CLEVELAND — Two-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack is likely to spend many more years with the Browns after the team designated him its transition player Monday.
Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward, however, will enter the free-agent marketplace after Cleveland opted to use its lone available franchise/transition tag on Mack.
“We looked at the collective bargaining agreement and considered all of the options that were open to us,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “After long discussions, we felt this was the best course of action going forward.
“Alex Mack is an outstanding player and one of the better centers in the NFL. We want him to be a Cleveland Brown for a long time.”
Pettine discussed both players while making a promotional appearance at the I-X Center for the annual Cleveland Auto Show.
The rookie head coach said the door hasn’t been closed on re-signing Ward, but keeping Mack was a higher priority at this point.
As the Browns’ transition player, the 6-foot-4, 311-pounder is guaranteed to be paid $10.039 million for the upcoming season, which is the average of the 10 highest-paid offensive linemen in the league.
Cleveland also has the right to match any offer sheet that Mack signs with another team, but will not receive any compensation if it opts against doing so. Had it tagged him as a “franchise” player, he would have been guaranteed an $11.654 million salary in 2014.
“I met with Alex last weekend in California because I wanted him to have the chance to get to know me as a person, more than as a coach,” Pettine said. “If everything didn’t marry up with what we wanted to do, we would have cut him loose, but it was a great meeting from our side of the table.”
Mack has played all 4,998 snaps since the Browns made him the No. 21 overall choice in the 2009 NFL Draft. The only other offensive linemen with perfect attendance records during that time are Browns tackle Joe Thomas, Falcons guard Justin Blalock and Jets tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson.
“The center is almost like the quarterback of the line, so hopefully Alex will be here a long time,” said Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer, who spent the evening signing autographs at the same table with Pettine and Browns legend Bernie Kosar.
“It’s so valuable when a guy drops back and knows he has someone he can trust as much as we trust Alex.”
Ward also has spent his entire career with the Browns, who picked him No. 38 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder made a career-high 129 tackles and two interceptions last season, earning a spot on The Associated Press All-NFL second team.
Cleveland will still have the opportunity to offer Ward a new contract, but will be bidding against the other 31 teams in the league for his services. Free agents can negotiate with clubs beginning Saturday and are able to sign contracts March 11.
Ward earned $630,000 in the final season of his rookie contract in 2013, but will more than triple that by the end of the month.
“I wouldn’t read too much into today, this only eliminated our ability to tag him,” Pettine said. “T.J. is still a Cleveland Brown (until the 2014 league year officially begins March 11 at 4 p.m.), and he’ll make the best decision for himself.”
Pettine also briefly addressed the release of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who was the longest-tenured Browns player until Wednesday. “DQ” led the team in tackles five times in eight seasons and was its defensive captain — and unquestioned locker room leader.
“I’m not going to comment on contract negotiations, that’s (general manager Ray Farmer’s) area and our policy,” Pettine said. “But I will say we really just couldn’t come to a middle ground about D’Qwell’s role, so he felt it would be better to go elsewhere.”