The numbers didn’t add up for the Browns.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson will turn 31 years old early next season and was due a $4 million bonus March 16. So despite having more than $40 million in salary cap space, the Browns released the beloved team leader and defensive signal caller Wednesday afternoon.
Jackson was “absolutely” willing to restructure his contract, but the sides didn’t come close to reaching a new deal, a league source said.
“We had positive discussion with D’Qwell and his agent over the last several days, and we came to the mutual agreement to go in different directions,” new general manager Ray Farmer said in the release announcing the move. “D’Qwell is the epitome of class, leadership and professionalism. Every day of his NFL career, D’Qwell has been a solid representative of the Browns and the City of Cleveland, both between the lines on Sundays and off the field in our area community.
“We want to thank him for his eight years of service and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors.”
Jackson immediately became a free agent and available to teams two weeks before the start of free agency in the new league year. He’s expected to garner significant interest, with meetings starting today.
Jackson was a second-round pick in 2006 and became the longest-tenured member of the team. He was a three-time captain and loved by teammates and coaches.
“DQ is a leader of men,” tight end Jordan Cameron tweeted. “Gave me confidence when I had none and listened when I needed someone. Most underrated player in the NFL.”
Jackson kept an optimistic outlook despite all the losing — 41-87 record, one winning season, no playoff games — and served as a team spokesman. He kept the team together following the unexpected Week 3 trade of running back Trent Richardson last year and counseled several young players. He ran a weekly players-only defensive meeting to study film.
“To see the things he’s been through, it’s a testament to the guy he is,” former Browns teammate Scott Fujita told The Chronicle-Telegram. “I have tons of respect for him.
“He has a nose for finding the ball. He also adapted and fit into every single system. That’s pretty rare.”
The move saved the Browns the roster bonus, a $100,000 workout bonus and the $3.93 million owed to Jackson in 2014 after he signed a five-year, $42.5 million extension two years ago. He was scheduled to make $7.7 million in 2015 and $8.3 million in 2016.
The Browns saved money, but the cost was high.
Not only did they lose their spiritual leader, they created a gaping hole on defense. They were already thin at inside linebacker before cutting their best one, and the position has become a critical need entering free agency and the draft. Craig Robertson struggled as the starter next to Jackson last season, and special teamers Tank Carder and Darius Eubanks are the other inside linebackers on the roster.
Jackson overcame a pair of season-ending torn pectoral muscles in 2009 and ’10 to lead the team in tackles the last three seasons while not missing a game. He played every snap but one in 2013, registering 143 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“To the people of Cleveland and Browns fans everywhere: Eight years ago I began a journey that blessed me with the opportunity to be a part of a wonderful organization and community,” Jackson said in a statement. “I want to take this time to thank each and every one of you for opening your arms and hearts to my family and me, and for making Cleveland an easy place to love and call home. It’s been an honor playing in front of you.
“I also would like to thank the Browns players, coaches and staff for their tireless work and commitment. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all and will always carry you with me.”
Jackson played in 97 games in his Cleveland career with 96 starts. He totaled 891 tackles, 11½ sacks, eight interceptions, five forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries
“Thanks 4 everything boss!” tweeted cornerback Joe Haden, who’s expected to assume a leadership role in Jackson’s absence. “True example of a pro! @DQ52 good luck with everything!! #madeMeABetterLeader.”
“Pleasure playing with you bruh @DQ52,” safety T.J. Ward tweeted. “You taught me so much about being a pro in this league. Constant leader on and off the field. Salute!”
In addition to coming back from the torn pectorals, Jackson bounced between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes — he was at his best in the 4-3 — and played for four head coaches and several coordinators.
But he couldn’t survive the latest regime change. Farmer replaced CEO Joe Banner as chief of the football department, and coach Mike Pettine took over for Rob Chudzinski.
“I’m humbled by the support I’ve received today from my teammates & the Cleveland community,” Jackson tweeted. “You guys will always have a place in my heart.”