November 23, 2014

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Browns: Free agent center Alex Mack visits Jaguars

The Browns could soon face an expensive decision regarding free agent center Alex Mack.

After three-plus quiet weeks to open free agency, Mack visited the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday, according to multiple reports. The news wasn’t welcomed inside Browns headquarters, as general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine hope to keep Mack for the long term.

Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union reported Mack had dinner with Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley on Friday night and left Jacksonville on Saturday morning. The Jaguars have a need at center after the retirement of Brad Meester.

The next step in the Jaguars luring Mack from the Browns would be to agree to a contract. The Browns would then have five days to match, their right because they used the $10 million transition tag.

Marvin Demoff, Mack’s veteran agent, has told reporters he believes a deal can be structured that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Browns to match. Cleveland has the salary cap space — estimated at a league-high $31 million — to match any offer, but if Jacksonville frontloads it with around $25 million guaranteed the Browns may decide it’s too much money to pay a center.

The Browns could’ve avoided the dilemma — and the possibility of losing Mack — by using the $11.6 million franchise tag, rather than the transition tag. The franchise tag would’ve required a team signing Mack to forfeit two first-round draft choices, something no team would’ve done. Because they used the transition tag, the Browns would receive no compensation if Mack signed elsewhere.

The amount of the franchise tag is the average of the top five salaries at the position. The transition tag is the average of the top 10 salaries. All offensive linemen are included, not just centers.

The Browns chose the transition tag — which would still make Mack the league’s highest-paid center — and hoped to use the extra time to work out a long-term contract. The Browns reportedly have continued to discuss such a deal with Mack, but he’s made it clear he wants to test the market.

Whether he plays under the transition tag or a long-term contract, Mack will bypass Carolina’s Ryan Kalil as the highest-paid center. Kalil averages $8.2 million a year.

Mack earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl last season. He was the No. 21 pick in 2009 and has never missed a snap.

Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said near the end of the season the Browns couldn’t afford to lose Mack. Veteran John Greco could slide over from left guard, but he’s not as talented as Mack and that would open another hole on the line. An equal replacement doesn’t exist on the free agent market, and even a first-round draft choice would need time to reach Mack’s skill level.

Even if the Jaguars and Mack don’t agree on a contract, the Browns won’t be able to relax. The deadline for Mack to sign the transition tag is July 22. It would be interesting to see if he’d take the entire time, which would mean missing the entire offseason program.

Losing Mack would be a huge blow after a solid start to free agency for Farmer, who’s a first-time GM. He signed inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, strong safety Donte Whitner, running back Ben Tate, offensive lineman Paul McQuistan and stole restricted free agent slot receiver Andrew Hawkins from Cincinnati.

BURLESON VISITS
As expected, veteran receiver Nate Burleson visited the Browns on Saturday, the team confirmed. Burleson, an 11-year veteran, met with the Dolphins earlier in the week.

Burleson, 32, spent the past four years with Detroit. He played nine games in 2013 with eight starts, catching 39 passes for 461 yards and a touchdown.

Burleson (6-0, 198) missed two months after he broke his arm in two places in a one-car accident after a pizza fell off his front seat and distracted him.

He has 457 catches for 5,630 yards, a 12.3 average and 39 touchdowns in 103 starts and 135 games.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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