INDIANAPOLIS — Coach Freddie Kitchens keeps talking about winning the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has four years left on his reasonably priced rookie contract, before coming up for a huge, salary cap-strangling raise.
General manager John Dorsey is expected to have more than $70 million in salary cap space when free agency arrives March 13. He has 10 draft picks and a few attractive commodities if he wants to trade.
Yet Dorsey plans to be prudent. Starting his second offseason on the job, he has a long-term vision that wasn’t drastically altered by the unexpected turnaround and 7-8-1 finish last season.
“I don’t think we’re a team yet to go for it,” he said Thursday at the scouting combine. “We have a young, talented team. Let’s build a foundation here. Let’s build a team of substance, OK?
“But we’re not done yet in terms of getting this thing right.”
Dorsey isn’t telling fans, or Kitchens, to mute the playoff talk or lower expectations. He just isn’t going to go on a free agent spending spree just because he can.
“Every year we want to win. That’s an overarching goal,” he said. “I’m not going to go out and go waste a whole bunch of money because I have to think three and four years down the road. I just can’t think for the immediate future.”
Although he joked about Steelers GM Kevin Colbert and Giants GM Dave Gettleman calling his cell phone, he doesn’t plan on overpaying for one asset, such as Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. A trade from No. 17 into the top five also seems to be against the long-range blueprint.
“One guy doesn’t make a team,” he said. “The last time I looked, 53 makes a team.”
Dorsey is largely responsible for the excitement prevalent within the organization and among fans. He remade the roster last offseason through a series of important trades, key free agent signings and a draft that landed Mayfield, Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb, among others.
Dorsey inherited a team that went 1-31 the previous two years, including 0-16 in 2017, so he always considered the makeover a three- or four-year project. But with the firing of coach Hue Jackson, the hiring of Kitchens and five wins in the final seven games, the popular opinion is the Browns have turned the corner. Dorsey fought back against the perception, perhaps guarding against a sense of accomplishment for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002.
“Last time I saw, we were (7-8-1) and we were in third place in the AFC North. That doesn’t mean you can go for it,” he said.
Dorsey knows what a true turnaround looks like. When he became a GM for the first time with the Chiefs in 2013, he took over a 2-14 team and went 11-5 in Year 1.
“Everybody feels good, but really what have we done? We’ve won seven games. That’s still not a winning record in my eyes,” he said, downplaying the 5-3 record with Kitchens calling the plays. “We want to be competitive in the AFC North year in and year out and we’re going to do that. So now what we have to do is we’re almost done — our plan — so let’s see if we can stay true and stay consistent with that plan as we go into the start of the league year.”
Mayfield could be the reason Dorsey tries to accelerate the process in the years to come.
Despite being the No. 1 pick, he wasn’t expected to play a lot as a rookie. But he started 13 games after Tyrod Taylor suffered a concussion, winning six and setting an NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes.
This winter, the Rams’ Jared Goff reached the Super Bowl in his third season and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes lost in overtime to the Patriots in the AFC championship game in his second year, first as a starter. So the learning curve for NFL quarterbacks appears shorter than ever.
Perhaps just as important, a top-tier quarterback on a rookie salary allows the franchise to fill the roster with talent by spending money elsewhere. Mayfield signed a four-year, $32 million contract after the draft and the Browns have an option for a fifth year. If he proves to be the long-term starter, his next contract could be worth $35 million a year.
“It gives you a lot of options on how you want to construct your team,” Dorsey said of having a starting quarterback on his rookie deal. “Once you identify positional needs, then I think then what you do is you be very selective on how you go about acquiring those players, and then if you can go acquire those assets that can best help this team get over the hump.”
The Browns arguably still need upgrades at defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and receiver. While no roster is perfect, Dorsey doesn’t yet feel the sense of urgency to “go for it.”
“I think you’ll know when the time’s ready,” he said. “But right now, what we’re trying to do is plan for the ’19 season with the future in mind as well.”
Dorsey’s approach may be measured, but he’s not about to rain on anyone’s parade.
“It’s exciting. There’s a lot of energy in 76 Lou Groza Blvd.,” he said, referring to team headquarters. “The guys are diligently working. You can feel that energy.
“By no means were we satisfied with where we ended the season. We ended on some positive notes, but I think we have bigger expectations moving forward.”
They go beyond 2019.