2019 was ultimately another season of failure–once again, no playoffs, no winning record. While there is reason to hope that this skid could end in 2020, it’s clear that it must end soon. This type of consistent losing is very unusual in Denver, and does not meet the high expectations that the Broncos espouse, something that John Elway should know very well.
Here are my recommendations on how to improve the Broncos for 2020, with my annual offseason road map.
1. Make adjustments at quarterback
Drew Lock’s 4-1 finish to the 2019 season should earn him the presumption of starter for 2020. It should not, however, mean that the presumption is undisputed. Adequate backups should be behind Lock should he falter or miss time due to injury.
a. Cut Joe Flacco
It should be indisputable that Flacco’s slated 2020 pay of $20.25 million is unjustifiable. The only question should be a matter of when, not if, this contract is terminated. Keep in mind that as the CBA stands now, the June 1 designation will be unavailable to use on Flacco. This means that, no matter when Flacco is cut, there will be a $13.6 million charge against the Broncos’ 2019 cap, and a net 2019 cap savings of $10 million.
Because Flacco can be retained as late as the end of the preseason without invoking any guarantee to his 2020 salary, the Broncos are in no rush to cut him. Indeed, because he is still recovering from injury, Flacco has CBA-standardized injury protection that would pay him $1.2 million if he’s cut while still injured.
This gives the Broncos a couple things to be on the lookout for in the meantime. I highly doubt the Broncos will find a trade partner for Flacco at his 2020 salary, but there’s nothing lost in asking other teams. Another reason to wait on cutting Flacco is if Joe Ellis believes a new CBA that retains the June 1 designation can be agreed upon soon, and that Elway believes a June 1 designation would be useful. However, I find this scenario to be highly unlikely.
b. Do not offer a restricted free agent tender to Brandon Allen, but consider bringing him back for less.
In my opinion, Allen’s play in 2019 does not justify even a low RFA tender that is likely to come in over $2 million. If Allen is willing to come back for something closer to the veteran minimum with little to no guarantees, it would be fine to give him another training camp to try to win a backup position.
c. Set a budget of $7 million APY for a veteran backup quarterback, and ideally acquire one for less.
I believe that the Broncos need a stronger option at backup quarterback than usual unless and until Lock proves stronger that he is the clear future in Denver.
$7 million APY is the approximate upper bound of top tier veteran backup quarterback pay, as established by Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater, and old friend Case Keenum. However, I would prefer something more around the $4 million to $5 million APY range, as exemplified by Brian Hoyer, Chase Daniel, Tyrod Taylor, or Ryan Fitzpatrick.
I offer little opinion on who that veteran quarterback should be. I will briefly say that if Flacco wants to come back for that price under the firm presumption of being a backup quarterback, I would not rule it out, but I doubt that Flacco will be willing to do that.
d. Do not rule out acquiring another rookie quarterback.
Brett Rypien is mostly an unknown at this point, as his rookie season consisted of nothing but the typical bouncing back and forth from the practice squad. This is not a mandate to draft a quarterback, nor to sign one as an undrafted free agent–if Rypien is still deemed to be the best option in this regard, that’s fine. But with likely at least one 7th round compensatory pick coming the Broncos’ way, it could be prudent to use that pick on a quarterback–as the Broncos did with Zac Dysert, Trevor Siemian, and Chad Kelly–if it’s warranted.
2. Determine possible restricted free agency tenders for several players.
I already mentioned Brandon Allen above, but the Broncos have five or six more restricted free agents to decide upon. Projections for the RFA tenders can be found here at OTC.
a. Offer right of first refusal tenders to: i. Mike Purcell; and ii. Elijah Wilkinson.
Purcell has proven to be a solid nose tackle in Vic Fangio’s system, while Wilkinson has proven useful as a swing tackle, coming to the rescue in 2019 due to the lengthy injuries that felled Ja’Wuan James. I do not believe a higher tender is needed for either player, as I doubt that other teams will offer Purcell or Wilkinson contracts that reach that level.
b. Do not offer RFA tenders to: i. De’Vante Bausby; ii. Joseph Jones; and iii. Cyrus Jones.
Cyrus Jones, of course, has more pressing issues than football to deal with right now. Joseph Jones, as a strict special teamer, cannot justify a $2 million plus contract–if the Broncos want him back near the veteran minimum, that is fine.
Bausby, on the other hand is a more difficult situation to determine from the outside. As we know, he suffered a scary neck injury that prematurely ended his 2019 season. It’s unclear when, or even if, he will return.
However, his play before the injury was at the level that if it didn’t happen, a ROFR RFA tender would have been appropriate. With what I know now, I don’t think it would be prudent to offer him that tender. However, the Broncos know more than I do, and if they believe Bausby will be full strength for 2020, an RFA tender cannot be ruled out. At the very least, the Broncos should try to find some way to bring Bausby back, as his potential is high.
c. Determine how to retain Joel Heath for 2020.
On December 30, the Broncos made an unusual waiver claim on Heath, as follows:
Troy Chapman, who is a contract expert of Heath’s former team, the Texans, believes that Heath has accrued enough seasons to be an unrestricted free agent. If so, then it’s weird for the Broncos to make this claim. Are they just trying to gain exclusive rights for a few weeks to negotiate a contract with him for 2020?
Whatever the case, Heath is not under contract for 2020, and one presumes that the Broncos will do something to try to change that.
3. Make decisions on 2020 options.
I am deliberately omitting Ron Leary’s 2020 option from this section, for reasons that will become evident in goal #6.
a. Exercise the options for: i. Von Miller; and ii. Brandon McManus.
Elway has already confirmed he will succeed in goal 3(a)(i) for Miller. I see no reason why he should not follow suit with McManus–and in fact, the Broncos should talk about another extension for McManus in the summer.
b. Decline the option for Todd Davis.
This is a difficult choice, and if Elway ultimately disagrees with me, I will not be upset. However, I sense that the Broncos want to upgrade at inside linebacker, a position that is highly valued in Fangio’s system. For example, Benjamin Allbright is reporting that the Broncos could be interested in signing Joe Schobert. With Alexander Johnson manning one of the spots at a solid level, if the Broncos do want to upgrade here, I don’t see how retaining Davis at a $5 million salary can be justified.
Of course, if Davis’s option is indeed declined, the Broncos need to have a plan for replacing him–and if it is for someone like Schobert, that will likely be in the eight digits in APY, as Allbright lays out, so the net cap expenditure will be at least $5 million in APY.
4. Retain Justin Simmons
This should be an obvious priority. Simmons has significantly elevated his play in 2019, and the Broncos should not let this type of talent go.
Back in June, I had pegged a Simmons extension at a little over $9 million APY. However, thanks to his 2019 performance he’s going to earn much more than that. His APY should easily come in at eight figures, and should surpass his teammate Kareem Jackson’s $11 million APY.
A franchise tag for Simmons should come in at over $12 million, and I have to say that that is a number that is justified to retain Simmons’s services. The Broncos should be prepared to pony up.
5. Budget $12 million APY for a starting cornerback.
As it stands right now, the Broncos’ cornerbacks for 2020 are Bryce Callahan coming off an ultimately season ending injury, and a bunch of young and far from proven players like Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris. This is not sustainable for such an important position. The Broncos are going to need to invest significantly in a veteran quarterback.
I land on $12 million APY as a budget estimate due to the new report that this is what the Broncos offered Chris Harris, Jr. last summer. At that time, I believe that Harris was correct to reject that offer. But now, with Harris starting to show some faint signs of age kicking in, combined with the younger and more decorated Marcus Peters signing a contract worth only $14 million APY, I believe that Harris will find it difficult to get what he wanted in the summer.
I would prefer that the Broncos succeed at this goal by re-signing Harris. However, like with any other player, the Broncos must set an upper bound on what they are willing to pay. If Harris does succeed at getting more than $12 million APY elsewhere, he will likely be eligible to earn a 3rd round compensatory pick for the Broncos, so they may need to tailor their unrestricted free agency signings around that opportunity.
6. Budget $11 million APY at center and right guard.
a. Retain one–but not both–of Connor McGovern or Ron Leary.
I have laid out here the case for McGovern getting an eight figure APY on his first veteran contract. Should McGovern get such a contract from Denver, I believe it would be prudent to decline Leary’s option, so that three starting offensive line positions aren’t locked up at high level pay. It is also questionable as to whether Leary’s play in 2019 warrants $8.5 million in pay for 2020.
In order to execute this plan, the Broncos would need to establish a deadline before Leary’s option deadline to negotiate with McGovern, so they can preserve the possibility of getting a compensatory pick for Leary. Should the Broncos be unable to retain McGovern, I do not think it would be prudent to decline Leary’s option, as losing two starters on the offensive line could destabilize an already shaky unit.
b. Sign and/or draft an additional interior offensive lineman
If the above plan to let exactly one of McGovern or Leary go is successful, then the Broncos will need to add some depth as protection in case Austin Schlottman or Patrick Morris do not prove to be viable starting options. In addition, even if Leary is retained for 2020, it should be less likely that he returns in 2021, and his successor will need to be found eventually.
A veteran interior offensive lineman for this purpose should not come in more than a few million in APY. When in the draft to select an interior offensive lineman, as usual, should be flexible.
7. Budget $10 million APY at defensive end by retaining one–but not both–of Derek Wolfe or Shelby Harris
Much like with goal #6 above, I do not think it is responsible to give high level contracts to both Wolfe and Harris. The Broncos will need to rely on Dre’Mont Jones taking a step forward to starter in his second season, and in 2021 the Broncos may very well be investing more money on the defensive line with a Purcell extension.
I set out the number for defensive ends in Wolfe’s position at $10 million APY, and I think this number is still applicable now to both Wolfe and Harris. I foresee the decision at this position as a repeat of the decision in 2016, when both Wolfe and Malik Jackson were set to become unrestricted free agents, and the Broncos chose only to extend the one that would agree to the cheaper deal, which was Wolfe.
8. Budget $10 million APY for a veteran wide receiver–preferably a speedy one.
This was a goal I set out in last offseason’s road map that was not successful. I wasn’t as torn up about it before because I thought the available options were too spendy. But the cold, hard truth is that that may be the price to pay to get the Broncos the type of diversity they need at the position. While Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick are physical, possession receivers of varying effectiveness, what the Broncos sorely lack at the position is speed to stretch out the field with deep passes.
Ideally, I’d like someone on a one year, prove it type contract in the case the Broncos also draft a receiver high–as has been reasonably hypothesized–so that they are not locked into the veteran receiver for too long. But it’s always risky to assume that you can lock down one position in the draft. The Broncos should indemnify against that risk with a veteran option.
9. Budget $2.5 million for a backup running back.
I use $2.5 million as an upper bound as a reference to the $2.5 million contract the Broncos gave to Theo Riddick. Whether it’s re-signing Riddick or Devontae Booker, or signing an external running back, I think it would be prudent to bolster the depth behind Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman.
10. Re-sign Jeremiah Attaochu to a one year contract.
Attaochu has proven to be a handy edge rusher, logging 3.5 sacks and 5 tackles for loss, and taking snaps away from rookie Malik Reed in relief of losing Bradley Chubb for the season. The Broncos should see if he can improve upon this production while keeping Miller and Chubb fresh as starters. Something similar to what old friend Shaq Barrett got upon arrival in Tampa Bay, one year for around $4 million, sounds about right to me. Unlike with Barrett, full guarantees should be minimal since this would be for a backup role, albeit a high level one, in case Reed also takes a step forward in his second season, making Attaochu expendable.
11. Re-sign Casey Kreiter to a multiyear contract.
Kreiter only got a one year extension last offseason. I’m not sure what the Broncos’ hesitance with Kreiter is about, but from the outside I can’t see much wrong with him. Kreiter will be cheap to retain, as well–around $1.25 million APY or so.
12. Give Phillip Lindsay a one year extension to do him right after vastly overperforming his UDFA contract.
Elway has said that he’s open to “look[ing] at” redoing Lindsay’s contract. I will write a full article on this later that is not confined by 280 character chunks, but I wrote this Twitter thread last May (click on the date to view the whole thread on Twitter):
Since Lindsay had another 1,000 yard season, I think he has earned this extension that I proposed. It is one that will add only about $2.5 million against the 2020 cap for the Broncos.
13. Let Adam Gotsis and Will Parks walk, unless they are willing to re-sign for cheap.
For Gotsis it’s straightforward: he’s fallen out of favor as a starter in Denver, and my guess is that he’ll have to rebuild his talent capital somewhere else. Parks is a closer call; he has had good playtime even late in the season, but appears to be stuck behind not only Simmons and Jackson as starters, but also behind Trey Marshall as the primary backup. My guess is that Parks will find a better opportunity to start–and therefore better money—elsewhere. But if that doesn’t come to fruition, I would be very pleased if the Broncos retained him.
If Gotsis and Parks can find good deals elsewhere, the Broncos can also use their free agency losses to help pad their compensatory pick ledger in case they need some of their former players to qualify for the formula in order to retain comp picks for higher free agents lost.
14. Provide competition for Colby Wadman.
Once again, Elway has already succeeded in this goal by signing Trevor Daniel to a future contract. I would not be opposed to a third punter being acquired, but at least Wadman will have someone to give him a needed push in training camp for improvement.
15. Decline the fifth year option for Garett Bolles.
I think it’s fair to say that Bolles has not performed to the level that would be commensurate with a pay raise in 2021 that would be well into the eight figures. There’s no harm in waiting until after the draft to decline the option, just in case something adverse at the tackle position happens, but I think the financial risk of the injury guaranteed fifth year option outweighs the financial risk of Bolles significantly improving in the last year of his contract.
However, while Bolles should not be given the presumption of returning in 2021 on premium pay, he should absolutely be given the presumption of returning in 2020 on less than premium pay. He will only be paid a shade less than $2 million, and that is money that is fully guaranteed anyway. Returning in 2020 does not necessarily mean that Bolles will return as the ultimate starter in 2020. But at the same time, don’t be surprised if the Broncos show confidence in Bolles unless and until they acquire a feasible replacement in either free agency or the draft.
* * * *
The salary cap implications of this road map
Once the Broncos finalize their future signings and ERFA tenders, their effective 2020 cap space should come in at around $63 million. If the Broncos completely follow through with my road map, the cap charges as expressed by APY would be demonstrated in the table below. However, before reading this table, keep in mind that this pure expression by APY is misleading, as I’ll explain further below the table.
|Current effective 2020 cap space: $63,000,000|
|Joe Flacco (cut)||+$10,000,000|
|Todd Davis (option declined)||+$5,000,000|
|Veteran backup quarterback||$7,000,000|
|Mike Purcell (ROFR tender)||$2,150,000|
|Elijah Wilkinson (ROFR tender)||$2,150,000|
|Justin Simmons (franchise tag)||$12,000,000|
|Center and right guard ($11M less Ron Leary’s current $8.5M)||$2,500,000|
|Phillip Lindsay (extension)||$2,500,000|
|Backup running back||$2,500,000|
|Top 51 offset estimate||+$4,850,000|
|2020 cap space, after free agency: $4,800,000|
|Net cap space for 2020 rookie class||$4,800,000|
|Final 2020 cap space: $0|
Now, as you can see from this simple tabulation, I’ve put the Broncos at the brink of the cap. It is even possible that additional adjustments could put them over the cap. However, remember that I said this is misleading. The main thing the table above deliberately omits is proration of signing bonus money. That will allow the Broncos to defer some of these expenditures to future caps. It’s a fool’s errand to determine exactly how much the Broncos will defer, as that depends not only on their own budget, but also how much players will demand in money up front as part of negotiation. The Broncos will definitely have breathing room for the regular season even if this road map is fully executed.
It is also possible that the Broncos will be able to come under budget on some of these goals, as they should and will. Finally, while I want these goals to succeed, it may be unrealistic for a few of them to succeed if the luck of the market just doesn’t work out.
I’ll also make a brief note about cash spending for the Broncos in 2020. They are already on the low end of this metric, and upon cutting Joe Flacco, they will be second lowest only to the Giants. So while it may appear that I am projecting a high level of spending for the Broncos in 2020, it will not seem as high upon seeing that they do not have much invested in 2020 at all compared to the rest of the league.