John Elway often says he wants “to win from now on”. It’s an objective that he is excelling at, and in order to do so, it involves thinking many steps ahead. So although the 2016 season isn’t even in the books yet, it’s important to keep tabs on a few things for 2017, even with the understanding that what happens in 2016 has the potential to change plans.
I had described 2016 as the most difficult offseason Elway would face, something I saw coming even before the 2015 season started. Considering that the Broncos won the Super Bowl and then successfully navigated that treacherous road in my opinion, suffice to say I’m quite happy with what Elway has done this year thus far.
In more good news, that hard work in 2016 will pay off in 2017, as I do not anticipate the Broncos having a challenge anywhere near what they had this year. The cap room is more favorable, and the number and type of free agents aren’t as daunting.
Salary Cap Space
Over The Cap is currently projecting the 2017 salary cap to be $166 million. OTC also projects the Broncos to have somewhere near the highest cap space in 2017–and this time, that’s not nearly as misleading due to a low roster count. (It currently stands at 44, and that will go up once drafted rookies sign.) If a $166 million salary cap is close to accurate, then after the drafted rookies sign I project the Broncos will have about $62.5 million in cap space. (This number assumes that Demaryius Thomas and Russell Okung will have their options picked up.) That’s an impressive number, but don’t get too excited, those cap numbers will get gobbled up quick enough.
RFAs Of Note
I see five pending RFAs that could get a tender: Todd Davis, Shaquil Barrett, Bennie Fowler, Brandon McManus, and Kenny Anunike. Of these, if Davis and Barrett play as expected (starting inside linebacker and key reserve pass rusher), they should both be given a 2nd round tender. McManus will almost certainly get a right of first refusal tender. Fowler is the toughest call: as of now he should get nothing more than a ROFR tender, but if he breaks out as the #3 receiver you may have to consider a 2nd round tender for him as well. Anunike will have to show much more than he has thus far to even get a ROFR tender, but with an opportunity at his position I won’t rule it out.
Estimating the 2nd round tender at $2.75 million (for Davis and Barrett) and the ROFR tender at $1.8 million (for Fowler and McManus), that’s a total of $9.1 million for RFAs, taking the Broncos’ 2017 cap space down to $53.4 million.
We’ve discussed this huge pending deal plenty of time here, and this will happen once both sides figure out how to mutually navigate the Ndamukong Suh anomaly. A 2017 cap number for Miller could vary dramatically, but for now I’ll just pull the average of my two extreme contract examples, which is $19.25 million. Just like that, such a number would eat up about a third of that original cap space.
Sanders has frequently gushed at how much he’s loved playing for the Broncos, and it gives the impression that he’d be open to an extension. One would hope for a hometown discount, but I’d exercise caution given the fact that Sanders has never had a contract truly commensurate with his talent, and since he’ll be turning 30 next year this might be his last shot at such a deal. The comparable that I would use for Sanders is Randall Cobb, who got $10 million per year from the Packers in 2015. If Cobb is the comparable, you’ll probably have to inflate that to about $11.25 million APY to surpass the second-tier receivers like Jeremy Maclin and Vincent Jackson. In keeping with the spirit of the Broncos largely keeping the signing bonuses under control, I’ll put Sanders down for $11.25 million in 2017. Maybe Elway doesn’t think Sanders isn’t worth that much for a receiver in his 30s, and perhaps Sanders himself won’t aim that high. If so, then that’s better news, but I’ll just prepare for the high end in this projection.
Marshall has not been shy about his desire for a new contract, and given that the Broncos did not draft an inside linebacker in 2016, I think it’s a sign that they will also have an interest in extending him at some point. Thankfully, Marshall has an easy comparable–his former teammate Danny Trevathan, who got $6.125 million APY from the Bears. Marshall should get at least $7 million APY due to salary cap inflation, but I would not push much further than that. I’ll set the high end for Marshall at $7.5 million for a 2017 cap number.
Adding those cap numbers for Miller, Sanders & Marshall comes out to $38 million. Just like that, the Broncos are now down to about $15.4 million in 2017 cap space–not a lot, but still more than enough room to re-sign some other UFAs or participate in the greater free agency market.
The Broncos made it clear when they declined Williams’s fifth year option that they weren’t going to set a bar of $6.75 million APY for his services, considering that the highest nose tackle is only getting paid $5 million APY. $5 million is likely the ceiling for Williams, and he’s able to get more in the open market then you’ll have to go with Darius Kilgo or an external option to replace Williams.
If he continues to play as expected as a primary rotational DE, he’s probably earned another contract similar to what he has now, at somewhere at $2.5 to $3 million APY.
Notable UFAs Likely To Let Walk
This one is pretty obvious: he took a pay cut this year, and at his age the Broncos can’t justify paying him at a premium past 2016. If he still has enough left in the tank for 2017 I foresee him signing a swan song deal with the Cowboys to end his career where it started.
Every year, Elway has set up his drafts to prepare for the loss of a starter or key reserve in free agency. For 2017, Stewart appears likely to be that player with the drafting of Justin Simmons. Stewart has yet to get a big money deal after bouncing from St. Louis to Baltimore to Denver in his career. If he repeats his high level of play from 2015 in 2016, he’ll deserve to pursue a deal to take care of him for the rest of his life, and I don’t think Denver will be the place he gets it.
The only way I see Sanchez staying in Denver beyond 2016 is if Paxton Lynch beats him out in training camp, thereby foreclosing his fate as a career backup. If Sanchez starts, and plays even at replacement level, I believe he’ll get interest from quarterback desperate teams. Even if he gets a Chase Daniel style high level backup deal of $7 million APY, that’s still potentially at least a 4th round compensatory pick in 2018 coming Denver’s way. By drafting Lynch, the Broncos have set themselves up to roll on the cheap at quarterback in 2017, with Lynch slated to start and for Trevor Siemian or a cheap veteran to back him up.
Deciding On Team Options For Demaryius Thomas & Russell Okung
Finally, the Broncos will have to pay attention to the play of both of these players in 2016 to decide if they want to pick up the remainder of their contracts. Declining Okung’s option would free up $10.9 million in cap space, but it would also mean that they would need to immediately find a new left tackle for 2017. Declining Thomas’s option would save $1.3 million in 2017 cap space, and make Thomas a UFA in 2018.