The Broncos’ defensive line is currently a position of depth. However, as of now that depth is limited solely to 2019. After this season, Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris will all be unrestricted free agents. What will it take to keep any of these three in Denver in the future as of now?
Identifying the tiers on the interior defensive line
As it stands now, I see three distinct tiers of pay for veteran interior defensive linemen.
- The top tier consists of players who signed for more that $15 million APY. As much as the contributions of Wolfe, Gotsis and Harris are appreciated, it’s fair to say that none of them are at this level.
- The second tier bridges a range that has Linval Joseph’s $12.5 million APY contract from 2017 at the top, and the contract that DaQuan Jones signed in 2018 at $7 million APY at the bottom.
- The third tier begins around the $5 million APY level with three players that signed in 2019 in Brandon Mebane, Darius Philon, and Malcom Brown. These are players that the market, as determined by the CBA, end up being nearly equivalent to some high level rookie contracts like Ed Oliver, Leonard Williams, and DeForest Buckner.
Derek Wolfe should not accept a contract less than an old friend.
During the glorious postseason of the 2015 NFL season, the Broncos were poised with a similar challenge of two defensive linemen approaching unrestricted free agency. They were able to strike a deal with Wolfe at $9.175 million APY. Malik Jackson, on the other hand, garnered a $14.25 million APY deal with the Jaguars–a substantial difference, to say the least. While Jackson did not see the completion of that deal in Jacksonville, he still landed on his feet with a $10 million APY contract with the Eagles this offseason. As a result, as of now Jackson has earned $25 million more than Wolfe, despite the fact that they are the same age and that they both entered the NFL in 2012. That difference will go down to about $17 million once Wolfe and Jackson earn their 2019 base salaries, but it’s still a substantial difference in career earnings.
If I’m part of Wolfe’s representation, based upon the current compensation of both he and Jackson, as it stands now I would not accept a contract that goes below Jackson’s contract signed with the Eagles a few months ago, based upon their similar ages. That contract is for three years at $10 million APY, $17 million fully guaranteed, $20 million practically guaranteed, and a cash flow that is a consistent $10 million through every year of the contract.
Here is a sample contract that would mimic those goals.
|Year||Base Salary||Prorated Bonus||Option Bonus||Other Bonuses||Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings|
Like Jackson, Wolfe gets a three year, $30 million extension. Like Jackson, Wolfe gets $10 million after each new year of the contract. Here’s how that new money would break down:
- Through 2020, Wolfe gets $11.45 million fully guaranteed in new money via a $6 million signing bonus and a guaranteed $5.45 million base salary. By doing this, when adding his old money from 2019 in Wolfe will have earned $20 million, the same that Jackson is slated to earn in those two years.
- Sometime before the start of the 2020 league year, the Broncos must decide whether to exercise a $3 million option bonus on the 2021 season. If they exercise it, Wolfe’s $7 million 2021 base salary becomes fully guaranteed, securing another $10 million in his coffers that equals the $30 million that Jackson is slated to get through the entirety of his Eagles contract. If they decline it, Wolfe’s 2020 cap number would fall by $1 million, but the amount of dead money against the 2021 cap would increase by the same, to $4 million.
- A similar $3 million option bonus is also placed upon Wolfe’s 2022 year, but this one most be exercised before the same league year, instead of one year in advance. For comp pick purposes, this allows the Broncos to make Wolfe eligible to be a compensatory free agent in 2021 or 2022.
I have kept Wolfe’s 2019 cap number the same by prorating an additional $2 million of his existing 2019 base salary, but if the Broncos would like to get more cap space now, or if Wolfe wants more money before the season starts, that amount could be increased as desired, in exchange for the possibility of more dead money against future caps.
Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris should aim for an extension similar to Matt Ioannidis.
For those unfamiliar with Matt Ioannidis, he entered the league in 2016, the same year as Gotsis, as a 5th round pick of the Redskins. His play in his first three years in the DC metroplex earned him a three year, $21.75 million extension with $11.225 million fully guaranteed. After the first year of his extension in 2020, Ioannidis will have earned $10.5 million, and his cash flow through two years comes in at $16 million.
Ioannidis had an exceptional 2018 season, logging 7.5 sacks, six additional tackles for loss, and 11 quarterback hits. Neither Gotsis nor Harris had those kind of statistical milestones in 2018–though something Ioannidis does not have is an interception.
But for defensive linemen, who regularly rotate in and out of the lineup and where traditional statistics are not as easy to record, snap counts make a difference. And it’s here where Ioannidis’s contribution on the field is not substantially different to Gotsis or Harris:
As of now, Gotsis and Harris might not be able to meet every metric of Ioannidis’s contract, but they could come close in some of them. Here’s a sample contract along those lines:
|Year||Base Salary||Prorated Bonus||Option Bonus||Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings|
This contract is a three year, $21 million extension. It doles out a $6 million signing bonus, as Ioannidis got, and a 2020 guaranteed salary of $5 million that slightly edges Ioannidis for cash flow after the 2020 season. 2021 and 2022 contain option bonuses of $3 million and $2 million each. If the first option is exercised, this contract pays out $17 million through 2021, also slightly edging Ioannidis’s amount.
I have included Harris’s RFA tender of $3.095 million in the 2019 base salary cell for this example. For Gotsis, his base would be a shade under $1 million, but would also have an extra $265,982 in prorated bonus money from his rookie signing bonus.
It may be difficult for any of these players to come to an agreement with the Broncos as of now.
It will be highly impractical for the Broncos to obtain all three of Wolfe, Gotsis and Harris after 2019. Even retaining two of the three may also be impractical.
Keep in mind that the Broncos do have some younger talent on the defensive line. DeMarcus Walker is entering year three of his rookie contract, and the Broncos selected Dre’Mont Jones in the third round of this year’s draft. Denver also has re-signed Zach Kerr on a two year contract, so it is cromulent to suggest that there may be a succession plan behind the impending unrestricted free agents.
This poses some contractual questions for the Broncos and the pending UFAs in question during training camp and the preseason, and it could depend on the development of Walker and/or Jones. If one or both impress beyond expectations, the Broncos may not be inclined to not invest much in veteran talent on the defensive line. Should Walker and/or Jones show slow but steady improvement, an argument could be made to retain only Wolfe as a long time leader and hope that the youngest talent takes the next steps. Or, if one or both of Gotsis or Harris proves ascension within the new coaching staff, the gambit could be for them to take up the mantle that Wolfe has held at that position for several seasons.
Meanwhile, from the players’ standpoint, they and their agents have to determine whether or not to accept an extension now along the guidelines I have set out here, or whether to roll the dice with unrestricted free agency in 2020. The answer is unclear. On the one hand, a standout season in their final contract years could push their value on the market highter, On the other hand, Wolfe may risk age catching up with him, while Gotsis and Harris may risk a fourth accrued season that does not live up to expectations, fair or unfair, that knocks them out of second tier pay range. Each of these players’ representation will also have to address general quality of life questions in regard to continuing to play in Denver.
In any case, watch the defensive line closely and deeply during training camp and the preseason. The competition that emerges here could have major ramifications for whom the Broncos foresee as the future for the team.