Emmanuel Sanders suffered a debilitating Achilles tendon tear late in the 2018 season–one that could put his full availability for 2019 in doubt. Next year also features the last year of his current contract. What facts regarding this should the Broncos and its observers be aware of?
There is an option on the 2019 year for Sanders–and he will be earning either $1.2 million or $1.5 million from the Broncos no matter what.
Sanders signed one of several deals in which the Broncos have built in team options near the end of the contract. Most teams that use these options today do so solely to manipulate the compensatory pick formula. While the Broncos were a pioneer in such an approach, they at least don’t make a complete mockery such manipulation. They do so by attaching small amounts of guaranteed money to the team options. They did this with a $4 million option bonus for Demaryius Thomas, and for Sanders, he will get $1.5 million of his $10.15 million 2019 base salary guaranteed.
At first, it would seem that this could give the Broncos another incentive to possibly decline his option. But a rule of the CBA could work directly against that. Art. 45 gives players injury projection in certain cases, the key criterion being §1(a), stating “[t]he player must have been physically unable, because of a severe football injury in an NFL game or practice, to participate in all or part of his Club’s last game of the season of injury”. Suffice to say, that will be the case with Sanders. Art. 45, §2 further states that for the 2019 season, the benefit amount will be $1.2 million.
Finally, Jason Fitzgerald has learned that injury protection also applies to option years. Therefore, the Broncos decline Sanders’s option, they will be liable to pay him $1.2 million. If they exercise it, Sanders will get $1.5 million guaranteed.
What would happen to Sanders on the Reserve/Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) list?
If Sanders remains on the Broncos at the start of training camp, it appears fait accompli that Sanders will enter camp on the Active/Physically Unable To Perform list. This changes little contractually, and Sanders can leave this list whenever he could pass a physical. But if Sanders isn’t ready by Week 1, he would transition to the Reserve/Physically Unable To Perform list. This, of course, would bar Sanders from playing in at least the first six weeks of the season.
Contractually, there is a wide array of news for what a player faces on Reserve/PUP:
- Some bad news is that such a player would not be eligible to file for termination pay. Art. 30, §1(a)(1-2) states that this only applies to players who are on the 53 player roster of Week 1. That would not apply to Reserve/PUP players.
- Some good news is that Art 20, §2 does ensure that Reserve/PUP players will be paid while on such list.
- However, some uncertain news is that Art 20, §2 could allow a team to toll a contract in the final year if the player remains on Reserve/PUP after Week 6. This was pondered with Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings in Week 17, with some arguing the interpretation of the tolling clause should only apply if the player was on PUP the entire season.
What this means for the Broncos is that throughout 2019, they can take Sanders’s contract week to week. If they feel he can contribute in some form during 2019, they can activate him off either PUP list when appropriate. If they think that he has no ability to play in 2019, they could cut him and only be on the hook for $1.5 million plus about $600,000 for each week he is on Reserve/PUP.
Finally, if the Broncos think that Sanders can’t play in 2019 but could contribute in 2020, they could keep him on PUP and try to toll his contract to 2020. The 2020 year should contain the same terms as the 2019 year: $10.15 million on a team option with $1.5 million guaranteed if exercised.
My opinion on how to proceed
Given the facts stated above, I think it should be obvious that the Broncos will exercise Sanders’s 2019 option. The only reason not to do so is if the Broncos wanted to go all in on collecting compensatory picks. But with Matt Paradis, Bradley Roby, Shane Ray, Shaquil Barrett, and Jeff Heuerman all slated to possibly generate comp picks higher than 7th rounders should they walk in free agency–as well as other lesser pending free agents like Domata Peko or Jared Veldheer–I don’t see what adding Sanders to that pool would accomplish, especially since he’d be considered damaged goods during March.
However, to protect against a Sanders unavailability for some or all of 2019, I would want the Broncos to look for a midrange veteran wide receiver in free agency, just in case the further development of Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick goes slower than planned. Should this veteran meld well with the young receivers during 2019, it gives the Broncos more flexibility to part ways with Sanders during 2019 if need be.