We know that with a new football season comes questions about how certain personnel will hold up during the course of the season and the Denver Broncos are no exception. We are curious to see how Trevor Siemian will do in his second season as the starting quarterback, how the offensive line will look this year, how the running backs will hold up and how well the defense plays with some new personnel in the starting lineup.
But this season will also be about evaluating personnel who are either on contracts or tenders that expire after the season or who might be considered for a future extension.
The Broncos enter the season with $12.3M in cap space and are estimated to have $22.9M more in 2018 (Over the Cap’s 2018 estimates don’t include carryover from 2017) and have quite a few decisions to make about potential free agents that may be more significant than you may realize – and there’s at least one that could give the Broncos a more difficult decision than perhaps any free agent decision they’ve faced yet.
No, that isn’t a potential extension for Trevor Siemian (though it will be discussed later on).
But let’s take a look at any decisions that involve either a potential unrestricted free agent, restricted free agent or player entering the final year of his contract.
Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray: Here’s the difficult decision the Broncos will be faced with. You have two quality outside linebackers, both who are good at rushing the passer and both who are likely to seek high-dollar extensions when the time comes for each. Barrett will be a restricted free agent in 2018, while Ray will enter the final year of his rookie deal, aside from the fifth-year option that all first-round picks have.
Now, you would think the easy answer is to exercise Ray’s fifth-year option, right? Well, not necessarily. That’s because Ray’s fifth-year option comes in 2019, the same year that Barrett will be an unrestricted free agent. Oh dear – the Broncos might have to commit a significant sum of money to Barrett if they extended him, while paying a considerable amount of cash to Ray, when only one of them would start and the other would be a rotational player.
This is what really makes 2017 the crucial season for both players to prove themselves and for the Broncos to figure out which one is the long-term option. Barrett will have his chance to prove he can be a long-term starter with Ray sidelined with a wrist injury, but once Ray comes off injured reserve, he’ll get his shot to prove he should be the long-term starter. And depending on what those players do, the Broncos could be faced with a decision in which, no matter what they do, a host of Broncos fans are going to be unhappy.
Now, before somebody points to how the Broncos exercised Bradley Roby’s fifth-year option while still keeping Chris Harris and Aqib Talib on the roster, there is a difference: Talib is nearing the end of his prime and Roby is entering his, so the Broncos are preparing in case Talib declines and Roby can be the guy to replace him and play alongside Chris Harris, who is still in his prime. Not so with Barrett and Ray – Von Miller remains in his prime and both Barrett and Ray are entering theirs, so it’s not possible to pay them both premium position salaries for the long term.
So what are the possibilities with these two? Let’s consider scenario one, in which Barrett performs better than Ray and looks like the better bet as the long-term starter. The obvious first step is to give Barrett the first-round RFA tender. The second step, though, could be to trade Ray while his value remains high – if he were put on the trading block, the Broncos should absolutely aim for a third-round pick in return. Completing a trade early in the 2018 offseason allows Ray’s new team to decide whether or not to exercise the fifth-year option.
Then there’s scenario two, in which Ray shows he’s the better long-term option. Obviously, you’d exercise Ray’s fifth-year option. But you should also give Barrett the second-round RFA tender, which is fair compensation for a rotational player, but still ensure you a draft pick if somebody were to sign him to an offer sheet. The Broncos could also give Barrett permission to seek a trade, which would only require to him sign his tender before a trade is completed. Again, the Broncos should seek at least a third-round pick as compensation, and once a trade is completed, Barrett can complete an extension with his new team.
But what if we come to scenario three, in which it remains too close to call? The best thing the Broncos can do in that situation is talk to the agents for both players to get an idea about what they are seeking in an extension, then decide who to retain and who to give permission to seek a trade.
In a perfect world, the Broncos would keep both players. Alas, the salary cap plus both players likely to want starter money when only one can be the starter means that one or the other won’t be around for the long term. By all means, let the 2018 season play out, but be prepared to face that difficult decision.
Matt Paradis: This one is straightforward: If Paradis plays at a high level, he’d be worth a first-round RFA tender, but the Broncos might get away with a second-round tender. However, the first-round tender would make it clear to Paradis how serious they are about extending him. Also, Paradis might be more willing to play out the season on that tender than he might on one with a lower salary. Regardless, we all know that, as long as Paradis keeps playing at a high level, he’s worth keeping around.
Brandon McManus: It took a while before McManus signed his RFA tender this past offseason, which likely indicates that he and the Broncos were discussing an extension. No such deal has been reached as of this writing, but the Broncos have plenty of time to get one done and, if not, McManus is an easy choice for the franchise tag. I will say that, if McManus does get tagged, the Broncos will get a deal done afterward, because under John Elway, every player who got the franchise tag eventually got a long-term deal.
Todd Davis and Corey Nelson: This is an easier situation to sort out than with Barrett and Ray because neither player is worth top starter money. However, Davis is worth consideration for a tier two deal for inside linebackers because that’s where he is in terms of his play. For comparison, Brandon Marshall’s deal counts for $8M in APY salary, which Davis obviously isn’t worth (and it goes without saying that Davis isn’t worth the franchise tag), but Davis may be more comparable to somebody like AJ Klein, who gets $5M APY. That would be the most I’d give Davis on a new contract. If he wants more than that, though, then attentions should focus on extending Nelson, who should come at a cheaper salary. He could be thought of like David Bruton Jr., treated as a quality rotational and special teams player, and be signed for a salary of about $2.5M APY.
Bennie Fowler: He’ll be a restricted free agent in 2018 but, at this point, he’s worth no more than the right of first refusal tender – and he may not even get that, depending on how well Jordan Taylor plays (Taylor would face another year as an exclusive rights free agent).
Shelby Harris: He impressed the Broncos with a good showing in the preseason and, if he finishes out the season, he’ll be a restricted free agent. Time will tell if he gets tendered – a strong showing could net him a second-round tender, but for the moment, the right of first refusal tender seems more likely.
Kasim Edabali: He’ll be an unrestricted free agent, though I could see the Broncos willing to extend him on a cheap deal, as long as he proves to be a useful rotational player.
Cody Latimer: An unrestricted free agent, Latimer is more likely auditioning to show that he can be worth signing as a depth and special teams player. That doesn’t make him a high priority guy – he’s more likely to be somebody who the Broncos allow to test the market, but bring him back on a cheap deal if he doesn’t find another offer to his liking.
Allen Barbre, Jamaal Charles, Jared Crick and Virgil Green: They are unrestricted free agents who aren’t priorities to extend. Either find upgrades elsewhere or look to the draft for replacements.
Brock Osweiler: He may be saying the right things now but I imagine he wants another chance to start at some point. If he doesn’t get it with the Broncos, he’ll move on.
Trevor Siemian: Finally, we come to the Broncos’ starting quarterback to open this season. If he puts together a quality season, does that make him worth extending? That’s debatable – he will have one more season on his rookie contract, but it will be a cheap salary that would make some players consider whether or not they should insist on more money. And considering the deals that have been handed out to veteran QBs as of late, who knows how much money Siemian and his agent may want?
Obviously, we need to see how Siemian fares this season first. If he plays well, the first thing to do during the 2018 offseason is address other free agent needs, then start preliminary talks with Siemian and his agent to get an idea about what they are seeking. From there, the Broncos should monitor Siemian’s progress as a player during the 2018 season itself and be open to serious extension talks if he plays well that season.
If Siemian doesn’t improve, of course, it’s time for the Broncos to look elsewhere. Considering where they are at with the rest of the roster, though, I wouldn’t necessarily chase a top-name QB – it might make more sense to sign to a short-term, less expensive deal and see if Paxton Lynch is getting his act together or if there is a QB worth taking in the 2018 draft.
As for what Siemian might get in an extension or what else to consider regarding the QB market – that’s a topic for another column.