With the draft out of the way, the NFL offseason winding down and thoughts turning to offseason team activities and training camps, various sites are rolling out offseason grades for NFL teams.
I think there’s a better way to think about evaluating offseason moves: A risk versus reward system.
The way it works is this: Each time a team signs a free agent, trades for a player or moves up or down in the draft, you consider how much risk the team takes based on what the team will commit versus what benefit the team could receive.
So I’m going to examine the more notable moves the Denver Broncos made this offseason and consider the risk they are taking versus the potential reward if things work out. I’m only evaluating moves they made, not moves they didn’t make. (In other words, I’m not considering the free agents the Broncos didn’t re-sign or any trade attempts that didn’t happen.)
Signing offensive tackle Donald Stephenson
The risk side: The Broncos committed $6M in fully guaranteed money to Stephenson, a considerable chunk of money for somebody who hasn’t been a full-time starter for most of his career. His full contract is $14M over three years, which amounts to less than $5M in APY salary. Stephenson is expected to start at right tackle and his APY salary puts him just outside the top 10 among right tackle salaries. The Broncos can get out of the deal after 2016 if Stephenson doesn’t pan out, but giving $6M to a player on the hopes that he can be the starting right tackle is definitely a gamble.
The reward side: If Stephenson does prove to be a worthy starting right tackle, then the Broncos will keep him in 2017 for just $4M, which is excellent. If he keeps playing well, he’ll cost another $4M in 2018. Getting starting-level play from a right tackle at just $4M per year is a good deal.
The verdict: The deal carries a lot of risk in the first season, but if it pays off, the Broncos can get Stephenson for two more years at a very good price. This is very much a high-risk, high-reward type of move.
Trading for Mark Sanchez
The risk side: The Broncos gave up a conditional seventh-round pick in 2017 to acquire Sanchez from the Philadelphia Eagles. Giving up that late of a pick for a quarterback who might give you a full season as a decent starting QB or one who can hold the fort down until a younger QB is ready to enter the lineup isn’t a bad deal at all. The Broncos used a seventh-round pick on Trevor Siemian, who projects as a backup QB. Sanchez will be paid $4.5M, which isn’t bad for a veteran backup. Still, some may wonder what happens if he doesn’t prove worthy enough to start and the Broncos are forced to go with an inexperienced QB.
The reward side: If Sanchez can at least have a good season as a starter, though, that $4.5M salary makes him a bargain and the cost of the draft pick becomes negligible, even if the cost goes up to a sixth rounder. Nobody would ever turn down a starting-caliber QB at that salary for a late-round pick. And given that Sanchez has had two quality seasons in his career (even if they weren’t elite season), it’s not unreasonable to think he can at least play well enough in 2016 to get the Broncos to the playoffs.
The verdict: This is reasonably called a low-risk, high-reward move – exactly the type of move you want to make when you are trying to fill holes.
Matching Miami Dolphins’ RFA offer to running back CJ Anderson
The risk: We know the Broncos took a chance by giving Anderson the original-round restricted free agent tender instead of the second-round version. By matching the offer, they committed to a $6M cap number and $7.6M in guaranteed money, with $5.225M paid as a roster bonus. That’s a good chunk of change for a running back who has only had been a regular part of the lineup for parts of two seasons and has yet to prove he can handle a full season’s workload as the featured back.
The reward: If Anderson proves himself in 2016, the Broncos will keep him for another year at just $2.9M, making him excellent value for a starting-caliber running back. They would pay him just $4.4M in each of the final two years of the contract. And if they have to get out of the deal early, they can cut him in 2017 without any dead money hit.
The verdict: I think it’s fair to call this a high-risk move, given how much the Broncos must commit in cash and cap space this year. But it also has high-reward potential if Anderson demonstrates he can be the featured back.
Signing offensive tackle Russell Okung
The risk: The Broncos will commit $3M to Okung if he makes the roster and could spend an additional $3M in incentives. Because the Broncos traded Ryan Clady to the New York Jets, signaling they believe Okung can be the starting right tackle, they would have to go with an inexperienced player on the left side if Okung doesn’t pan out. There is, of course, the fact that if Okung does play well, it’s going to be hard for the Broncos to justify not picking up the option that would guarantee him $19.5M for the next two years. Doing that means they have to commit a considerable amount of cap space to Okung.
The reward: Even if the Broncos pay the full $6M to Okung this season, it makes him excellent value for a starting left tackle. The Broncos are under no obligation to exercise the option and could decline it even if Okung excels, if the Broncos believe they have somebody else who is ready to take his place. But even if they do pick up the option, they’ll at least feel comfortable sticking it out with Okung for the next two years and could get out of the deal after that point with little cap penalty.
The verdict: Seldom do you see a move that counts as no-risk, high-reward deal, but this one does. It was a masterful move by John Elway, who isn’t locked into Okung for the long term, but even if he does pick up the option in 2017, he doesn’t have to stick with Okung for all four years and could get out of the deal in 2019, when Okung would be 30 years old.
Signing defensive lineman Jared Crick
The risk: The Broncos gave a $1M signing bonus to Crick, so if he doesn’t make the final roster, they are out that money. If he does make the roster, he gets an additional $1M in base salary. There’s also a $250,000 workout bonus due. It’s not a lot of money, but given that Crick struggled the past couple of season with the Houston Texans, it’s worth asking if he can bounce back.
The reward: Then again, Crick is familiar with Wade Phillips and might fare better in his defensive scheme. The money is reasonable for a rotational player, which Crick certainly is. If he makes the roster but doesn’t prove to be worth keeping after 2016, the Broncos can easily get out of the deal. And if he does prove himself worthy of another season, the Broncos will pay him just $1.75M in 2017, a fair price to pay.
The verdict: Another low-risk, high-reward signing.
Re-signing running back Ronnie Hillman
The risk: The Broncos gave Hillman $500,000 in fully guaranteed money. That accounts for one-fourth of the one-year, $2M deal he signed. If he fails to make the roster, the Broncos can’t get the money back. Hillman had his moments in 2015 but faded down the stretch, so it’s worth asking if he can get back on track.
The reward: If Hillman makes the roster, the $2M salary is reasonable to pay for an experienced situational back. If he can avoid fading down the stretch this time around and manage to get to the level of, say, Tatum Bell in 2005, the $2M salary looks like a very good deal for the Broncos.
The verdict: It’s definitely a low-risk signing. The reward level depends on what you think Hillman’s ceiling is, but it’s at least a medium-reward one, with potential to be high reward.
Trading up for quarterback Paxton Lynch
The risk: The Broncos handed over one of their third-round picks to the Seattle Seahawks (along with the swap of first-round picks) so they could select Lynch in the first round. If Lynch doesn’t pan out, some will wonder what might have been with that third-round pick, especially if the Seahawks turn that pick into the next Earl Thomas. (Yeah, I’m opening an old wound here.)
The reward: If Lynch proves to be the long-term starter, it will definitely be worth giving up that third-round pick. On top of that, the Broncos would keep Lynch around on a rookie deal that would include a fifth-year option, meaning the Broncos would have Lynch at less than $10M each year during the five-year period, a great deal for a starting-caliber quarterback.
The verdict: I think you could call this a medium-risk deal because a third-round pick was involved, but it’s high-reward all the way.
So in looking at the most notable moves the Broncos made to acquire players, the majority didn’t involve a lot of risk and nearly all of them are high on potential rewards. It’s fair to question the moves involving Anderson and Stephenson, and some might take issue with the draft pick given up to obtain Lynch, but the rest of the moves are hardly ones to worry about and the Okung signing was a stroke of genius. Overall, I think Elway had a good offseason and it will only look better if the potential reward for these moves is realized.