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Can Von Miller Become “The Highest Paid Defensive Player In Football”?

UPDATE: (10:15 MT) While I was writing this, Jason Fitzgerald gave his own take on OTC.  I recommend reading his article as well as good complementary material, as it’s more technical and less Broncos-centric than my own.

We all know that Von Miller is going to get paid.  The only question will be how much.  When insiders started suggesting the quote in the title, I took that news with little surprise or alarm.  That’s because Miller’s floor was always going to be Justin Houston’s deal agreed upon with the Chiefs last offseason.  Houston is the second highest paid player by APY, and the fourth highest in full guarantees.  With a floor that high, why not set your ceiling as high as possible if you’re Miller’s camp?

I also didn’t think much of those reports because the highest paid defensive player (Ndamukong Suh) is anomalous in many ways.  His rookie deal was on the old CBA’s rookie scale that handed out monstrous contracts to a 2nd overall pick like Suh.  Then, the Lions inflated his worth even more with multiple restructures that created a cap number so high in his last year (over $22 million!) that it was unfeasible for the Lions to franchise tag him.

However, it was a lot easier to say “Miller’s not getting Suh money” before last Sunday.  There’s little debate that Miller was not only the most valuable player of the Super Bowl, but his MVP was also not a fluke of the circumstances of the game due to other elite play in earlier playoff games.  If ever there was a player that has legitimately earned the privilege to surpass Suh, Miller is the one.

Now, I still don’t think Miller will get Suh money.  But I also have to admit that what he did on Sunday will make negotiations on an extension more difficult.  In my offseason road map I had indicated that a Miller extension without resorting to the franchise tag would allow the Broncos to gain the cap space they need to retain other key free agents.  However, I am now more pessimistic that that will be a viable option.  I now strongly believe that Miller will indeed start on the path of Ryan Clady and Demaryius Thomas by receiving the franchise tag, and will have his negotiations suspended until the summer.

I also believe that there are two other less likely but nonzero scenarios that open up.  The first is the chance that Miller will play 2016 on the franchise tag tender.  Even at an amount around $14-15 million, that’s still a relative bargain compared to Miller’s true worth.  And even a second consecutive franchise tag at a 20% raise to around $17-18 million might still be below market value.  So if Miller’s camp pushes too hard toward Suh territory, they could easily find their client in franchise tag purgatory.

The second, and most painful, scenario is that another team signs Miller to an offer sheet.  Two first round picks is usually a steep enough price to dissuade teams from franchise tagged free agents.  However, even if you’re not wearing orange-tinted sunglasses, two first round picks may be considered a perfectly cromulent price to secure a known talent of Miller’s level.  And teams with a lot of 2016 cap space could easily craft a frontloaded contract to make it unfeasible for the Broncos to match the offer sheet.

Of course, the worst case scenario requires Miller to actually participate in such an offer sheet, and there’s no evidence that Miller is really that eager to seek the most lucrative deal possible at all costs.  My heart and thoughts tell me that Miller wants to stay in Denver, and that he wants to stay in a way that won’t handicap the team’s ability to retain and bring in teammates for him.  But hearts and thoughts fade away when approached with reality, and we’ll have to wait to find out what Miller’s true intentions are.

And while we wait, there will indeed be immediate costs to the Broncos if the franchise tag is indeed placed on Miller.  The tender itself can be easily absorbed with the departure of Peyton Manning, either by retirement or by being cut.  But as I’ve explained before, the Broncos will have many other costs to deal with.  Merely retaining all of the restricted and exclusive rights free agents will eat up the remaining cap space.  The cold, hard truth for Miller is that he will have to lose some incumbent teammates to make room for the deal that he deserves.

But that truth may not really be cold and hard for Miller, who appears to be keen to the business aspect of the NFL.  He likely knows that Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan will get paid very well if they walk as free agents.  He likely knows the same will be true for DeMarcus Ware and Britton Colquitt if they are cut.  I doubt that an appeal by the Broncos against that line of thought will mean much.

In the end, I think the most reasonable goal for Miller is to aim for surpassing the guarantee total of the man who was taking one spot after him in the 2011 NFL Draft: Marcell Dareus and his $42.9 million in full guarantees.  There are ways to do it without imploding the Broncos’ cap situation, but to keep this article from running too long I’ll spare the gory details of that for now.


There is one final observation I want to make that eventually pivots away from Miller himself.  If he gets that big deal from Denver that I think he will, it will add a liability to the Broncos’ cap that will rival that of some veteran starting quarterback deals.  And the Broncos have a quarterback with another expiring contract in Brock Osweiler.  Now, for 2016 I think Osweiler can be retained without veering into the quarterback premium territory.  But if Osweiler becomes the capable starting quarterback that we all hope he can become, then the Broncos are going to have two elite cap figures on their ledger for several years to come afterward.  Do the Broncos want to open themselves up to possibly sacrificing themselves to retaining veteran depth in order to pay Miller and Osweiler?  That’s a point that can be reasonably debated in either direction.

But here’s the final thought I’ll deliver: even if Osweiler is retained, I would not be surprised if the Broncos draft a quarterback, and they draft one high–maybe even at 31st overall to gain the leverage of the fifth year option that proved to be incredibly valuable to use on Miller’s finest season yet.  John Elway has made it clear that he values insurance at quarterback highly.  The most obvious insurance here is if Osweiler doesn’t pan out.  But another form may come from Osweiler being a serviceable starter but not one that’s worth the veteran starting premium.  IF Elway were able to hit on a quarterback on a rookie contract, that would allow them to free ride at that position while Miller occupies the elite cap number traditionally reserved for a veteran quarterback.  Actually making that hit is much easier said than done, of course, but it’s a thought that should at least be considered.