In three years of doing these road maps, the Broncos have gone from Super Bowl champion to mediocrity to holding a top five draft pick. A disappointing trend, to say the least. However, while the Broncos had a very complex road map after winning the Super Bowl, this time around I think the road map is more straightforward than the past two years. However, it will be as challenging as always, and with higher stakes than usual.
1. Fix the quarterback position.
I’m jumping a bit ahead, but I’m listing this #1 due to it being by far the most important goal to achieve, as everyone reading this should already know. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been as angry to eat crow in the NFL as I have been on the 2017 Broncos quarterbacks. I thought that one of Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch could provide at least average quarterback play behind a top defense. But Siemian’s ceiling has proven to not be starter material, and whether Lynch can raise his ceiling is in serious doubt. Major changes have to be made a quarterback given the facts on the ground:
1a. Let Brock Osweiler walk
It was a highly unusual circumstance (a veteran QB getting paid the veteran minimum due to another team paying him almost $16 million) that Osweiler even came back to Denver to begin with. That circumstance will not repeated, and Osweiler has not demonstrated that he can be the answer.
1b. Acquire both a veteran and a rookie
I feel fairly strong about this one, and there may be only a rare exception or two that will move me off it. The position is in such terrible shape that the Broncos should not be placing all of their eggs in the basket of one quarterback. If the veteran works out, not much is being spent on the rookie. If the veteran doesn’t work out but the rookie does, now the team is in an enviable position. (The Seahawks can confirm.)
As for which veteran and which rookie the Broncos should acquire…well, we’ll have many weeks to discuss that, and I’ll address it in subsequent articles. Another reason why I’m not listing names in here is because there’s still so much that is unknown. We’ve barely just learned which college prospects have declared to become NFL rookies. We still don’t know which veterans will be available, where they will go, and where prospective rookie quarterbacks will be rated among league observers. Some patience should be exercised as more facts come in.
1c. If goal 1b is successful, move one of Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch
If the Broncos have a new veteran and a new rookie to add alongside Chad Kelly (who should absolutely not be ruled out as a potential answer), they’re going to run out of reps in training camp for the incumbent active quarterbacks from 2017. Four quarterbacks is probably the maximum they can practically carry into camp.
I do not have a strong opinion on which one should go first. It would help to set out some financial facts on what would happen if they are moved:
- For Siemian it’s pretty straightforward: He’ll get a non-guaranteed PPE raise to about $1.9 million, equivalent to the lowest restricted free agent tender. He can be cut or traded at any time to free the Broncos of that $1.9 million obligation.
- Lynch’s situation is more complicated. If he is cut the Broncos will lose a small amount of cap space due to almost his entire contract being guaranteed. A trade, on the other hand, would be mostly negligible for the cap, but would relieve the Broncos of about $1.9 million in base salary guarantees. But the challenge, of course, is being able to find a trade partner for Lynch that’s willing to take on those guarantees.
To wrap up goal #1, one point I want to stress, and will illustrate below, is that I truly believe that the Broncos can be a quarterback away from seriously contending as usual. It will not be easy at all to get that quarterback, but if they do, I believe it will help to cover any remaining holes on the team, of which I believe to be few as currently constructed.
2. Place second round RFA tenders on Matt Paradis and Shaq Barrett.
These transactions should be straightforward. Tendering them should each cost about $2.9 million in cash and cap.
3. Do not place a RFA tender on Bennie Fowler.
This one may surprise you. I’m not thrilled to allow Fowler to hit the market unencumbered, and it would not surprise me if the expected move of placing an approximate $1.9 million right of first refusal tender on him happens.
But the Broncos are going to need cap space for a veteran quarterback, and it may have to come at the expense of some of the fringes of the roster, such as Fowler. Jordan Taylor is a step below Fowler in talent, but not a very steep step, and he’s an exclusive rights free agent that can be retained at a much cheaper $630,000. Carlos Henderson is also waiting in the wings after spending his rookie season on injured reserve. If Cody Latimer is retained (see goal #9 below), there’s another possible receiving option.
If the Broncos and Fowler do strike a deal, it may have to come at a lower amount than $1.9 million in 2018 for it to happen. Also, even if Fowler is given an ROFR tender, watch to see if that tender may be withdrawn later (or if Fowler may be cut if he signs it).
4. Pick up Demaryius Thomas’s option.
While more marginal talent like Fowler may have to be relinquished, one point I will repeat throughout the next few goals of this road map is that the Broncos need not, and should not, hemorrhage proven talent for the sake of clearing cap space, even for a quarterback. If the Broncos get rid of a proven player, they now have an additional hole to fill, making the offseason even more challenging in addition to finding a quarterback.
This starts with picking up a $4 million option on the contract of Demaryius Thomas that will retain his 2018 and 2019 contract years. I believe that Thomas has not declined, but that his performance was forced into decline by poor quarterback play. Improve the quarterback, and I have high confidence that Thomas has two more 1,000 yard seasons in him.
5. Do not cut CJ Anderson.
It was nice of the Dolphins to set up Anderson’s contract in a way where he can now be cut with no dead money consequences and to free up $4.5 million in cash and cap in 2018 and/or 2019. But Anderson just came off his first 1,000 season of his career, and has been a particularly positive influence in the locker room. If Devontae Booker, De’Angelo Henderson, or a new acquisition really wows in training camp, then I may reconsider. But from what I know now, I’m not jettisoning proven talent like Anderson.
Even if you disagree with me on this, I would also add there’s no rush to cut Anderson. He has no more guaranteed money in his contract of any kind, meaning that the Broncos can relieve themselves of that $4.5 million at any time from now until Week 1 of the regular season.
6. Do not cut Aqib Talib…but do consider renegotiating his contract.
It’s very tempting to look at the $11 million in cap savings that could be had by cutting Talib, and I expect many observers among both fans and the media to mention it. But like Thomas and Anderson, Talib is still proven talent that I feel should not be released.
Unlike Thomas and Anderson, however, I think there is room to negotiate with Talib a little bit. Talib saw what happened to TJ Ward last training camp, when he was cut due to the emergence of Justin Simmons and Will Parks. Should Brendan Langley, a practice squadder, or a newcomer prove to be a capable nickel cornerback alongside Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby, Talib could have the same thing happen to him what happened to Ward. And Talib has much more on the line than Ward, as his $11 million base salary is entirely unguaranteed.
So here’s something the Broncos could try to attempt if, and only if, they need extra cap space. They could ask Talib to convert about $1-2 million of his base salary into incentives, but in return they could guarantee the grand majority of the rest, with most of that guarantee coming in a form of a signing bonus. For example, a conversion to a guaranteed $1 million base salary, a $8 million signing bonus, and $2 million in incentives would cut Talib’s cap number in half, from $12 million to $6 million. That’s the benefit to the Broncos; the benefit to Talib is that he has security for the 2018 season.
If the Broncos do renegotiate Talib’s contract, then they should also add a team option onto the 2019 year. If I’m correct that Adrian Peterson will fetch the Vikings a compensatory pick this year, then I believe that this similar renegotiation would qualify Talib for 2020 comp pick consideration if they do part ways in 2019.
Unlike other requests for potential pay cuts, this is the rare case where I think the Broncos shouldn’t be compelled to cut Talib if he balks at such a pay cut. The reason is because Talib would still remain liable to be cut at any time before the regular season and lose the $11 million due to him. If Talib wants to roll the dice, that’s fine, but it should not be interpreted as an empty bluff by the Broncos.
7. Be prepared to guarantee Menelik Watson $6 million.
I expect the most pushback on this goal, and I am not excited by any means to have to write this out. Unlike Thomas, Anderson, and Talib, Watson is far from proven talent, to the point where he has not proven himself to be on this pay level.
However, take a look at the free agent market for right tackles. It’s pathetic. The best name I could conjure up is old friend Chris Clark, who famously struggled at right tackle for the Broncos in 2014. Consider this even further: if the Broncos cut Watson, he could very well be the best free agent right tackle on the market. And for those of you dreaming about, say, Cordy Glenn being traded here (or even nightmaring about, say, Ereck Flowers), it’s always wishful thinking to assume that a player under contract will actually become available. Teams don’t let go of players that easy.
John Elway took a major gamble last year in declining Russell Okung’s option, passing on free agent left tackle options, being fortunate to have any tackle he wanted at the 20th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and selecting Garett Bolles, who has worked out reasonably well for his rookie season. Knowing that Elway leans toward the aggressive side on these type of decisions, it would not surprise me if he attempts to press Watson on a “pay cut or be cut” effort (like he did with Donald Stephenson) and repeat what he did in 2017.
But I’ll be nervous if he takes the same approach this time, because there’s a high chance that the right tackle position will be degraded further if they part ways with Watson at this moment. The only way I can foresee my nerves relaxing is if the Broncos sign a veteran quarterback that’s such an obvious starter that it obviates the need for the Broncos to use the 5th overall pick on one–thus allowing them much more flexibility to draft Watson’s replacement with that pick.
Whatever the case, Watson’s fate has to be decided before the 5th day of the 2018 league year, when his guarantee triggers. Four days might be enough to find a veteran quarterback so that question on Watson can be satisfactorily answered, but it’s no guarantee.
If Watson is cut, I would recommend using a June 1 designation on his release. This allows the Broncos to keep $1.33 million of his prorated signing bonus on the 2019 cap, and thus save $6.125 million in 2018. They would have to carry that $1.33 million on 2018 until June 1, but that can easily be offset by delaying the signing of some rookie contracts if need be.
8. Let Todd Davis walk, and set a $1 million 2018 cap number limit for extending Corey Nelson.
If I am correct in estimating playing worth for Davis and Nelson, the Broncos may not have room to extend Davis in order to have enough to acquire a veteran quarterback. That isn’t ideal, but as I argued the #2 inside linebacker position is a fringe starter/backup position on the Broncos due to the predominance of the nickel formation they use. This may be a position where they have to go cheap with with Zaire Anderson, a practice squadder, or a rookie stepping up to the plate.
9. Try to extend Cody Latimer on a special teams deal.
I’ve illustrated in this article as to how I’d like to see this extension go. Latimer’s 2018 cap number should not go too much higher from $1 million, and if it does on the market, then it will be time to let him walk, as well.
10. Acquire a veteran returner.
Suffice to say, Isaiah McKenzie has not yet proven himself trustworthy to hold this job. I am not yet giving up on McKenzie, though. He deserves another training camp to see if he can improve, but he also deserves to have fierce competition from a veteran. I would not spend more than $1 million on a one year deal for such a veteran, though.
11. Let Virgil Green, Jamaal Charles, Donald Stephenson, Jared Crick, Allen Barbre, Billy Winn, and Billy Turner all walk.
I don’t think any of these names should be controversial in declaring they won’t be back for 2018. None of them should fetch anything more than 7th round 2019 compensatory picks…but despite the low value the Broncos may still end up eligible for comp picks that year, because of the next goal:
12. Do not pursue any other free agents unless and until a veteran quarterback acquisition allows it.
If the above transactions go as demonstrated (which include not retaining Bennie Fowler, Todd Davis, and Corey Nelson), then after setting aside money for 2018 draft picks the Broncos should be left with about $14 million in 2018 cap space, assuming a $178 million leaguewide salary cap. It is likely that almost all of that money will have to go toward acquiring a veteran quarterback given the prices that they command. And because the top of free agency goes fast, this priority will likely result in the Broncos in shutting themselves out of the top free agents elsewhere.
But this is OK in my mind, because I as I said above I strongly believe quarterback to be the only massive hole on the Broncos’ roster at this time. Yes, there will be a drop in talent at the second inside linebacker position, a guard and tackle position could stand to be improved with new players, tight end could be problematic, as could depth at running back and wide receiver. But there are at least some provisional plans for this position. The Broncos have to be able to trust their evaluation of the 2017 draft class, and have confidence that De’Angelo Henderson, Carlos Henderson, and Jake Butt can become contributors after abridged seasons. There may also be a chance for Connor McGovern to emerge at guard.
The Broncos are also slated to have 10 draft picks in 2018. They need to have confidence that they can improve some roster deficiencies with that class, as well.
13. If all else fails in making cap room for a veteran quarterback, restructure Von Miller.
The Broncos rarely restructure contracts, and they may not need to for 2018. But the quarterback situation is one that may justify it. Miller, a Hall of Fame talent, is the only player that I’d consider for a restructure, but his restructure potential is very high, at upwards of $13 million. Some of that amount should not be taken off the table if the Broncos are having difficulty making the numbers meet.
14. Hold off on extending Bradley Roby and Matt Paradis until the quarterback situation is resolved.
The reason for this is because whoever the Broncos acquire at quarterback could have vast differences upon the 2019 salary cap. And 2019 is a season in which the cap could get very tight if the Broncos succeed in retaining a veteran quarterback at a high price. If that’s done then these two contracts will have to be tailored to push more money into 2020 and beyond…or Roby and/or Paradis may have to simply be allowed to walk after 2018 is done. But if the Broncos’ new quarterbacks are a cheaper veteran and a highly drafted rookie, then extensions for these players can use 2019 cap dollars more freely.
15. A decision on future of Shaq Barrett (and Shane Ray) may have to come soon after the draft.
While talks regarding Roby and Paradis can be pushed off well into the summer if the Broncos so choose, that ability won’t exist with Barrett. That’s because the Broncos also have to decide before May 3 whether they’re going to pick up Shane Ray’s fifth year option, an option that I estimate will come in close to $11 million once 2018 free agency settles out. It will be highly impractical for the Broncos to be able to carry both Ray and Barrett on veteran contracts alongside the monster contract of Miller.
If the Broncos pick up Ray’s fifth year option, then I feel that they’ve made their decision and will have to let Barrett walk in 2019. The Broncos could cut Ray after picking up the option, but that would make him ineligible for a compensatory pick. So what the Broncos should try to do, if they feel there is not much difference between the two, is to see if Barrett will bite on a Chris Harris, Jr. style home town discount before May 3. If he does, then they can decline Ray’s option with little trepidation, knowing they’ve instead chosen Barrett.
A more riskier strategy is to decline Ray’s option without extending either he or Barrett, let them both play 2018 on contract years, and try to retain the one that has performed the best. The risk, of course, is that both could end up walking at the same time, turning a position of depth very shallow quickly–or having to resort to the franchise or transition tag alongside an already expensive Miller. The possible reward is recreating a Derek Wolfe/Malik Jackson situation in which the Broncos can extend whoever is willing to go for cheaper.
I would prefer to just pick up Ray’s option, consider Barrett to be a likely free agent loss in 2019, and proceed from there, unless Barrett would accept an offer I can’t refuse. But if my coaches tell me that Barrett is better or equivalent, I could be convinced to open up extension discussions for Barrett as described above.
Things did not go as desired for the Broncos in 2017. However, I strongly reject the notion that the alleged “window” from the 2015 Super Bowl team is “closed”. The roster is constructed in a way where most of the talent from 2015 is under contract for the next two years. Come 2020, then we can talk about possible radical changes to the roster.
I’ll repeat it one last time: this team is a quarterback away from seriously contending again. Yes, getting that quarterback is not going to be easy. But it’s also just one position to fill.