Joshua Cribbs has become one of the most popular members of the Cleveland Browns in four seasons with the team, but he's not the most popular player among front-office personnel these days.
Cribbs has laid the groundwork for what could be a lengthy and unsettling contract dispute. He's not attending the three-day, voluntary minicamp that began Tuesday to protest the stance the team is taking in regards to re-negotiating his contract.
According to various reports, Cribbs claims that owner Randy Lerner promised him he would be taken care of during the offseason. Cribbs said he was on the team bus after last season's finale in Pittsburgh when Lerner phoned him.
The Browns have a different view on the situation. The team issued the following statement regarding Cribbs' contention that he was told his contract would be re-worked:
"Contrary to published reports, no one from the current Browns organization, including owner Randy Lerner, has ever made promises to Josh Cribbs with regard to his contract status."
Cribbs signed a six-year extension in November of 2006. The contract is worth $6.7 million and includes base salaries of $620,000, $635,000, $650,000 and $790,000 in each of the next four seasons.
Cribbs believes that his performances since earning a roster spot as a rookie free agent out of Kent State in 2005 are worth another new deal. Considered one of the NFL's elite return specialists, Cribbs has totaled 5,507 yards on 209 kick returns for an average of 26.3 yards and five touchdowns. He's returned 65 punts for 689 yards (10.6 average) and one touchdown.
Cribbs' breakout year occurred in 2007 when he earned an AFC Pro Bowl roster spot. He averaged 30.7 yards and scored two touchdowns on 59 kick returns, and he averaged 13.5 yards and scored one touchdown on 30 punt returns.
Beyond his return skills, Cribbs has developed into an outstanding member of the kick- and punt-coverage units. He led the team in special teams tackles each of the last two seasons - 23 in 2007 and 26 last season.
Cribbs compares those numbers to the numbers in his contract and doesn't like what he sees.
With his contract in place through the 2012 season, he realizes he'll be 30 before the start of the 2013 season. Few players remain in the NFL beyond 30. Most of those that do are beyond their primes.
Cribbs looks at the gaudy financial numbers in the contract extension Chicago Bears special-teams star Devin Hester signed and thinks he's worth as much, if not a penny more. Hester's four-year deal is worth $40 million and includes guarantees worth $15 million.
A problem facing Cribbs is that the deal he signed in 2006 was negotiated by a regime that included Phil Savage as the general manager and Romeo Crennel as the coach. Both are gone and have been replaced by general manager George Kokinis and coach Eric Mangini.
Savage spoke about getting a new deal done for Cribbs, but he can't do that now that he's unemployed. No one knows for sure how much value Mangini places on Cribbs, but it was interesting when Mangini mentioned offensive tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson as untouchables in his analysis of the roster a few months ago. There was no mention of Cribbs.
Cribbs was tested at receiver by Crennel, but he's never shown ability at the position. The offseason arrivals of draft choices Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, along with free agents David Patten and Mike Furrey, have bolstered depth at the receiver spots and all but made Cribbs a moot point on offense.
There's been talk about testing Cribbs at safety and perhaps as a nickel cornerback, but the Browns aren't going to bust open the vault to pay for a reserve defensive back. The extent of Cribbs' abilities is as a special-teams standout.
How much is that worth to the Browns? We're about to find out.