Offseason Primers: Broncos Priorities And Suggested Salary Limits

Nick has already gone over a couple of times about the Broncos’ offseason needs and I wanted to update where I believe the Broncos’ priorities need to be when it comes to free agency, given that’s the first stop on the offseason path.

My purpose is to give people a general idea about who is available at what position and how much the Broncos should expect to commit to each position. People do need to bear in mind that certain positions will take a higher priority than others and that cap dollars need to be committed to those positions first, before you explore positions that are a lower priority.

I’ll start with where the Broncos are going to be with their cap space, assuming certain moves are made, though in one case, I will account for an alternative scenario. From there, we’ll talk about each position, in order of priority (again, with one exception based on a key decision the Broncos must make).

First, the Broncos will start the 2017 NFL season with $31.6M in cap space assuming the following moves are made:

  • All ERFAs are tendered (Matt Paradis, Bennie Fowler, James Ferentz, Shaquil Barrett, Jordan Taylor, Zaire Anderson, Kapri Bibbs, Casey Kreiter).
  • Brandon McManus get the second-round RFA tender and Todd Davis gets the right-of-first-refusal RFA tender while Sam Brenner is not tendered.
  • Donald Stephenson is cut.

Now comes the alternate scenario: If the Broncos decline the option on Russell Okung, that will mean the Broncos have a little more than $42M in cap space but have another void to fill on the roster.

While both numbers appear to be a lot of cap space, keep in mind that, while just the top 51 players will count toward the cap until rosters are finalized after training camp, that cap space will disappear because most free agents are going to have cap numbers that far exceed those for the lowest-paid players (that’s $465,000, the cap numbers for players who were on the practice squad and signed to futures contracts). You must also keep in mind that the Broncos need a set amount of space for their rookie salary pool.

Additionally the teams with the most cap space will be in a better position to fit contracts under their caps in ways the Broncos won’t be able to. The Cleveland Browns, for example, have $108.9M in cap space and can structure contracts for high-paid players so they get roster bonuses (which count toward a single season’s cap) as opposed to signing bonuses (which spread out cap hits over the length of the contract). The San Francisco 49ers, with $79.9M in cap space, could do the same. The Broncos are not in a position to pay high roster bonuses and will have to rely more on signing bonuses to fit deals under the cap.

And even though some of the teams with lots of cap space aren’t expected to be active in free agency (Patriots at $67.8M is the obvious example), others have shown they are willing to chase top players (Jaguars at $64.3M, Buccaneers at $65.1M) or it remains to be seen what they may do (Titans at $66.7M and in the second year of a new regime). Therefore, I’d tone down your expectations on landing top players at certain positions.

This does not mean, however, that the Broncos shouldn’t pursue any top player at any position. Instead, you need to focus on the areas in which the Broncos have a pressing need that other teams do not. As for what those teams with the most cap space are needing, the Browns and Niners both need help at nearly every defensive position and the offensive skill positions, the Jaguars need help on the offensive and defensive lines, the Titans need wide receivers, cornerbacks and safeties, and the Buccaneers need offensive tackles, cornerbacks and safeties.

Keeping those factors in mind, let’s review each position, in order of priority, and use Pro Football Focus’ free agent tracker as a guide (and that’s only as a guide, not the final word) to who is likely to be in what tiers and Over the Cap’s contract lists to determine what price each tier may command.

Right tackle: This one should come before any other position. Per PFF, the right tackles appear to be grouped as follows:

Tier One: Ricky Wagner
Tier Two: Riley Reiff
Tier Three: Marshall Newhouse, Mike Remmers, Matt McCants, Menelik Watson, Austin Pasztor
Tier Four: Everyone else

Looking at OTC, Lane Johnson is the highest-paid RT, but he must be considered an anomaly because the Eagles appear to be grooming him to play left tackle once Jason Peters retires. Thus, you should look at the likes of Bryan Bulaga, Mitchell Schwartz and Marcus Cannon to determine the top-tier salary. You can see that comes to more than $6M APY. Thus, if you think Wagner is the guy to pursue, you would be likely committing $7M APY salary for the right tackle position. If you go to Rieff, you are probably looking at a $6M APY salary, and for a third tier guy, you are looking at probably $4M to $5M APY. Anything below that means you are looking at a maximum of $3M APY. That would include somebody like Sebastian Vollmer, who is coming off injuries that cost him the 2016 season.

While the first-year cap number won’t necessarily come in at $7M if the Broncs landed Wagner, that at least gives you an idea of the dollars you are committing. So the question is: How much are you willing to commit for your top priority position?

Left tackle: Here is the exception to the priority list that comes into play if you decline Russell Okung’s option. The thing to keep in mind here, though, is the top names are going to come with caveats. Therefore, I’m not going to do tiers but address a few names that may be brought up.

Andrew Whitworth: He played very well in 2016 but he’s going to be 35 years old. Therefore, you don’t want to give him a premium contract that would go to a top left tackle in the prime of his career. You are looking at a two-year deal at the most. And considering that Whitworth averaged $9M APY on his last deal, he may try to push to the $10M APY level. Do you think he’s worth that much?

Matt Kalil: While some talk is going around that Kalil is going to command $12M APY or more per year, we have to remember he’s coming off a significant injury and that his play was declining prior to the injury. Therefore, I believe Kalil will be viewed in the same vein as Okung and Kelvin Beachum last season – as in, Kalil will have to take what amounts to a one-year contract on a lower salary, but with the chance to earn a four-year deal (but one that’s effectively a two-year deal) that pays him in line with the top left tackles. If Kalil isn’t willing to take that type a deal, you should pass on him.

Everyone else: The FA left tackle crop, even when including potential cuts, isn’t deep. So, after the top two options are off the board, you are looking at one- or two-year deals that are around $5M to $6M APY. That’s the money that Donald Penn took when he re-signed with Oakland last season. If you part ways with Okung and pass on the top two, you will have more cap space to work with but you’ll need to be prepared to draft somebody who can take over in the near future.

3-4 nose tackle: It appears unlikely that Sylvester Williams will be back with the Broncos. However, remember that your priority will be address your offensive line first, so that’s where you need to be prepared to commit cap dollars. Also, we are not talking about a premium position, so you don’t want to commit too much money.

Here are the likely tiers for the pending free agents.

Tier One: Brandon Williams, Dontari Poe
Tier Two: Jonathan Hankins
Tier Three: Everyone else

When you look at the contracts for 3-4 DTs, Marcel Dareus is a clear outlier. Brandon Mebane isn’t what I would call Tier One, so you’ll be paying more than what he gets in APY salary if you want them. I imagine it will be more than $7M APY and that’s a bit too rich for the position, especially when other teams are in better position to pay that type of money.

Jonathan Hankins, though, might take less money given that he’s coming off a disappointing season, one that followed a year in which injuries plagued him. From my perspective, I’d rather give Hankins a one-year “prove it” deal than chase after Williams or Poe. You might be able to get Hankins at $4M on such a deal, though I might be OK with $5M. Otherwise, you are looking at a ceiling of $4M APY for another player, given that everyone is not elite and, other than Sylvester Williams, lacks some familiarity with the Broncos’ defensive schemes.

3-4 defensive end: What the Broncos really need is a player who is good at stopping the run. That player could be rotated out on passing downs for another player or utilized as a nose tackle on certain downs. Here’s the tiers at this point.

Tier One: Calais Campbell
Tier Two: Karl Klug
Tier Three: Everyone else

I just don’t see Campbell coming to the Broncos, as nice of a story as that would be. It’s true the Broncos pursued DeMarcus Ware several seasons ago, but that was when Von Miller was the only top pass rusher they had and others were still developing. Since Ware came on board, Derek Wolfe has turned into a quality pass rusher and Shane Ray has emerged, so there’s less of a need for the Broncos to pursue an expensive veteran. Teams that are flush with cap space are in better position to land Campbell, especially because they can afford to pay him a massive roster bonus in the first year and structure a contract to be a true “two years then we’ll see” deal in which they have no dead money if they cut him after two years should his performance decline.

Karl Klug is Tier Two because PFF rated him fairly high, though it’s worth noting he’ll be 29 years old. He’s not going to command the money Campbell is seeking but might try to get a contract similar to what Akiem Hicks got when he signed with the Chicago Bears last season. But if he were willing to take a deal similar to what Vance Walker got when he came to the Broncos, or for just slightly more money, he’s worth consideration.

Otherwise, it’s probably for the best to focus on a younger player who, while not a player demanding a top contract, could be developed and flourish, then become deserving a bigger contract, similar to the path Darian Stewart took when he came to Denver (granted, Stewart plays safety but the path taken can apply to any position). You are probably looking at something around $3M APY in a two-year deal.

Wide receiver/kick returner: It does make sense to bring in a veteran WR who can return punts and kicks to provide competition alongside Khalif Raymond and any players drafted or signed as rookie free agents. I’ll throw out a couple of names that have been either mentioned or might get mentioned.

Cordarrelle Patterson: While on the surface he looks attractive, his specialty is returning kicks and he has almost no experience returning punts in the NFL. Because I’m sure most people are concerned about having a punt returner than a kick returner, I think we should pause before considering him.

Deonte Thompson: Again, you have a younger player with lots of experience as a kick returner. However, he lacks punt return experience. A slight upside is he might command less money than Patterson.

Ted Ginn Jr.: He is a reliable punt and kick returner and can be utilized as a deep threat at WR, though we know about his propensity for dropping passes. He’s also 32 years olds. But because he has lots of experience in returning punts, he’s a better option than Patterson or Thompson.

Marc Mariani: He’s similar to Ginn, in that he can return both punts and kicks. On one hand, he’s two years younger than Ginn. On the other hand, he’s never been as explosive.

As for where to set the limits, you don’t want to commit more than $3M APY to the position because you don’t know for certain if the veteran you sign will turn out to be a long-term solution or be surpassed by a younger player.

Veteran quarterback: I don’t have a lot to say here, other than the maximum the Broncos should commit to such a player is $5M in 2017, though they could consider going slightly higher and structuring a contract so that there is a potential for the veteran to be rewarded should he prove to be the starter. Such contracts, though, should be limited to QBs who have had quality starting experience in the past, such as Tyrod Taylor or Colin Kaepernick. It goes without saying the Broncos should not trade for a veteran QB and that discussion needs to end there.

Two other positions the Broncos may want upgrades are tight end and inside linebacker, but I feel the best option for the Broncos is to look at the draft for such players. Obviously, the positions on your free agent shopping list (other than QB) should be on the draft list, too.

Final word: Some may ask if the Broncos could gain anything by cutting other players. While other cuts might happen, the space gained isn’t enough to allow for a big-ticket signing at positions of lower priority. Cutting Virgil Green frees just $2.8M in space and cutting Jared Crick is just $1.75M in space, which isn’t going to put the Broncos into position to chase after big-name players at positions that aren’t the highest priority. You only cut such players if cap space is tight and the Broncos can afford to keep them around through training camp, though I could see Green being approached about taking a pay cut. And while Aqib Talib can be safely cut without major cap implications from this point forward, I don’t think you want to cut him after he had a strong season just to chase after a top player at another position. Thus, the only player you should absolutely expect to be cut is Donald Stephenson, with the option on Russell Okung’s contract possibly declined, but no other moves unless some off-field issue develops, as was reportedly the case with long snapper Aaron Brewer last year.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.