As we approach the final weeks until the 2016 NFL season begins and free agency gets underway, I am rolling out my final offseason plan for the Denver Broncos.
The steps that I will list first are what I would do, not necessarily what will happen. When I first started putting together my plan, I underestimated what Derek Wolfe would get and what the market would be like for certain players. Now that more information is available, I have what I believe is a more workable plan that may get closer to what the Broncos will ultimately do.
After I roll out my plan, I will consider alternatives to certain steps I’ve taken, but each alternative means you have to do something different, whether it’s filling a positional need elsewhere or having to make a corresponding move to get under the cap.
With that in mind, here’s what I would do. The moves assume Over the Cap’s estimate of a $154.3M cap for the Broncos holds up. Again, if you wish to experiment with the salary cap, OTC’s cap calculator for the Broncos is here.
1. Part ways with Peyton Manning. I know the recent ordeal over the 1996 incident at the University of Tennessee and lawsuits which followed years later may be keeping Peyton away from the spotlight, but the Broncos can’t wait for too long for him to make a decision. And while the possibility of Peyton returning for 2016 can’t be ruled out, I am ruling out as far as the Broncos are concerned. If he doesn’t announce his retirement soon, the Broncos need to cut him and ignore any criticism that they are only doing it because they don’t want the heat from the 1996 incident.
2. Cut Britton Colquitt. It was good that Colquitt accepted a pay cut in 2015, but after he played better overall and was especially good in the playoffs, he’s not likely to take another pay cut. It’s best for the Broncos to cut him and move on, because his $4M cap number is too high.
3. Tender ERFAs Matt Paradis, Brandon McManus, Todd Davis, Bennie Fowler and Sam Brenner. All of them would be inexpensive to retain and the Broncos wouldn’t owe them anything if they don’t make the final roster.
4. Tender Brandon Marshall at the first-round RFA level. Again, the reason you go at the first-round level is because teams with lots of cap space could easily put the fully guaranteed money into the first year of the deal while keeping the signing bonus low, but preventing the Broncos from matching it because they don’t have the cap space to accommodate that.
5. Tender CJ Anderson at the second-round RFA level. I’ve gone over this before: The second-round tender should be enough to dissuade teams from pursuing him.
6. Re-sign Lerentee McCray, Josh Bush and Jordan Norwood to one-year deals at the minimum. McCray is a restricted free agent but the expected tender of $1.5M is too high. Better to do what the Broncos did last season with Steven Johnson. Over the Cap and Spotrac list Bush differently, but either way, the one-year deal is best. And I’m fine with doing the same for Norwood if he will accept such a deal. If it takes a little more than the minimum, I’d consider it, but it should be no more than one year at $1M.
Per the OTC salary cap calculator, the Broncos would have $19.593M in cap space available after these moves are made. Now, this is where things start to get tricky, because you would have to do a lot of maneuvering to keep the Broncos under the cap while ensuring enough to sign draft picks.
7. Place the franchise tag on Von Miller. OTC estimates the tag will be $13.1M, so I’ll work with that for now. Down goes the cap space to $6.424M.
8. Extend DeMarcus Ware for one year, with his 2016 salary reduced to $6M in fully guaranteed money, with a $10M base salary in 2017. The first order of business is getting Ware’s salary reduced if you intend to keep him for another year. This can be done by converting the $3M roster bonus Ware is set to receive into a signing bonus with his base salary of $7M reduced to $3M. His cap number is reduced to $6.1M, which is manageable. The Broncos now have $11.924M in cap space to work with.
9. Convert Ryan Clady’s deal into a two-year, $16M deal with $6M in fully guaranteed money in 2016 and a club option in 2017 for $10M. I’ve talked about this before and won’t repeat it. Given what the Broncos are faced with, they really don’t have a choice but to approach Clady if they want to keep him. His cap number goes down to $5.6M and the Broncos have $16.424M in space.
10. Extend Brock Osweiler at three years for $38.5M with $12M fully guaranteed in 2016 and $12.5M in injury-only guarantees in 2017. I went a little higher in the third year ($14M) but still put it at a salary in which Osweiler might be convinced to void the deal if he plays at a high level the first two years. Incentives and escalators could be added, but they would be structured so they apply to the 2017 cap. At a $6M signing bonus, $3M roster bonus and $3 base salary, this means a cap number of $8M. The Broncos now have $8.874M in space left.
11. Re-sign Evan Mathis at two years for $8.5M with a $2M signing bonus and a $2M fully guaranteed base salary in 2016. I’d be willing to bring Mathis back if he’s willing to take a fairly low cost deal. He’s a good fit for the zone blocking scheme and he gives you a reliable veteran. At the deal I’ve proposed, his cap number is $3M. The Broncos are left with $6.324M in cap space.
12. Cut Louis Vasquez. Extending Mathis solves the problem with not having a veteran guard on the roster, allowing you to cut Vasquez to save $5.5M in cap space. Max Garcia can then slide into the starting lineup.
With all that accomplished, the Broncos have $11.374M in cap space to work with. Now, before people ask about the rookie salary pool, keep in mind that, during the offseason, only the top 51 salaries count toward the cap. That means players who sign the least expensive deals won’t actually count toward the cap until the regular season begins. But by that point, you have already made multiple cuts. Some of the players who signed the least expensive deals won’t make the final roster, thus their numbers are irrelevant for cap purposes. Also, some of the players with higher salaries could be let go if they underperform in training camp or a less expensive player has a strong camp. If, say, Vance Walker is outperformed in training camp by a cheaper player, he could be cut and that’s $1.5M in cap space freed to accommodate the player you keep. So the only rookies you should account for at this point are the draft picks, not UDFAs.
Finally, you will note that I have made the decision to let Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan walk, difficult as that may be. It was also hard for me to say goodbye to David Bruton Jr., but chances are he’ll want a deal that pays him better and perhaps the chance to start.
I’ll get to some alternatives shortly, but before we do that, let’s look at the other moves I would make during free agency.
* Sign free agent DE/DT Jared Crick to a two-year, $4M deal. I look at Crick as a younger version of Antonio Smith. Structure it like Vance Walker’s deal and that means a $1.75M cap charge in 2016.
* Consider bringing back Omar Bolden on a two-year, $3M deal if he doesn’t find a better offer. If Bolden can’t find another situation that appeals to him, I’d welcome him back. Heck, if he’s willing to take a low-cost deal because he wants to play for the Broncos, that’s great. Structuring the deal means Bolden likely counts for $1.3M against the cap in 2016.
* Consider a street free agent running back on a one-year, low-cost deal. I would only consider street free agents and you wouldn’t want to pay more than $2M. You could structure a small amount as a signing bonus to reduce the 2016 cap charge.
* If necessary, restructure Chris Harris’ deal by converting all or part $6M of his base salary into a signing bonus. This would be your “last resort” if you need to get a little more wiggle room to accommodate your draft picks.
Now, let’s consider some alternatives to some of the steps I’ve outlined. I’ve mostly stuck to those in which there is a likelihood of it happening, even if it’s slim. I didn’t do this with every step, because I think some are set in stone (Peyton) and others aren’t guaranteed but wouldn’t have a significant impact if not made (re-signing McCray, Bush and Norwood).
Alternative to 2: Ask Britton Colquitt to take another pay cut. Given that Colquitt took one pay cut last season, it wouldn’t seem likely he’ll do it again. But you never know – if Colquitt thinks the Broncos can win another Super Bowl, he might be willing.
Alternative to 4: Tender Brandon Marshall at the second-round level and extend Danny Trevathan. What you are doing is telling teams that they are welcome to negotiate a deal with Marshall, in which either the Broncos get a second-round pick in return, or perhaps discuss a trade. No such trades have happened since the new CBA is in place, but it’s possible one could happen. But doing this means you better be prepared to extend Trevathan, lest you wind up losing both starting inside linebackers.
Alternative to 7: Extend Von Miller before the offseason begins. If both sides can agree to a long-term deal before the official start of free agency, the Broncos might be able to reduce Miller’s 2016 cap number, allowing them more space to address other needs. I don’t think this happens, but you never know.
Alternative to 8: Cut DeMarcus Ware and extend Malik Jackson. If you think Jackson is a priority to retain, you won’t have much choice but to say goodbye to Ware. It will be too difficult to fit both in under the cap while keeping Jackson’s deal cap friendly in future seasons. Perhaps some are willing to try creative means to do so by using the cap calculator, but I don’t see keeping Ware and Jackson as doable.
Alternative to 9: Cut Ryan Clady, re-sign Ryan Harris and be prepared to find another offensive tackle. If you think it’s best to move on from Clady, you better get Harris retained. Then you have to ask yourself whether it’s better to look for an unrestricted free agent, a street free agent or an early draft pick to find more help in case the likes of Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield don’t improve. And any free agent will likely have to be on a short-term, low-cost deal, so forget about the players likely to command more money (unless you are that confident that player can be a long-term solution).
Alternative to 10: Take a chance on signing a free agent QB and be prepared to draft a QB early. If the Broncos think they can get by with an street free agent passer such as Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, they could try that route. This is where they’ll have to be careful, though, because if they decide to let Osweiler walk, there’s no guarantee RG3 will pick the Broncos or that Kaepernick will be cut. I suppose the Broncos could talk to Ryan Fitzpatrick if it came down to that, but they would have to be smart about what they do. And regardless of what happens, drafting a QB early becomes important if they don’t extend Osweiler.
Alternative to 11: Sign another free agent guard to a one-year “prove it” deal. Alex Boone could be an interesting option, as he might take a $4M deal, with the Broncos structuring $2M of that as a signing bonus, similar to what they did when they signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. This one, though, would only come into play if the Broncos decide they will not retain Vasquez, which brings me to this.
Alternative to 12: Ask Louis Vasquez to take a pay cut. If you don’t keep Mathis or sign another guard, asking Vasquez to take less money comes onto the table. When you consider that Vasquez struggled with the zone blocking scheme, he may not have a choice but to take less money, as it’s hard to justify his $6.75M cap number. The incentive is that he would be in the final year of his deal and have his chance to prove he should get one more multi-year deal in 2017, even if that comes from another team.