Alex Mack wants to leave Cleveland for Jacksonville.
Soon it will be up to the Browns whether they choose to block his path.
Mack, a free agent center, will sign a five-year offer sheet with the Jaguars by Friday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Wednesday. The Browns will then have five days to match because they used the transition tag on Mack.
Veteran agent Marvin Demoff and the Jaguars will try to make it difficult for Cleveland to match, but owner Jimmy Haslam seemed to indicate Tuesday the Browns would. He was asked directly if the team was prepared to match anything Jacksonville could offer.
“We want Alex to be a Cleveland Brown,” Haslam said.
That would come at a steep price.
Mack will become the highest-paid center under the new deal. The standard is Carolina’s Ryan Kalil, who signed a six-year, $49 contract in 2011 that paid him $19 million guaranteed and averages $8.2 million per year.
Total dollars won’t necessarily be the biggest obstacle in the Browns matching. They have a league-high $30.8 million in salary-cap space, while Jacksonville has $25.1 million.
But league insiders have suggested the Jaguars could give Mack the right to void the contract after 2014, or include guaranteed money in the final years of the deal, which would be deterrents to the Browns.
Or the Browns could let Mack walk because he has decided he’d rather play with Jacksonville, which also went 4-12 last year. NFL Network’s Michael Silver tweeted: “Browns told Mack after applying transition tag they wouldn’t hold him hostage if he wanted to leave.”
“We remain optimistic that Alex Mack will be a Cleveland Brown for a long time,” he said. “We want him to be. I think we’ve made it very clear that he’s the kind of person, the kind of player we want in our organization.”
Mack made his second trip to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and was named second-team All-Pro. He was the 21st pick in the 2009 draft and has played all 4,998 offensive snaps, including with appendicitis in 2011 that required an emergency appendectomy the next day. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team and an independent thinker.
Mack, 28, liked coach Rob Chudzinski and line coach George Warhop, who were fired after last season. Warhop had been with Mack for all five seasons, despite two coaching changes.
The Browns also fired CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi, creating even more turnover in a franchise that has been in near-constant turmoil since Mack was drafted.
Haslam, new GM Ray Farmer and new coach Mike Pettine were part of a group that flew to California before free agency to sell Mack on the organization’s new plan and try to convince him to sign a long-term deal. He didn’t, and the Browns responded with the transition tag.
Farmer may regret that if Mack winds up in Jacksonville.
The transition tag would pay Mack $10 million for 2014 and gives the Browns the right to match any deal he reaches with another team. The Browns could’ve used the $11.6 million franchise tag that would’ve all but guaranteed his return, because no team would forfeit two first-round draft choices to sign him.
With the transition tag, the Browns receive no compensation.
Pettine spoke to beat writers on a conference call minutes before Schefter’s report and was asked if he was optimistic about keeping Mack.
“It’s a situation that’s very fluid,” he said.
Pettine wouldn’t say if he had talked to Mack since the California trip or if the Browns had continued negotiations on a long-term contract. He did say the organization has talked about “all possibilities” when asked if there’s a contingency plan if Mack is allowed to leave.
The Browns could draft a center or slide veteran John Greco from left guard. That would create a second opening at guard and could prompt Farmer to boost the line by taking Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews with the No. 4 pick.
The plan was to avoid being forced into such a situation.
“The purpose of free agency was really to kind of stabilize the roster,” Pettine said. “Because then that puts you in a situation in the draft where you’re not reaching for a player because of need. Anytime you’re drafting for need I think that can get you in trouble.”
The Jaguars have been active in free agency and hold the third pick in the draft. Mack had dinner with GM Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley on Friday and came away impressed.