For the last couple of years, the same story has followed the Broncos as they weigh their off-season needs with their options and, again, start to retool their roster.
They need a starting quarterback. They need help on the offensive line. They could use another playmaker on offense and depth on the defensive line. They need another reliable cornerback, help on special teams and they have to decide what they’re going to do at inside linebacker in the coming weeks.
When the Broncos’ season ended, general manager John Elway made one big decision in retaining head coach Vance Joseph, but he has remained coy about his other looming choices.
“I think that when you’re 5-11, there are obviously some issues that we have to get handled,” Elway said at the team’s season-ending news conference in January. “But our goals have not changed for the Denver Broncos and what we want to do — and that’s to compete for world championships. Now, we have to build towards that process. That starts now.”
And it starts with a manipulation of their salary cap.
The Broncos have 59 players signed to contracts for the 2018 season. The NFL salary cap is expected to jump to around $178 million for the 2018 season and, assuming it does, the Broncos will have around $26 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap (OTC)
The good news is Broncos carry only $365,907 in dead money, per OTC. (Dead money is cap space allocated to players who were cut or traded.) The minimal amount, which is the second-lowest among the 32 teams, is primarily from the Ty Sambrailo trade to Atlanta ($264,265 of it), and affords the Broncos more flexibility in changing their roster.
Even better: The Broncos are expected to have 10 draft picks, some of which they might use in trades or to build depth. In addition to their own seven picks, they acquired the fourth-round pick from the 49ers in the Kapri Bibbs trade, and a fifth-round selection from the Falcons in the Sambrailo trade. Denver is also projected to land a third-round compensatory pick for the loss of Russell Okung.
Along with contracts of some current players that could be moved or restructured, Denver has the ability to create additional cap space should they want it to acquire, say, an expensive veteran quarterback.
“I think there is no doubt we have to get better at that position,” Elway said.
The big cap hits
Since the Broncos re-signed linebacker Von Miller in 2016, the team has maintained an oddly skewed cap with its positional allocation. While many teams devote much of their cap to their quarterbacks and the offense, the Broncos spend the most on their defense. With the contracts currently on their books, Broncos will pay approximately $95.3 million for their defense, trailing only the Jaguars ($113.6 million) and Chiefs ($107 million), per OTC. Denver’s spending on the offense, however, ranks 25th in the league, at about $64.8 million.
And only a fraction of that is tied to their quarterbacks.
The Broncos have only about $5 million allocated to Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly. That’s the ninth-lowest in total quarterback pay in the league, and that includes the performance escalator earned by Siemian that bumped his pay for 2018 up to $1.9 million.
But if the Broncos do try to acquire a veteran quarterback, via free agency or a trade, that player will likely rebalance the Broncos’ books and likely require significant cap alterations by Elway.
Currently the Broncos have five players with cap charges of $10 million or more for next season.
Miller, who signed the largest contract for a non-quarterback in July 2016, has the highest number at $22.5 million. Receiver Demaryius Thomas carries an approximate $12 million cap charge, but his contract includes a $1 million option that will trigger the final two years of his deal. Should the Broncos decline the option, they’d eat $3.1 million in dead money and Thomas would be a free agent. Should the team exercise his option, it will face cap charges of about $12 million and $17.5 million over the next two seasons, unless the sides agree to restructure his deal. The Broncos have until the end of the league year, in mid-March, to exercise that $1 million option.
Veteran cornerback Aqib Talib has a $12 million cap hit, but if the Broncos were to release him, they’d reap an $11 million savings (only $1 million dead money from his prorated signing bonus). Though Talib is still considered one of the league’s elite corners, he will be 32 when the 2018 season starts and will be one of three Broncos corners with hefty contracts. Bradley Roby, the team’s first-round pick of 2014, will see his salary increase from about $1 million to a fully guaranteed $8.5 million, and veteran Chris Harris will have an approximate $10.4 million cap number. The Broncos won’t want to allocate about $31 million to three cornerbacks.
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders will be 31 when the season begins and has two years remaining on the extension he signed in 2016. In 2018 and ’19, he has cap hits of about $10.9 million and $12.9 million, respectively. Last season Sanders missed four games because of an ankle injury and, for reasons of durability and pay, Denver could look to put him on the trading block.
“We’ll get back and once we get back we’ll go through the week and talk about everybody,” Elway said at the Senior Bowl late last month when asked specifically about the futures of Thomas and Sanders.
The decisions, of course, don’t end there.
As Denver looks to improve its offensive line, it will have to find a tackle. The Broncos drafted Garett Bolles last year to man the left side, but injuries and poor performance ravaged the right side of the line. Tackle Menelik Watson missed much of the season because of calf and foot injuries and has two years remaining on his contract with a dead money value of $2.67 million for 2018. If he’s on the roster in March, his $5.5 million salary becomes fully guaranteed. Meanwhile, his backup, Donald Stephenson, restructured his contract last year to void his 2018 salary. He will become a free agent.
The free agents
The Broncos have 11 unrestricted free agents, including receiver Cody Latimer and starting inside linebacker Todd Davis. On the open market, Davis is projected to receive close to $5 million a year, but the Broncos are also paying that amount in salary to fellow inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who signed a four-year extension in 2016. Marshall’s salary becomes fully guaranteed in March.
The Broncos have a shorter list of restricted free agents (RFAs), players with fewer than three years of accrued service who are often undrafted players. Teams can place one of three tenders on RFAs, which are essentially tags that allow the incumbent team to match offer sheets the players sign elsewhere or receive draft compensation. There are three tenders — original-round, second-round and first-round — and, like franchise tags, the tenders are fully guaranteed, one-year deals.
Center Matt Paradis, who has played every offensive snap for the Broncos the last three seasons, is an RFA. Shaquil Barrett, a backup outside linebacker who played for an injured Shane Ray often last season, is another. Bennie Fowler, an undrafted receiver out of Michigan State, is the third.
It’s seems likely the Broncos will place second-round tenders on both Paradis and Barrett, at a projected cost of $2.916 million apiece.
It’s a different year, but a similar story for the Broncos: plenty of decisions, plenty of needs, plenty of options. And very high expectations.
“They haven’t changed, and they shouldn’t,” Broncos president/CEO Joe Ellis said recently. “Our fans should always expect greatness out of this organization. If we don’t deliver it, then we better figure out each and every year how to.”