As always, the first day of NFL free agent frenzy has no shortage of attention-getting headlines, big-ticket signings and unexpected turn of events. The Broncos are no exception, even if some of the moves that impacted them to some degree resulted in disappointment.
So let’s go over a few topics as they pertain to either the Broncos or other teams and what we can expect as free agent frenzy settles down and the second wave of free agency approaches.
Tony Romo isn’t going to be with the Broncos
I think it’s pretty clear that John Elway isn’t going to spend his time waiting around for Jerry Jones to make up his mind about when he’s going to cut Tony Romo. We know that Elway isn’t going to lift a finger to send a draft pick to Jones, regardless of what round it is, and we know Elway will want Romo on the terms Elway wants, meaning Romo would have to restructure his deal (read: take a pay cut).
Why would the Broncos be concerned about asking him to take a mere $4M salary reduction? Answer: The same reason they wanted Peyton Manning to take a mere $4M salary reduction. (Yes, that was a conversion to incentives, but that’s really what would happen with Romo, too.) As you’ll recall, Manning suffered a thigh injury in 2015 and was never the same after that, plus there were legitimate questions about whether Manning adjusted his throwing style to compensate for his neck injury, which only added to his decline. Now look at Romo, who has dealt with multiple injuries in the past two seasons and it’s fair to ask how soon decline may set in with Romo, especially when Romo is 37, a mere one year younger than Peyton was to start the 2015 season. Therefore, don’t be surprised that the Broncos would want Romo to take less money than what he’s due to come play for them.
To be clear, I would be fine with talking to Romo and considering a short-term deal with incentives that the Broncos could get out of after one season, but only if Romo is cut. And given that nobody can figure out if or when Jones will set Romo free, there’s no point in waiting on him. So move along to other concerns, and that brings me to…
So what now on the offensive line?
First things first: I’m not surprised the Broncos went the avenue of “best offensive lineman available” to start free agency. Ronald Leary is a good signing and should be a boost to the run blocking and pass protection. The Broncos got him at a reasonable deal and now have a proven veteran presence.
Of course, that leads to the question about what the Broncos will do at the tackle position now that Russell Okung is with the Chargers. First of all, keep in mind the Broncos have not lost anything yet, other than Okung’s departure to a division rival. If Okung goes on to have a Pro Bowl season and the Chargers win the AFC West, you can call it a loss for the Broncos. But what happens if the Chargers finish last and Okung is lost for the season to injury while the Broncos make the playoffs? Nobody will say the Broncos lost anything, will they?
The point is that nobody wins a season based on what they do in free agency, meaning FA winners and losers are a meaningless designation in the long run. You can argue certain players are not worth deals given, but the only way to know for certain which ones worked out is to get to the regular season and see who lives up to the deals.
With that said, the Broncos do need to look for veterans in free agency and you’ll likely see more action as the second wave of free agency begins. The second wave will warm up as players make visits during the coming weekend, then kick in once the weekend is over. Most teams, at this point, are going to settle down and take stock of what they have, before they jump into other pursuits.
But it’s fair to ask what the Broncos plan to do. So what are the options right now?
* Look at remaining free agents to sign to short-term deals. Old friend Ryan Clady is likely going to have to wait until the second wave given his injury history. Kelvin Beachem is coming off a down season and it’s worth asking if he didn’t properly recover from the ACL injury he suffered in 2015. I suspect he’ll have to wait until the second wave, too. Mike Remmers will be available now that the Panthers have signed Matt Kalil and it’s possible he’s more comfortable playing at left tackle than right tackle.
* Keep in mind the right tackles who are out there. Again, the majority of them will have to take short-term deals in the second wave of free agency. Sebastian Vollmer would have to pass a physical, but if he does, he’d add a veteran presence. Austin Pasztor was serviceable in his stint with the Browns, so he’s worth consideration if the Browns don’t bring him back. Menelik Watson has dealt with injuries the past couple of seasons, but a one-year, low-cost deal wouldn’t be a bad idea.
* Consider a restricted free agent, so long as no draft compensation must be given up. The Ravens gave a right of first refusal tender to James Hurst and the Seahawks did the same with Garry Gilliam. Because both were rookie free agents, the Broncos would not have to give up a draft pick to sign them. But it’s important not to overpay either player. It might be possible to structure a low-cost deal for Hurst that the Ravens can’t match, depending on where their cap situation is after the free agent signings they made. Doing it with the Seahawks is more difficult, because they would have cap space to match, though they might shy away from doing so depending on what he’s offered.
* Grin and bear it with the current players. If it turns out $4M is what the Broncos would have to pay for a short-term player at right tackle, then sucking it up and keeping Donald Stephenson isn’t the worst thing. True, he wasn’t good last year, but he played well his first two games before his calf injury and, more importantly, Clancy Barrone was coaching him up and we all knows that Barrone, while good with tight ends, was never good with offensive linemen. Perhaps a new coaching staff can get Stephenson to be serviceable. Michael Schofield at least has experience at right tackle and was adequate in the 2015 playoffs, so he’s still an option.
* Draft somebody. I think we all know this is on the Broncos’ to-do list.
Since we know the Broncos will draft somebody, I think the best thing to do is to get a second-wave offensive lineman, figure out ASAP whether Stephenson will stick around and keep looking for veterans who can help out during the third wave of free agency. As I said elsewhere, if the Broncos can take some short-term pain but get long-term gain in return, it will be worth it.
By the way, don’t count on the Broncos trading for any offensive linemen because teams are likely to ask for too much. Elway won’t say no to trades, but he’s going to set limits as to what he will offer. If a team publicly says “we won’t trade the player,” that means the team wants a strong offer that favors them, not the team wanting the player. The Eagles will likely want a high draft pick for Jason Peters and he’s too old to justify that. The Niners will likely want the same for Joe Staley, another player too old to justify that. Joe Thomas might make sense at the cost of a second-round pick, but how likely will the Browns do that now that they’ve spent so much money to build an offensive line? Expect them to ask for Denver’s 2017 first-round pick and an additional pick or player — a similar situation when Elway considered a Thomas trade in 2015, in which he was offering the 2017 first-round pick then but a third-round pick in 2016 when the Browns insisted upon a 2016 first-round pick in any trade, regardless of other compensation, and at one point insisted upon Shaquil Barrett, a player the Broncos loved.
Truth be told, I don’t think any lineman will come in trade unless the team in question doesn’t want the player any more, as was the case when the Dolphins traded Branden Albert, a player they were planning to cut anyway. That means if you want somebody, you better be prepared to pay a high price, one that Elway isn’t likely to want to pay.
Start looking for value in defensive linemen
Losing out on Calais Campbell hurts, but all is not lost. In fact, I’d wager to bet that the Broncos find value during the second wave of free agency. They did this before with Terrance Knighton when they ran a 4-3 scheme, they did it again with Vance Walker with the switch to a 3-4 scheme, and I’m confident they’ll do it once more.
Brandon Williams may have stayed with the Ravens, but there are still some players worth consideration. Jonathan Hankins, Dontari Poe and Bennie Logan are worth short-term deals at no more than $6M APY. (With Poe, I’d rather do a one-year “prove it” deal.) Sylvester Williams is worth bringing back, but I’d set my limit on him at $5M APY. And I wouldn’t rule out Jared Odrick, who would be worth a one-year deal as a rotational player.
But the player who is the most intriguing is Lawrence Guy, who could easily be the next Vance Walker. Wouldn’t it be great if he turned out to be the Darian Stewart of defensive ends? (Especially because the Broncos poached Stewart for the Ravens.) Guy’s name has come up from a couple of Broncos beat reporters, so it will be interesting to see if the Broncos show interest.
As for the rest of the NFL…
* I don’t think anybody saw the Brock Osweiler trade coming. The Browns were certainly most interested in acquiring draft picks than a player, but the news that the Browns are likely to cut Robert Griffin III but keep entertaining offers for Osweiler makes sense. If they have to pay Osweiler $16M for a full season, that may not be a great thing, but they have the cap space to burn and can get out of the deal after 2017 with no dead money. And there’s something else to consider: Could there be offset language in the guaranteed money? While I doubt the entire $16M has offset language, it’s possible some of it does. Given that the Browns are said to be willing to pay $8M if another teams wants to trade for him, that may suggest $8M of the total salary has offset language, meaning the Browns would be off the hook for up to $8M if they cut him. Remember, if Osweiler is cut, teams will be interested in him and, if Brian Hoyer is worth $6M APY, Osweiler is arguably worth the same on a one-year deal. (For more on the Osweiler deal, Bill Barnwell does a good job explaining particulars.)
* If the Texans do want Tony Romo, I expect they will wait until he’s cut. In the meantime, the Texans can talk to Jay Cutler, Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick. They don’t have to hurry up and sign somebody… none of the three are QBs who other teams will be knocking doors down to sign. At least they can move on from an awful signing and find a better QB option. One thing seems clear: The Texans will have to draft a QB early this year.
* Free agent signings I liked: J.C. Streeter to the Browns (good value signing), Kevin Zeitler to the Browns (arguably the best guard in the NFL and a huge upgrade to the line), Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles (a lot of money but it’s just a one-year deal), Brian Hoyer to the Niners (reasonable salary for a veteran with starting experience), Tyrod Taylor on a newly-restructured deal with the Bills (they keep him on a more reasonable deal).
* Free agent signings I didn’t like: Matt Kalil to the Panthers (too much for an average LT and smacks of a desperation signing), Mike Glennon to the Bears (too much in the first year, even though the Bears can get out of the deal after one year), Robert Woods to the Rams (another overpay by the Rams for a WR), Kenny Britt to the Browns (the one definite overpay the Browns made in free agency), Jermaine Gresham back with the Cardinals (not worth $7M APY).
* Finally, if Scot McCloughan still had a drinking problem, it’s understandable why Washington would fire him. But why wait until now to do it? Certainly those issues didn’t come up recently — if they knew he was having problems during the 2016 regular season, they should have made the decision to part ways with him after the team’s season ended. That would have allowed them time to get things straightened out with the front office. Now it remains to be seen who will take charge with evaluating players to draft and how organized the process will be. If you’ll recall, when the Broncos made an abrupt front office change as free agency got underway, when the Goodmans were sent packing in Josh McDaniels’ first year as head coach, one of the biggest problems the Broncos had was a poor draft with two overdrafted players in the first round, three second-round busts and the best of the picks in the first four rounds, in terms of where he should have been drafted, was fourth-round pick David Bruton. Something tells me a poor draft awaits Washington this year.