As I write this, there has been a lot of news surrounding the Denver Broncos and I’m sure there will be more to come. I wanted to focus, however, on one item in particular, and that’s the Miami Dolphins signing restricted free agent CJ Anderson to an offer sheet.
We know the Broncos tendered Anderson at the “right of first refusal” level, which is really another way of saying “original round” level. In other words, if the player is signed by another team to an offer sheet that the original team does not match, that team gets a draft pick in compensation that is equivalent to the round the player was drafted, unless he was signed as an undrafted rookie, meaning no compensation.
In the case of Anderson, of course, there will be no compensation because Anderson signed as an undrafted rookie. I had believed the best thing to do was tender Anderson at the second-round level because it would mean paying a little more than $2M for a running back who has shown he can be good in a two-back rotation, which is an acceptable amount for that type of player.
With that said, John Elway believed otherwise. Not only did he tended inside linebacker Brandon Marshall at a lower level than I would have (second-round tender instead of first), he went the lowest possible tender on Anderson. Most people are looking at it this way: You don’t want to lose Anderson, so tender him at the second-round level and you are safe. Now the Broncos will lose a good running back and get nothing in return.
I can understand that line of thinking, but as I gave it some thought, even though I disagree with the decision, I can see where the Broncos might be coming from with their decision and what might be going through the head of Anderson and his agent if the Broncos did tender him at the second-round level.
Let’s start with the Broncos. We all know that few running backs have been living up to the contracts they have received in recent seasons. The Bills traded for LeSean McCoy and gave him a big extension, and he wasn’t that good in 2015, and now he enters this season on a $7.65M cap hit. Jonathan Stewart was given a player-friendly contract several seasons ago and will take up a $9.5M cap hit when he’s not even close to being a top-five RB. DeMarco Murray got handsomely paid last season and, now that he’s with the Titans, he’ll check in at a $6M hit and still be playing behind a subpar offensive line.
So it’s no surprise that Elway would look at this and not want to overpay for a running back. Now, while this would indicate that using the second-round tender would make sense because he isn’t overpaying for Anderson, it’s possible Elway was thinking that teams weren’t going to pour money into free agent running backs and that would cause teams to shy away from signing Anderson, even if it meant they wouldn’t have to give up a draft pick for him.
Now let’s consider Anderson and his agent. Anderson knows that running backs tend to have short NFL careers, so it’s to his advantage to get as much money as possible while his value is still high. His agent will be on board with him, of course. Furthermore, there comes the perception players and agents will likely have when it comes to the highest RFA tenders.
You’ll remember that the Broncos tendered Chris Harris at the second-round level. The narrative was the Broncos did that because Harris was coming off an ACL injury suffered in the playoffs. During the ensuing season, Harris played at a high level again and, just hours after word got around that the Broncos and Harris were negotiating an extension, the sides came to terms.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though, into thinking the entire extension negotiation process took just a couple of hours. It’s more likely that when the Broncos tendered Harris at that level, they had at least one conversation with Harris’ agent in which they indicated that they are interested in extending him but, while they are not ready to enter in-depth negotiations, they would be fine with exchanging initial numbers. That at least lets the agent and the player know there is interest and they keep the door open. I think it’s likely that happened with Harris and I’m betting the Broncos are doing that with Marshall, given that word is that the Broncos eventually want to extend him.
What happens if a player gets a high RFA tender and the team says it’s in “wait and see” mode about any extension talk, even if just exchanging initial figures? Chances are the player and his agent aren’t going to be happy and that could lead to something no fan likes to hear about: A player holding out for as long as he can without risking his eligiblity for unrestricted free agency. So if the Broncos had tendered Anderson at the second-round level, he and his agent are likely to expect the Broncos to at least show interest in visiting an extension.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: If you aren’t certain you will want to extend a player, why tender him at all? That’s because sometimes you have a player who has shown sparks from time to time but hasn’t put it all together through the course of multiple seasons. Harris and Marshall each showed signs of promise in their first years with the Broncos, then each broke out in their second years and improved in their third. So you had two players the Broncos believed could be part of the long term. One got extended and the other might be a candidate for an extension.
Anderson, though, is a trickier case. He didn’t become the primary back until midway through the 2014 season, although he certainly made the most of his touches. Then, in 2015, he started the season slowly but played better in the second half. He is very much a player who has shown good things at times, but hasn’t looked like a game changer during the course of a full season.
Again, though, why tender him at all? I believe it’s because Elway sees the lowest tender as a way of saying that he sees potential in a player but wants to see more to decide if he should commit for a longer term, or because he expects a soft market for the player or position.
Meanwhile, the agent will look at it this way: If the market is soft for the player’s position, he will likely tell the player to take what he can get for now and let his on-field performance raise his value. If the market is strong, though, the agent will tell the player to do what is necessary to force the team’s hand. In some cases, it may be talking to other teams about offer sheets. In others, it means holding out.
And that brings me to this: My thought that the running back market would be fairly soft (and I am assuming Elway had a similar thought) did not happen. Let’s take a look at the three backs who got sizable deals in the first day of free agency.
Doug Martin: The Buccaneers chose not to exercise the fifth-year option on Martin’s rookie deal, which would have been around $5.5M. When he was about to hit free agency, I viewed him as worth a deal averaging $5M to $6M APY on a four-year deal that would be “two years then we’ll see.” Instead, he got a five-year deal averaging a little more than $7M per year that is “two years then we’ll see.” That’s a little higher than I expected, although I don’t consider it to be a large problem. Still, the Bucs will commit more than $15M to a back for two years who has had two good seasons sandwiching two mediocre ones.
Lamar Miller: The full details of Miller’s contract aren’t out yet, but I viewed Miller as a back worth slightly less than Martin, closer to the $5M APY than to $6M APY. He received a four-year, $26M contract, not as high as Martin but a bit higher than I valued him, although not so high that I dislike the figures. I would assume his deal will be “two years then we’ll see” and that’s a good thing. Miller’s best season was 2014, but he wasn’t as good this past season, although some would believe the Dolphins just didn’t utilize him enough. We’ll find out, though, if Miller can get back to his 2014 level or if the 2015 version is really who he is.
Chris Ivory: This is the deal that really throws everything for a loop. Ivory is coming off his best season as a pro, but hasn’t exactly set the world on fire prior to that. I viewed him as a player who I would give no more than a four-year deal and would want it to average between $4M and $5M per year as a “one year then we’ll see” deal. Instead, he got a five-year deal averaging more than $6M per year that is “two years then we’ll see.” I believe the Jaguars overpaid for a running back who hasn’t proven to be a game changer.
So you have three running backs who got paid handsome sums and the RB market came out as higher than I would have expected, and I imagine it’s more than Elway expected. Anderson and his agent see this and know the time has come to cash in. If Anderson got the second-round tender, his agent is likely conversing with the Broncos to find out if they really want to extend him or not and Elway has to figure out what his response will be.
And so here we are, the Dolphins signing Anderson to an offer sheet. We know the contract will pay him $6M in the first year, although the deal averages to $4.5M over four years. We don’t have as much information about the structure, though, to know if it’s really a one-year deal or a two-year deal. That all depends on how the Dolphins structured the signing bonus. If it’s structured as such bonus traditionally are, the cap number in the first year would be small enough to allow the Broncos to match it.
If not, it will make things trickier on the Broncos because they don’t have that much cap space to work with. And it’s possible the Dolphins structured it so the signing bonus is not spread out over four years. Yes, you can do that with contracts (check out how the Raiders structured the signing bonus for Bruce Irvin’s four-year deal, for example). If the Dolphins structured the signing bonus so it only affects the first two years of the contract, that reduces the chances that the Broncos will match the contract
The other thing to consider is whether or not Elway thinks Anderson is worth $6M, even if it’s just for one year. He might be OK with it, knowing what other backs have received, but you never know what he may be thinking. Given that the Bills were quick to tell the NFL they would not match the offer sheet that the Patriots signed WR Chris Hogan (and the Bills have even less cap space to work with), and that the Broncos haven’t said anything yet, they are likely weighing their options and figuring out if they can work with however the contract is structured.
Finally, there is 2017 to consider. The Broncos have several decisions they must make. Not only will they possibly extend Marshall, they must figure out if they are going to pick up the fifth-year option on Sylvester Williams’ rookie deal or decline it with the hopes they can extend him for less money at a lower cap charge. Darian Stewart will be a free agent and the Broncos might want to extend him if they believe he can be the veteran safety for the long-term picture. For all we know, the Broncos may want to keep Emmanuel Sanders around.
And they have four exclusive rights free agents (who I am certain have been tendered even there’s been no announcement that I have seen) who will all become RFAs in 2017 and you will have to debate who is worth what tender. Bennie Fowler, Todd Davis, Matt Paradis and Brandon McManus will be those potential RFAs and the only one I think anyone would say should definitely be a “right of first refusal” tender is McManus. The others could play at a high enough level, though, in which the Broncos will have to consider the question about whether they see the player as part of the long-term picture or needing one more season to judge him, which may affect the tender level and cause more debate among Bronco fans. And even though Paradis was a sixth-round pick and the lowest tender should net the Broncos that pick if somebody signs him away, there may be arguments he should go one level higher if he plays well in 2016.
And, yes, a second-round tender and trading a disgruntled player is possible, but it requires that the other team involved sign the player to an extension or the player will remain disgruntled. It’s not any more of a sure thing than using the lowest tender and nobody else presenting an offer sheet.
So it’s not an open-and-shut case that the Broncos would want to commit to Anderson past 2016, even if they used the second-round tender. Hence, who knows how Anderson and his agent would react if the Broncos were just using the tender to keep him around for a year and then get a compensatory pick if he departs. Again, I would have preferred to use the tender, but I could understand the Broncos may want to avoid a difficult situation, especially if they believed the market was going to be soft for running backs (even though that proved otherwise).
We’ll know more in the coming days about whether or not the Broncos want to keep Anderson. But the one thing to remember about using a second-round tender on an RFA is that players and agents might see that as a message that you want to commit to the player for the long term. If you only use it to make sure the player can’t go anywhere for a season, you might wind up with an unhappy player staying at home for an extended period of time.