Browns general manager Tom Heckert made it known near the end of the 2011 season he planned to bring back middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. Throughout the season, Jackson repeatedly reiterated his desire to stay in Cleveland.
They are at work to make it a reality.
A league source confirmed Friday contract talks have begun between the Browns and Jackson’s agent, Brian Mackler. Jackson is set to become a free agent March 13, but the Browns don’t want him to hit the market.
“You can pretty much say he’s going to be here,” Heckert said in December.
If the sides can’t agree on a long-term deal, the Browns could use the franchise tag to prevent Jackson from reaching free agency. Teams have from Monday until March 5 to apply the tag to one player, guaranteeing a one-year contract once the player signs the tender.
The franchise tag for linebackers is projected to be about $8.8 million for 2012, which is expensive for an inside linebacker.
A league source told The Chronicle-Telegram no decision has been made by the team whether to use the tag on Jackson if a long-term deal can’t be reached. Jackson prefers a multiyear contract but would accept the tag.
Jackson (6-foot, 240 pounds) was second in voting for Comeback Player of the Year to Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. Jackson finished second in the NFL with 158 tackles and added 3½ sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. He was voted an alternate to the Pro Bowl.
The production was remarkable considering Jackson had missed the previous 26 games with a pair of torn pectoral muscles. He was grateful when the Browns re-signed him for 2011 at a base salary of $1.6 million.
He showed his appreciation by starting all 16 games and resuming his role as a team leader. He flourished as middle linebacker in coordinator Dick Jauron’s new 4-3 system as he was freed to run sideline to sideline and pursue the ball carrier.
Jackson, a second-round pick in 2006, has experienced just one winning season and no playoff games in Cleveland, but wants to finish his career here.
“I’ll tell you what, all I’ve known is Cleveland,” Jackson, 28, said during the season. “I don’t want to move, I don’t want to pick up and leave and go somewhere else and start all over.
“This is where everything has happened. Where I’ve been hurt, I’ve been successful. So it would mean a lot to stay in Cleveland.”
A long-term deal would likely save the Browns on Jackson’s salary per season, but it would come with risk because of his injury history. The Browns don’t have a replacement on the roster if he leaves.
The Browns haven’t made any final decisions regarding their free agents, but have begun discussions and should know more following the scouting combine next week in Indianapolis, where they will meet with agents. Running back Peyton Hillis, kicker Phil Dawson, cornerback Dimitri Patterson, safety Mike Adams and tight end Alex Smith head the list.
The Browns used the franchise tag on Dawson last year, paying him $3.175 million. If they used it again, he would receive a 20 percent raise to $3.81 million.
If the Browns wind up franchising Jackson, Dawson would be free to sign elsewhere. He’s spent the last 13 years with the Browns and is the franchise’s all-time leader in field goals and second in points. But he never received the contract extension he’d been seeking for the last few years, and could opt to join a playoff contender or move closer to his home in Texas.
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