Obviously, we Bronco fans are disappointed that our favorite team will not go to the playoffs this year. Nick and I have each gone over some of the reasons why things didn’t go the Broncos’ way this season (see here and here) and what should be the focus this offseason (see here and here).
I wanted to go into more detail about the areas the Broncos should address this offseason and address a few points for everyone to remember as we work to address those needs.
Coaching: First of all, while not everyone is happy with how Gary Kubiak approached things this season, I think we all agree that firing him is a panic move. There are legitimate questions to ask about whether some changes need to be made on the staff, but we have to remember that for any change we wish to make, we need to find the right person to replace him while keeping in mind we do have restrictions.
Let’s say, for example, you want Bobby Turner to come back to the Broncos. With Turner, it’s not a question of money but a question of a promotion. Turner is the current running backs coach for the Atlanta Falcons and the Falcons aren’t going to fire him given their success. Therefore, if you want Turner back, the position you offer must be a promotion. In other words, you CANNOT offer Turner the RB coaching spot, but you CAN offer him, say, the offensive coordinator position.
But before you do that, you need to request an interview from the Falcons and keep in mind that the Falcons are in the playoffs, so the Broncos would have to fly to Atlanta to interview Turner. Also, the Broncos can’t name Turner to the position until the Falcons’ playoff run is over. If you are OK with waiting, that’s fine. But bear in mind this means that you shouldn’t limit yourself to Turner as an offensive coordinator candidate, because there’s no guarantee he will take the job.
(Before anyone asks: Offering Turner an “assistant coach” doesn’t change anything regarding permission or when he can be officially hired. And because a switch from RB coach to offensive coordinator is a promotion, it’s not necessary to interview Turner for an “assistant coach” position.)
So if you want a new offensive coordinator, you need to talk to other candidates as well, keeping in mind offers need to be a promotion, unless that candidate is currently unemployed or is part of an organization that is looking for a new head coach but gave permission to assistants to consider jobs with other teams.
The same process applies if you are looking for a new offensive line coach, something I believe the Broncos need to do given Clancy Barrone’s lack of success at that position in his time with the Broncos. Right now, I don’t have a list of candidates given that the teams who have coaching vacancies thus far don’t have offensive line coaches who I would consider leading candidates for the job.
And it’s also worth asking whether or not looking to the past is really the answer. After all, Gary Kubiak has hired several assistants who have worked with him before (Rick Dennison among the most notable) and not all of them may be working out as we expected. More importantly, coaches such as Turner, while good at their jobs, are getting older and there’s no telling when they may decide it’s time to call it a career.
So we shouldn’t always look to the longtime coaches for positions, even if they have proven track records, and consider some younger candidates who might inject some new ideas, too. The best approach to take is a variety of candidates with differing backgrounds and levels of experience, rather than fixating on one candidate.
Free agency: While there are several positions the Broncos must address, we have to remember the need to be smart about money committed to free agents. To understand that requires understanding what the going rate has been for players at certain positions and which players are worth risking a higher salary versus those who you don’t want to commit too much money.
First, I think we can all agree that right tackle is the top priority. Given that the draft may have few offensive tackles worth an early pick, that’s the first area the Broncos should devote free agency resources. The defensive line does need upgrades, but that should come second, not first, in free agency.
Second, regardless of what position you prioritize, you shouldn’t chase after players and give them more money than they may be worth. The players that should truly get the most money are former first-round picks coming off rookie deals who proved to be impact players, all other picks coming off rookie deals who excelled for at least three of their four seasons, and veterans with a long track record of success who haven’t yet exited their primes.
The reason you don’t want to commit too much money to players coming off rookie deals who have had one or two seasons of success is because some of those players may be playing well because they are a good fit for a system, rather than actually being a top player at a position. Commit too much to a player who excelled because of a system and you will run into problems if the player doesn’t fit your system.
With that in mind, let’s look at the positions the Broncos may address in free agency.
Right tackle: As you can see here, most of the right tackles at the top of the list are averaging $6M per year. Lane Johnson is the exception at $11.25M and I would argue that the Eagles overvalued him, even though he is a good player (though I have heard talk that the Eagles might move him to left tackle should Jason Peters retire). Therefore, the Broncos need to set their limit at $7M per year. That’s the highest I would go and only for the top options. If the top options either stay with their current teams or take inflated contracts elsewhere, then the Broncos need to look at short-term options but keep them at no more than $3M APY. Donald Stephenson’s deal averaged nearly $5M per year and that was just too much for the short-term deal he got.
3-4 nose tackle: This list shows most of the top nose tackles at $4.5M APY, with Marcel Dareus the exception. The only pending nose tackle free agent who will get anywhere near what Dareus is getting is Dontari Poe. Not one other pending free agent among nose tackles is worth more than the $5M APY that Nick suggested for Sylvester Williams. If you think there’s somebody who would be an upgrade over Williams, that’s fine, but $5M APY needs to be your maximum salary commitment; otherwise, you are overpaying for the position.
3-4 defensive end: Because the Broncos are likely to want a rotational player who can be used more on rushing downs, but might play a few passing downs, this is not an area in which the Broncos should commit a ton of money. Derek Wolfe is averaging $9.175M per year on his deal, so the Broncos need to look for somebody who is closer to the $5M to $6M APY range. Thus I seriously doubt the Broncos are going to get Calais Campbell, who averaged $11M per year on his most recent deal, is 30 years old and will likely want to get a deal similar to what DeMarcus Ware got from the Broncos when he signed with them back in 2014. That deal averaged $10M per year when Ware signed it and I would expect Campbell to seek at least $8M to $9M per year, which is too much to commit given the Broncos need to commit cap dollars elsewhere. (For reference, here’s the list of 3-4 defensive end contracts and salaries.)
Left tackle: Ideally, the Broncos come to terms with Russell Okung on a reduced salary, but there’s no guarantee that happens. If the Broncos and Okung part ways, the Broncos need to be careful how much money they commit, given that there aren’t any attractive options in free agency. Looking at the list of left tackle salaries, should the Broncos not exercise Okung’s option, a short-term contract should be no more than $8.5M per year. It also means the Broncos would likely need a two-year contract to spread out the cap hit, rather than a one-year deal that may tie up too much cap space in a single season.
Return specialist: If you think the Broncos need a receiver who specializes in returns, you have to be careful how much money you commit. As an example, Ted Ginn received a deal averaging $2.1M per year when he first signed with the Panthers. Therefore, you should set your limit at no more than $3M APY for such a player. Anything more than that is just throwing money at a position that tends to be a luxury more than anything else.
Veteran QB: I will refer you to what Nick wrote because I don’t have much else to add.
Draft: Given that there aren’t many attractive options for the offensive line in this year’s draft, it makes the most sense for the Broncos to try to trade down. That’s what the Dallas Cowboys did the year they selected Travis Frederick. And while it’s true the Cowboys were heavily criticized for the pick, what the Cowboys did that was really smart was not just stick to their draft board, but trade down to get additional picks and still get the player they wanted. Because it’s not a good crop of offensive tackles this year, trading down to add another pick, then drafting one later in the first round, might be a good strategy.
It’s true the Broncos will get a lot of compensatory picks in this year’s draft, but let’s remember that the Broncos may not gain much in comp picks for 2018 because they don’t have any pending free agents that will get premium contracts like Brock Osweiler and Malik Jackson did and it’s likely the Broncos’ own free agent signings will cancel out potential comp picks. Therefore, accumulating extra picks by trading down in this year’s draft gives the Broncos more chances to find players to develop.
If the Broncos can’t find somebody to trade down with, I’d stick with the “best player available” philosophy unless there’s a player at a position of need who is a great fit for the Broncos’ schemes. Because cornerback is a deep position in this year’s draft, it would make sense to draft a cornerback early, given that there’s no telling how much longer Aqib Talib will stick around or if the Broncos are able or willing to extend Bradley Roby. I would not trade up for one, but if the Broncos can’t trade down, I’d strongly consider taking a cornerback and waiting until the later rounds to get better value on offensive linemen to develop.
Trades: I’m just going to link to what I wrote previously about why the Broncos shouldn’t depend on a trade as their first approach. If a potential trade comes about, explore it, but don’t solely focus on it because there’s no guarantee the player you want will become available.
Extensions for current Broncos: I think Nick was on to something about using the second-round tender on Brandon McManus, because time has told us that tender gets used on players that the smartly-run teams want to extend, while right-of-first-refusal tenders are used on players that teams aren’t sure about extending but might do so if they think any offers made are ones they can work with. So I can see an extension for McManus in the works.
While I wouldn’t pick up the fifth-year option for Bradley Roby, I think he’s worth extending for four years at around $6M APY (I believe the fifth-year rookie option for a single season would be higher than that). T.J. Ward is a tricky player to evaluate because he is nearing 30 years old but can be useful when used as a linebacker. I would be OK with giving him a three-year extension that averages $7.5M per year, which puts him at a slightly higher APY salary than Darian Stewart but still keeps him at a level below what other players at the position receive.
There isn’t anybody else whose deal expires after 2017 who is a priority to get extended at this point. Those remaining players may be re-evaluated once that season is over.