CLEVELAND (AP) - Alex Mack hasn’t missed one play in his five seasons with the Browns.
They want to keep that streak going.
Cleveland placed its transition tag on the free-agent Pro Bowl center on Monday, locking him into a one-year, $10.039 million contract. The Browns had until 4 p.m. to place either the transition or franchise tag on a player and they decided to use it for the first time on Mack, one of the club’s best and most reliable players since he was drafted in the first round in 2009.
The franchise tag would have earned him $11.654 million.
Mack can accept offers from other teams beginning March 11, when free agency opens, but the Browns will have seven days to match any bids. But before that, the Browns hope to sign Mack, who has played 4,998 consecutive snaps for Cleveland, to a long-term contract.
The Browns feel so strongly about Mack that new coach Mike Pettine and two of his offensive assistants flew to California over the weekend to express the team’s interest.
“I felt it was important for him to get to know us as a coaching staff,” Pettine said after signing autographs at the Cleveland Auto Show. “So actually I went and saw him with (offensive coordinator) Kyle Shanahan and (line coach) Andy Moeller. A very informal sit down and here’s the program. We didn’t want to try to sign the guy, lock him up to a long-term deal when he didn’t have a good feel for who we were, for who I was, what I believed in, my core beliefs in running the program.
“If it didn’t marry up to what he was looking for, then we would’ve felt comfortable turning him loose. But we felt it was important for him to see who we were as people first and then as football guys second. It was a great meeting with him. He’ll speak better to his opinion of it. But just from our view, from our side of the table, I thought it went very well.”
It’s possible Mack wants to play elsewhere. He’s likely to draw attention in free agency and he may be dismayed with the Browns’ direction following another coaching change and front-office purge this winter. The Browns are 23-57 since Mack arrived.
But in using the transition tag, the Browns have at least shown they’re serious about keeping Mack. And quarterback Brian Hoyer couldn’t be happier.
“I’m glad,” Hoyer said. “I think that shows that we want him back. And for me, Alex is great. He takes center to a whole other level because he can almost be a quarterback on the line.”
The decision to make Mack the transition player also means Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward is now a free agent and may have played his last down with Cleveland.
Ward had a solid 2013 season. The former second-round pick started all 16 games and made a career-high 129 tackles with two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. At the end of last season, Ward said he wanted to come back and Pettine didn’t rule out the Browns trying to re-sign him.
“I wouldn’t read into it,” Pettine warned. “It only eliminates the ability to have tagged him. He’s an outstanding player and he’s a Cleveland Brown and we’ll make the decision for what’s best for him moving forward.”
If Ward is out of their plans, the Browns could pursue Buffalo free safety Jairus Byrd, who was not tagged by the Bills. A three-time Pro Bowler, Byrd could be reunited in Cleveland with Pettine, who spent last season as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator.
Byrd turned down a multiyear offer from the Bills. He played under a one-year, $6.9 million franchise tag last year.
The Browns have over $55 million in salary-cap room, and could have more if new general manager Ray Farmer releases defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, due to make $8.175 million next season.
Pettine, though, indicated Rubin is part of the team’s core.
“He’s an outstanding player,” Pettine said. “He’s one of the better run defenders in the NFL and we certainly want him to be part of our roster.”
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