ADDENDUM (January 16, 2017): This article was written before Gary Kubiak’s retirement. Please see revisions that have been made to this roadmap in this article.
Suffice to say, I am not happy with writing this annual article in December. Nonetheless, it’s important to get out my opinion on what the Broncos should do in the upcoming months, as the evaluation needs to start right now.
1. Scrutinize the entire offensive coaching staff, and make changes as appropriate.
If I was in John Elway’s position, the first question I’d ask to Gary Kubiak would be this: “Do you believe we either have, or can reasonably expect to acquire, the talent needed to run your preferred offensive scheme?” If the answer is yes, then perhaps just a few tweaks to the staff is needed to get the minds that Kubiak needs that are more aligned with his philosophy. If the answer is no, then the Broncos need to seriously consider pursuing offensive coaches that can run the best system possible with both the incumbent talent and all available talent in free agency and the draft.
In either case, I would have to imagine that the two coaches that are on the hottest of seats are offensive line coach Clancy Barone and running backs coach Eric Studesville. Both not only predated Kubiak’s return to Denver, but also predated the John Fox era, going all the way back to when Josh McDaniels was in charge. It will be interesting to see if they’re brought back or not for 2017.
But the big question will be whether the evidence suggests that the Broncos can do better than Rick Dennison at offensive coordinator. Both Elway and Kubiak will have their implicit bias in favor of Dennison, having been on the same team for 15 (Elway) to 27 (Kubiak) years. Do they have the ability to put that history aside if they need to? Dennison need not be fired: there could be a de facto demotion to offensive line coach, but a de jure promotion to assistant head coach with a pay raise. An in-house possibility for a replacement could be quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, who has history with Trevor Siemian and different offensive schemes.
While external options for any offensive coaching changes should also be investigated, keep in mind that, unlike with head coaching hires, other teams are under no obligation to release assistant coaches from their contracts. So while the investigation should be starting right now, there is no rush to make changes immediately after the season is over—it will take some time after Black Monday to determine whether or not a fired head coach’s assistant staff will also be let go.
2. The decision on Russell Okung’s option may come down to the determination on the future of the offense.
This is a decision that I don’t envy making. Exercising the option locks the Broncos into paying Okung over $11 million per year in guaranteed money in both 2017 and 2018. That will be on the lower end of the top tier of left tackle pay. Is Okung worth that kind of money? Perhaps not, but the alternatives do not look appealing. The only zone blocking scheme left tackle that may be available could be old friend Ryan Clady. If the Broncos elect to move beyond that scheme, the expansion of options do not look much better: over-the-hill types in Andrew Whitworth and Will Beatty, or uncertain talent like Matt Kalil. The draft will always be a crapshoot, especially for a rookie season in 2017.
I tend to be on the conservative side given the state of the Broncos’ offensive line, and it would be more likely than not that I would pick up the Broncos’ option. But Elway has proven that he prefers to be aggressive with fitting in players with their proper worth. Declining Okung’s option does not preclude the Broncos from re-signing him to a more team-friendly deal, but the downside is that it opens up the risk of competing for Okung on the market. If Matt Russell and Co. were to advise me that it was likely Okung could be retained in this manner, I could have my arm twisted in declining the option. Like I said, a very tough decision.
3. Cut Donald Stephenson, but don’t rule out bringing him back for cheaper.
Unlike with Okung, there’s little to no doubt that Stephenson has not met the value of his contract. Stephenson must be cut before the 5th day of the 2017 league year, or else his $4 million base salary will become fully guaranteed. Cutting him will give the Broncos $3 million in cap dollars.
However, after being cut I’m not opposed to re-signing him to a much lower value to allow him to compete for a spot on the roster alongside Ty Sambrailo and perhaps Michael Schofield. Any such contract would have to be minimal on guaranteed money, as the Broncos would want the ability to cut Stephenson again in training camp if he’s unable to win a job.
4. Prioritize right tackle in free agency and the draft.
The leading name here, one that I’ve mentioned before, is Ricky Wagner of the Ravens. He has history with Kubiak in 2014 when the Ravens had a rare outstanding offensive season, a history that could give the Broncos a trump card over other tackle-needy teams like Seattle or Minnesota. Plus, Ozzie Newsome loves to collect compensatory picks, and a starting veteran right tackle making over $6 million per year should fetch a 4th rounder. Riley Reiff of the Lions is another possible free agent to pursue.
However, the Ravens or Lions can scuttle those hopes at any moment by extending Wagner or Reiff, just like the Falcons did with Ryan Schraeder earlier in the season. This is why I did not rule out bringing back Stephenson in goal #3 above: the cold, hard truth is that there may not be a quick fix available for the Broncos, and they have no choice but to leave it up to the luck of the draft to try to hit on a right tackle. Furthermore, there could also be a chance that there isn’t a right tackle worthy of being drafted high and/or starting right away. While the Broncos must try to improve this position now, the odds of this goal being failed is not insignificant.
5. Place ERFA tenders on 10 eligible players.
As of now, those players are Matt Paradis, Bennie Fowler, James Ferentz, Shaquil Barrett, Jordan Taylor, Zaire Anderson, Kapri Bibbs, Casey Kreiter, Vontarrius Dora, and Henry Krieger-Coble. None of these should be controversial, and last year the ERFA tenders weren’t even announced, so you may not hear news on that once again. The cap space (provided the contracts are in the top 51) necessary to retain these players will be $5.7 million.
6. Place a right of first refusal RFA tender on Todd Davis.
The decision on Davis should be pretty straightforward, he has played well enough to earn this tender but not enough to earn a higher tender and/or an extension, like Brandon Marshall did. This should cost about $1.8 million.
7. Place a second round RFA tender on Brandon McManus.
Some of you may feel that an ROFR tender will be sufficient enough to retain McManus, and I would not be surprised nor disappointed if that’s what the Broncos decide to do. However, I’ll make the argument for a second round tender on the basis that McManus has done enough to earn a future extension with the Broncos. I see this tender as a gesture of good faith toward McManus, as it raises his negotiation floor to about $2.7 million. However, an extension will likely result in an APY that is higher than that, so it is not much of a concession by the Broncos on that front if they are serious about extending McManus.
I’ll also add that very early in Elway’s tenure, he placed a second round tender on Matt Prater, so there is precedent for a kicker in this regard.
8. Try to extend Sylvester Williams on a contract for no more than $5 million APY.
Due to thin depth at nose tackle thanks to giving up on Darius Kilgo, I think it would be wise for the Broncos to make a real effort at ensuring Sylvester Williams doesn’t get away, unless they’re higher on Kyle Peko than can reasonably be observed from the public view. Marcell Dareus is clearly an outlier, so I would instead slot Williams along with the likes of Brandon Mebane and Vince Wilfork at around $4.5 million APY. A deal like Mebane’s, of which was a three year, $14.5 million deal with a modest signing bonus and only the first year of base salary fully guaranteed, should be a reasonable target. If some other team wants to value him higher in a 4-3 defense, a lesser version of what the Giants did for Damon Harrison, then the Broncos likely have no choice but to let him walk.
9. Try to extend Kayvon Webster on a contract for no more than $2 million APY.
I’m placing Webster’s value similar to David Bruton’s in 2013 as a core special teamer and reserve defensive back. Bruton got a three year, $4.5 million deal back then, so I think somewhere around this for Webster is fair. As with Williams, it’s important to hold a firm ceiling with Webster, and allow him to walk if another team values him significantly more.
10. If he’s healthy, bring back Vance Walker for another year.
The Broncos will know much more than we will about Walker’s recovery from a torn ACL. However, if he has recovered as expected, he would help to fill the thin rotation at defensive end that resulted from the departure of Malik Jackson and the slow development of Adam Gotsis. A one year deal for around $2 million seems fair and in line with the pay of his previous contract.
11. Bring back Justin Forsett, Billy Winn, and Dekota Watson on low level deals.
All three have done enough to get another shot at making the Broncos in training camp. All should be one year deals around the veteran minimum with little to no guaranteed money, though with Watson one could make the argument for a multiyear deal for a bit more.
12. Let Jordan Norwood walk and secure a serious returner candidate in free agency or the draft.
I doubt there will be any meaningful debate on this one. I will add that while traditionally returner is a position that is deprioritized in Denver due to the thin air, I am expecting more kickoffs to be forced to be returned as kickers work on perfecting the technique of pinning returners inside the 25 in the coming years.
13. Let DeMarcus Ware walk.
It’s been a great three years with Ware, and he’s provided a valuable service both on and off the field. However, all good things must come to an end, and with only 4 sacks on the field and Von Miller emerging as a leader off the field, it’s time for Miller, Shane Ray, and Barrett to take the full reins. As I have said multiple times, if Ware wants to continue to play I think he’ll have an eager old home awaiting him in Dallas, where their young pass rushers desperately need a maturing influence that Ware provided here in Denver.
In case you’re wondering about a compensatory pick for Ware, keep in mind that players with more than ten accrued seasons cannot yield anything more than a 5th round comp pick, so I would not be concerned with that as any reason to let Ware walk.
14. Pursue a veteran quarterback.
I’ve saved the goal that will likely generate the most discussion for last. I feel that Trevor Siemian has earned the presumption of starter for 2017—but not the guarantee of starter. Furthermore, I feel that Paxton Lynch has “earned” the presumption that he will likely need another year of development. And with Austin Davis now proven as nothing more than just a guy they could grab off the street for cheap insurance, I feel that this points to the need for a veteran option to push Siemian.
I’m fairly agnostic on exactly which veteran quarterback should be pursued. But there are three names with previous connections to people on the Broncos that I think we should prepare ourselves for hearing if the team, as I’m recommending, does consider to add a veteran quarterback:
- Tyrod Taylor. Before he signed with the Bills, the Broncos were rumored to be pursuing him as well after he spent 2014 with Kubiak in Baltimore. Buffalo will have to make a very spendy decision on Taylor’s future this offseason–and with Rex Ryan now fired, it could increase the odds of the Bills letting him go. If that happens, Taylor would probably be the best option available out there, but for the same reason this may be the most unlikely option to actually be available.
- Colin Kaepernick. The Broncos tried to trade for him last offseason at a price that was right for them. Now, it’s likely that he and the 49ers will part ways, either by the 49ers cutting him, or by Kaepernick exercising his option to void his contract. Either way, Kaepernick will not have much leverage to get a starter’s contract on the open market.
- Case Keenum. I’m not wild about acquiring Keenum by any means, but he did start off his career with Kubiak in Houston, and he will see his contract expire this offseason, so I add him to the list just by connecting the dots.
I do not see Tony Romo or Kirk Cousins, despite their previous endorsements by Mike Shanahan, as practical veteran quarterback solutions for the Broncos. Both will command eight figure salaries, and the Broncos are currently built to run with avoiding to pay the quarterback premium for the next couple of years. I would not spend any more on a veteran quarterback than $7 million APY, on the high end of backup veteran quarterbacks that Chase Daniel has set, and even then, Taylor is the only one that I would approach that number with.