Cleveland Browns use transition tag on center Alex Mack

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Cleveland named Alex Mack as their No. 1 offseason priority.

As teams decided whether or not to franchise players heading into free agency, the Cleveland Browns elected not to apply their franchise tag to two of their top free agents: Center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. Instead, Cleveland used the transition tag.

By applying the transition tag, the team is paying the average salary of the top-ten contracts at center (as opposed to the top-five as per the franchise tag). If another team signs Mack to an offer sheet, the Browns are able to match. However they would receive no compensation if they decline to do so. If you're a Bengals fan, go ahead and drop the idea that Cincinnati will be that team.

Mack, the second-best center in free agency (according to Pro Football Focus), was Cleveland's top priority during the offseason, per a mid-February tweet from the NFL Network. The five-year veteran met with the Browns next regime over the weekend and the organization reiterated their stance. However, there is a belief that Mack had felt slighted during his time in Cleveland and needed some reassurances.

Indications earlier this offseason suggested the previous regime had alienated Mack, and if CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi were not fired, the 28-year-old center would have left Cleveland.

They're gone. And ownership still likes Mack.

"In four years with the club, Mack has not missed a single snap, even though there was a stretch during a season in which he had to have his appendix removed," writes Dawgs by Nature, SB Nation's Cleveland Browns site. "When it comes to durability, Mack is the very definition of that, along with left tackle Joe Thomas."

"The Browns have made it clear this offseason that finding a quarterback will be key, but how difficult will it be for that quarterback to survive if Thomas is the only reliable player blocking for him? You can't just go out and replace what Mack brings to the table in terms of pass protection, run blocking, and leadership. He would seem to have the quickness for what Kyle Shanahan wants to achieve on offense."

Ward, graded as the top safety hitting free agency next week, didn't receive any tag. He's still hoping for a deal with Cleveland because he believes that they're close to something special.

"That’s definitely my goal," Ward told in a telephone interview several weeks ago. "I want to stay there. I’ve been there from when things were rough and for me to be a part of it when we get on top would be something very special. Hopefully, we can raise that Lombardi Trophy. It would be great for Cleveland. It would be great to bring a championship there and for me to say that I was there when we weren't good and now we’re on top would be great."

According to Pro Football Focushe's only gotten better during each of his four seasons.

He has been the highest-graded among his position mates against the run for the last two seasons and is no slouch against the pass either. He was credited with 29 stops on running plays, five more than any other safety in 2013. To further display his strong all-around play, quarterbacks had just a 61.3 rating when throwing his direction. The most underutilized part of Ward’s game is his ability to blitz. He generated five pressures and two sacks on just 20 pass rushing opportunities last year.

The 27-year-old Ward is just entering his prime years and will be highly sought after in free agency. With all the unrest in Cleveland, there is still a possibility that Ward doesn’t hit the market, but he is in line for a big pay day somewhere.

The Bengals are only spending a few bucks more than $5 million on safeties in 2014, which ranks 19th in the NFL. Just saying.

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