, betting on himself could land him another payday like the one he earned in 2021. Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs just signed deals valued at $12 million or above annually this offseason.

Barkley did so at the age of 27, despite an ACL tear in 2020 that cost him 14 games and impacted his availability/productivity significantly the following season. Chubb will play the upcoming campaign at 28, which would put him in free agency at 29 years old next offseason.

Browns RB Nick Chubb Hits Free Agency Within Next Year in Most Scenario

The Browns are still in wait-and-see mode with Nick Chubb's injury.

The safe play for Chubb is probably to push for a contract extension this summer rather than a restructure, the latter of which would take guaranteed money out of his pocket and repackage it in the form of incentives without adding more guaranteed years down the line.

Another option is to decline a restructure and play hardball on an extension, which might result in a new deal with the Browns that Chubb finds agreeable, but which could also result in his release ahead of the 2024 campaign. No franchise without previous ties to Chubb is likely to pay the running back big money on a long-term contract until he proves himself on the field, so the likely outcome of this scenario is a one-year prove-it deal and free agency in 2025 regardless.

The play in which Chubb bets on himself involves the running back agreeing to a restructure in Cleveland for the 2024 season, in which he retains a good amount of his guaranteed money but also affords the Browns’ some needed cap relief. Then, Chubb returns halfway through the season and shows he’s still the four-time Pro Bowler that signed one of the most valuable RB contracts a few years ago — during a time when the NFL at-large was beginning to devalue the position.

That outcome isn’t necessarily bad for Cleveland. However, it does put Chubb in position to become a free agent in 2025, when the market will be relatively bereft of top running back talent — at least compared to the current offseason — and Chubb will likely have multiple suitors lining up to pay handsomely for his services.

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