With the 2018 Broncos rookie class on board, and Shane Ray’s fifth year option being declined, there’s enough in place to take the earliest reasonable look at a few contractual aspects worth keeping an eye out for the Broncos with regard to 2019.
With Ray’s option declined, both he and Shaq Barrett are set to become UFAs. At the same time, the Broncos have spent a top ten pick on Bradley Chubb to go alongside Von Miller, who for now remains the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.
Thus, if all goes to plan as far as salaries are concerned, the Broncos have Miller and Chubb as their starting edge rushers for years to come. That means that the Broncos need to ask themselves how much they’re willing to invest in the position as a whole, and in particular to what would be presumed backup positions. John Elway has proven that he highly values edge rushers, but there needs to be some limit to set so that pay there doesn’t come at the expense of other positions. That limit should come into play when it comes to negotiating possible extensions for Ray and/or Barrett in the upcoming months.
Matt Paradis and Bradley Roby are the two other high profile pending UFAs for 2019. Paradis plays in an offensive line that has been shallow in talent for many seasons, while Roby plays in a defensive backfield that’s potentially taken a hit at cornerback with Aqib Talib moving on. Behind Roby is Tramaine Brock (also a pending 2019 UFA), and many young and unproven cornerbacks. As far as priorities go, I would focus on extending Paradis and Roby before I would focus on Ray and Barrett.
Jared Veldheer and Domata Peko are the other two likely starters on the final years of their contracts, but at their age I think the Broncos should go year to year with each of them. Zach Kerr is a reserve defensive lineman to keep an eye out on depending on how the overall talent at the position shakes out. Finally, Jeff Heuerman and Max Garcia are on the final year of their rookie contracts, but it’s far from guaranteed that either will make the 2018 roster–particulary Garcia, who is slated for a PPE base salary of $1.907 million.
Options a’plenty ahead
If the above list of UFAs seems longer than usual, it could get even longer still. That’s because 2019 will be the first year in which the Broncos’ regular practice of inserting option year clauses to manipulate the compensatory pick formula will come to fruition. Knowledge of the players with upcoming options to exercise or decline will be very important. This is because the Broncos will very soon have only about $10 million in cap space once Chubb signs his rookie deal, a number that will go down even further if any of the above UFAs are extended. Room for free agents, internal or external, may have to come at the expense of some of these veterans.
Emmanuel Sanders has a option assigned to his 2019 base salary of $10.15 million. In addition to turning 32 that year, the Broncos also drafted Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton within the first four rounds this year. If Sanders shows signs of decline, and/or is outplayed by Sutton or Hamilton in 2018, the Broncos could very well decline this option.
Brandon Marshall could also find himself in a similar situation, with an option attached to his $6.5 million 2019 base salary, the year he turns 30. With Todd Davis extended, and Josey Jewell and Keishawn Bierra drafted, watch to see if Marshall’s play in 2018 matches his 2019 salary as compared to the other inside linebackers on the team.
Derek Wolfe did not have as clear of a potential replacement acquired this offseason, but he too has an option attached to his 2019 base salary of $8 million. With Wolfe, the concern here is whether his recurring neck injuries will finally be too much of a toll for him to perform at that pay level. If that’s the case, they Broncos at least have a comp pick friendly out to use.
Finally, Menelik Watson has an option on his $5.5 million 2019 base salary. Unlike with the other players in this category, barring a major turnaround it should be fait accompli that this option will be declined. However, if Donald Stephenson was somehow able to get a $2.5 million deal in free agency, don’t count out Watson helping out Denver’s 2020 comp pick ledger.
Shelby Harris is the only RFA in which a tender seems more likely than not. For now, an ROFR tender would be appropriate, and it would be the rare case in which the Broncos would get draft compensation if someone signed Harris to an unmatched offer sheet. Denver would get a 7th round pick in that scenario, as Harris was drafted in the that round by the Raiders.
Jordan Taylor and Zaire Anderson are the only other 2019 pending RFAs that deserve a mention. Even then, given the added and retained talent at their positions that could also put pressure on Sanders and Marshall, it’s far from a lock that either player will make the 2018 roster.
Potential cap casualties
While any of the players with options could practically qualify as cap casualties even though officially they will be considered UFAs, there are a few players that could be victims of the traditional cutting process if things go south for their fortunes in Denver.
Darian Stewart is the leading name here. Come 2019, he will have no more guaranteed money coming his way, and at least $3.6 million in 2019 cap space can be saved if he’s cut. Stewart is also part of a crowded safety depth chart that just added Su’a Cravens to go along with Justin Simmons, Will Parks, and Jamal Carter. All four of those teammates will have considerably lower salaries and cap hits, so definitely watch if any of them outplay Stewart for a starting position.
Ron Leary’s 2019 base salary of $8.15 million is guaranteed for injury only, but there is a trigger that will fully guarantee it on the fifth day of that league year. It would take something way out of plan for the Broncos to consider parting ways with Leary, but if they do, they need to make a decision soon after free agency starts before being locked in with him for good in 2019.
Finally, Demaryius Thomas must be mentioned for the same reasons that Sanders was mentioned above. His 2019 base salary balloons to $14 million and counts over $17 million against the 2019 cap. Unlike with this offseason, next offseason there’s no option to exercise or decline, as the previous one covered both 2018 and 2019. So if the Broncos wanted to part ways with Thomas he’d become a street free agent.