One of the top pending questions surrounding the Broncos before the 2017 league year begins was whether a 4-year option on Russell Okung’s contract would be exercised. Today, the reports are that the answer is no. Reactions were swift now that the answer is reasonably known, but I think it’s prudent to take a breath and look at the facts surrounding why the Broncos made this decision. Then, we can take a look at what the future may hold at the left tackle position.
Exercising Okung’s option would have locked the Broncos into paying him elite left tackle money for at least two years.
Jason will eventually wipe out Okung’s non-exercised years from OTC’s database, so here is the contract as it once stood. Had Okung’s option been exercised, his total remaining APY would have ballooned to $12 million, with a cap number of $11.7 million in 2017 alone. Take a look at current APYs among left tackles, and you’ll see $12 million APY being represented close to Tyron Smith, and $11.7 million APY close to Joe Thomas. Suffice to say, Okung is not on the level of that kind of play. What level is Okung on? Judging offensive line play is always more difficult, but Pro Football Focus, for one, sees Okung as rather average. John Elway has repeatedly demonstrated that he is not interested in paying average talent above average to elite pay, so it should come as no surprise that he has made this decision. (Though, in fairness I thought it would be equally unsurprising if he did exercise the option.)
But what is just as important as the APY is the structure of the money that would have been fully guaranteed in Okung’s option. In addition to the $1 million option bonus itself, he would have received a fully guaranteed $8 million roster bonus, as well as both his 2017 and 2018 base salaries of $2 million and $9.5 million. Such a structure would have created $10.1 million in dead money in 2018, for a cap savings of only $1.1 million, if Okung were cut after 2017.
What that means is that in all practicality, committing to Okung’s option also means committing to him for two seasons as the team’s left tackle. Doing so would also preclude the Broncos from exploring other personnel options at the position for two years. That does not appear to be a commitment that Elway was willing to make.
The Broncos still have exclusive negotiating rights over Okung until March 9…but that may not amount to much.
My own hasty comment was that just because Okung’s option was declined does not preclude him from agreeing to stay in Denver on a reduced contract. Furthermore, the Broncos have a longer and better period of exclusivity over Okung’s rights until the start of the 2017 league year. That’s because Okung, who to my knowledge still does not have an agent, will be locked out of two advantages before March 9 comes. First, he, unlike agents, will not be allowed to talk to other teams during the “legal tampering” period from March 7-9. Second, he will not have agents to provide him reconnaissance during the “illegal tampering” period (that every team violates in some fashion) that will ramp up during the combine next week.
However, given that Mike Klis is reporting that there was discussion of moving him to right tackle at a much lower deal commensurate with that position, that would imply that it’s highly unlikely Okung will agree to anything before considering his offers on the market. Okung may find a drier market than what Denver has to offer, but I would peg his odds of returning to the Broncos in any capacity as slim at this point.
The Broncos will need to address left tackle in both free agency and the draft.
Review the players other than Okung that I listed as possible available veteran options. Of this list, only Kelvin Beachum and Ryan Kalil are under 30, and both have their own heavy question marks to deal with. Whichever veteran the Broncos do decide to pursue and acquire (and make no mistake, they will need to) can only reasonably be seen as a 1 year temporary solution. Perhaps the Broncos can get a pleasant surprise of multiple years of service, but that should not be counted on from what we know now.
That means that at least one rookie must be obtained for the position. However, I would caution against locking the Broncos into drafting a left tackle high in the draft. Granted, it is one of the most valuable positions on a football team, and the last time the Broncos faced a void this dire at left tackle (when the career of Matt Lepsis reached a particularly wrecked end) they took Ryan Clady with the 12th overall pick.
However, the need must be matched with the value on the draft board in order to prevent reaches, no matter the position. If the Broncos’ well-researched board puts a left tackle on top in the middle of the first round that is not projected to be available in the second round, then by all means make that selection. However, if their scouting research discovers a left tackle they highly rate that they believe can be drafted in the later rounds–or could go undrafted, as the aforementioned Lepsis–then that is also acceptable. Once you acquire the rookies, it matters not how you got them when you get them in training camp.
Still, it should not be lost that the Broncos have a lot of work to do at the left tackle position for 2017–and there should be little doubt that the Broncos are aware of this and have a plan for how to replace Okung.