Now that we’ve reached the halfway point of the season and the trade deadline has passed, I wanted to examine which players are set to become free agents and how the Broncos might approach things with them.
While there’s still half a season left to play, it’s not a bad idea to plan ahead a bit to determine how your offseason game plan may take shape by considering which players you may lean toward keeping and, of those you are leaning toward replacing, who is and isn’t likely to fetch a compensatory pick.
I’ll consider the free agents by their respective categories.
UPDATE 2:16 P.M. MT: Nick Korte commented that the tags for restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents have not been updated, so some of the players listed as RFAs might be ERFAs. For now, I will leave everyone’s designation alone, but will revisit this down the road, at which point we should have confirmed what free agent categories each player will fall under.
Exclusive rights free agents: Matt Paradis, Jordan Taylor, Shaquil Barrett, Zaire Anderson.
This is a quick summary: Tender all four. There is no risk involved with tendering any of these players. They will all come at a cheap salary and, if they don’t make the final roster, the Broncos owe them nothing.
Restricted free agents: Brandon McManus, Casey Kreiter, Bennie Fowler, Juwan Thompson, Todd Davis, James Ferentz, Sam Brenner, Kapri Bibbs.
One thing to keep in mind about RFAs: They are not eligible for compensatory draft picks if you don’t tender them. None of the players listed are worth a first-round tender. As for the others, here’s my thoughts at this point regarding them.
Don’t tender or re-sign: Sam Brenner is the obvious one – it’s best for the Broncos to move on.
Don’t tender, but maybe re-sign during the “third wave” of free agency: Juwan Thompson fits best here. I wouldn’t offer him a deal prior to the start of free agency, but if he’s still available after the bulk of free agents have signed, the Broncos could offer him a one-year deal.
Don’t tender, but extend prior to free agency on a short-term deal: Casey Kreiter isn’t worth any of the tender levels, but is an obvious candidate to extend on a two-year deal. James Ferentz makes sense to do this with a one-year deal, given that he knows the system well, though it’s possible the Broncos treat him as a candidate to bring back in the “third wave” of free agency.
Tender at the original round level: Brandon McManus and Bennie Fowler both make sense to tender at this level. The Broncos could consider a short-term extension for McManus. Fowler is good for depth purposes and the original round tender is about what you would pay for WR depth.
Tender, but remains to be seen what level: Todd Davis is a tricky player to evaluate. The Broncos should tender him, but his play might not suggest the Broncos give him a second-round tender. It’s possible they tender him at the original round level and see what market, if any, develops for Davis’ services. One thing to remember about second-round level tenders is that they are a signal to the player that the team in question wants to extend that player. While Davis has done some good things, so has Corey Nelson, and he will be an unrestricted free agent after 2017. If both players keep improving and Brandon Marshall continues playing at a high level, the Broncos will be forced with a choice between Davis and Nelson, because both will want a chance to start and be paid accordingly. Therefore, it’s possible the Broncos use the original round tender on Davis, to indicate they are still evaluating who will be the player they go with after 2017 to start alongside Marshall.
Still need evaluation: Kapri Bibbs hasn’t had enough of a sample size to determine if he’s worth tendering at the original round level. If he plays well enough in the second half of the season, the Broncos should tender him. If not, they need to treat him as somebody to bring back in the “third wave” if he doesn’t find another team.
Unrestricted free agents: DeMarcus Ware, Vance Walker, Darian Stewart, Kayvon Webster, Sylvester Williams, Billy Winn, Jordan Norwood, Dekoda Watson, John Phillips, Austin Davis.
First, I’ll address those UFAs who are a lock to not get a compensatory pick: Jordan Norwood, Dekoda Watson, John Phillips and Austin Davis. These players aren’t worth bringing back until the “third wave” of free agency, if at all.
Billy Winn would also be a player who wouldn’t fetch a comp pick, but he might be a player worth either re-signing before free agency begins or bringing back in the the “third wave.” Either way, he wouldn’t cost much to bring back.
I don’t expect Vance Walker to fetch a comp pick, either. As for whether or not he should be re-signed, I would say that depends on how he comes along with his ACL injury recovery. If the Broncos are convinced he’ll be at full strength and can contribute in 2017, I’d be OK with giving him a one-year, “prove it” deal. Otherwise, it’s best to let him depart.
Let’s look at the other players and where they appear to be trending. When I talk about potential comp picks, keep in mind I discuss them as to what their expected value would be if no other UFAs are signed. What the Broncos would actually get, though, depends on what the Broncos do in the first and second waves of free agency.
Kayvon Webster: At this point, I think Webster is the player John Elway will most likely want to re-sign. He’s an important player on special teams and he’s arguably the player who made it easy for Elway to allow David Bruton Jr. to depart this past offseason. I believe Elway will work to extend Webster on a three-year deal, similar to what Bruton got, to be the special teams gunner. I don’t anticipate teams will line up to give him starting cornerback money, even under the “it only takes one” philosophy, simply because he doesn’t have much a sample size there to warrant such a deal. With that said, if Elway does allow him to depart, there’s an outside chance Webster could be worth a seventh-round comp pick.
Sylvester Williams: This is a tough call. Much of this depends on how much Williams thinks he can get on the open market. One thing to keep in mind that 3-4 defensive tackles generally do not command the salaries that 4-3 defensive tackles get. Among 3-4 DTs, Marcel Dareus is averaging more than $15M per year, but Williams is obviously not worth that. The next highest 3-4 DT salary average is $5M for Jaye Howard, then Brandon Mebane at $4.5M. I would think Williams would seek something close to what Mebane is getting if he goes to a 3-4 scheme. But compare that to 4-3 DTs, in which six players are averaging at least $10M per year, two more exceed $9M per year and the next few are averaging at least $6M per year, which I imagine is the salary Williams would seek to play in a 4-3 scheme. If Williams decides he’d rather go to a 4-3 scheme to increase the money he would likely get, he’s gone. If Williams is fine with staying in a 3-4 scheme, there’s a better chance he returns but it’s not guaranteed. As for the comp pick he would get, I would expect it to be a fifth or sixth rounder, depending on the contract another team gives him.
DeMarcus Ware: Going into the season, I think most people expected that the Broncos would allow Ware to depart. While I don’t think that has changed, you never know what could happen. We saw how much of a difference he makes in the defense in this past week’s home game against San Diego and the Broncos might want to keep him in a rotational role for one more year. I know the easy thinking would be that he would go back to the Cowboys, but the Cowboys are tight against the cap and might not be able to accommodate Ware. That, of course, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t sign with a team that isn’t the Broncos or Cowboys. But if Ware wants to keep playing, he might be OK with returning to the Broncos on a one-year deal. If he doesn’t re-sign and wants to keep playing, I would think he’d seek something similar to what he’s getting from the Broncos now: Between $6M to $7M with incentives. If he goes elsewhere on such a deal, that could net the Broncos a fifth-round comp pick.
Darian Stewart: Given that Will Parks and Justin Simmons have done good things this season, I won’t be surprised if the Broncos allow Stewart to depart. I think John Elway would prefer to make T.J. Ward the safety he wants to extend for the long term (and Ward’s deal expires after 2017). I could see Stewart getting a contract that pays him around $6M per year, which is what George Iloka got from the Bengals. That contract could be worth a fifth-round comp pick for the Broncos.
There’s one other player to address, a special case given the nature of his contract.
Russell Okung: When the season ends, the Broncos will need to decide by the final day of the 2016 league year whether or not to exercise the team option that commits the Broncos to two more years with Okung. Because it’s a team option, the Broncos could be in line for a comp pick if they decline it. Assuming they do, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Okung get a deal that puts him around $10M per year, which could net the Broncos a fourth-round comp pick, bordering on a third-round pick depending on how Okung’s contract is structured and what other deals are handed out in free agency. With that said, the Broncos aren’t going to decline the option just to get a comp pick. The decision about the option will only be made based on whether or not the Broncos believe Okung is worth keeping.
Given that we have just four players who might fetch comp picks, and one that’s under a team option, with that player the only one who is likely to fetch a comp pick in the fourth round or higher, and that the Broncos have some cap space to work with, I would expect the Broncos might be a little more active in free agency than they have been the past two seasons. They’ll continue to look for value and won’t chase “big ticket” free agents unless they agree to team-friendly deals, but there might be more movement in the earlier part of free agency because the Broncos don’t have the potential to land a high compensatory pick in 2017, unless they decline Okung’s option.
The remaining eight games will tell us more about who the Broncos are likely to keep and who they are likely to allow to depart. But I think it’s becoming clearer that the Broncos might not concern themselves in 2017 with stockpiling comp picks as much as they will about asking whether or not they should retain players who would likely fetch a comp pick and what available free agents might help the team in the coming seasons.