Brandon Marshall is the top inside linebacker on the Broncos, having received an $8 million APY extension in 2016. The next two leading ILBs, Todd Davis and Corey Nelson, are both slated to become unrestricted free agents in 2018. What should they, and the Broncos, expect on that front?
ILB #2 is effectively a backup position on the Broncos.
This is a very important point to keep in mind if/when the Broncos negotiate these contracts. If one looks only at official games started, Davis will have started 29 out of 32 games in the past two seasons, after Danny Trevathan left for Chicago. Contrast this to Bradley Roby starting only 8 of 32 games in the same span.
But games started is a bad metric in this case: look instead to the snap counts. Davis has only logged 52.6% of the defensive snaps in 2017. That’s 11th highest among Broncos defenders–and would be 12th had Derek Wolfe not been injured. In 2016 he was 6th in defensive snaps at 60.9%, but recall that Marshall missed five games that year, thus necessitating him to move into the ILB #1 position. Roby, meanwhile, logged almost as many snaps in 2016 at 59.8%, and was well ahead of Davis in 2017 at 68.2%.
The bottom line is that nickel is the true base defense for the Broncos, and the team has to remind themselves of that when it comes to considering what they’re willing to pay to Davis and/or Nelson.
What’s a fair contract for Todd Davis?
When I look for traditional linebackers (all inside linebackers plus 4-3 outside linebackers) on non-rookie contracts with similar snap counts as Davis, The two contracts that I see as most comparable are Vincent Rey of the Bengals (3 years, $3.5 million APY, $3 million guaranteed) and Jonathan Casillas of the Giants (3 years, $2.67 million APY, $2.975 million guaranteed). Old friend Wesley Woodyard got a similar extension from the Titans (3 years, $3.5 million APY, $2 million guaranteed), and while he’s older than Davis, he also played more snaps (93.4%) in 2017. Jerrell Freeman of the Bears (3 years, $4 million APY, $6 million guaranteed) is also similar to Woodyard except in the guarantees. The most favorable comparable to Davis might be AJ Klein of the Saints (3 years, $5 million APY, $5.7 million guaranteed).
One can see the trend developing here: a fair contract for Davis likely is 3 years in length, an APY somewhere in the $3.5-4 million range, with the equivalent of one year’s worth of guarantees. Since Davis played 2017 under an RFA tender of $2.746 million, it’s almost certain that his next deal will beat out Casillas, and cap inflation should be able to push him above Rey and Woodyard as well. Pushing toward Klein’s number may be unrealistic, but what isn’t for Davis’s camp is to try to possibly break the $4 million APY of Freeman.
What’s a fair contract for Corey Nelson?
Unfortunately for Nelson, he’s had only one season where he logged a decent level of defensive snaps: 47.5% in 2016. Having his contract year of 2017 cut short due to injury was not advantageous toward building upon that strong 2016 effort.
One advantage that Nelson does hold beyond 2016 is on special teams. Ever since he joined the Broncos as a rookie in 2014, he had logged about two thirds of special teams snaps, and was well on his way to surpassing that in 2017 until he got hurt. So while it’s unlikely that Nelson will get the veteran contract he ideally wants, good special teams performance should assure he won’t get stuck on a veteran minimum deal.
There are plenty of traditional linebacker deals in the range of $1-2 million APY with minimal guarantees that Nelson could find himself comfortably within in 2018. Most of these deals are also only 1 to 2 years in length. Nelson’s camp might be OK with such a short length given his abridged 2017 and a possible desire to prove that he’s capable of taking the next step.
Can the Broncos afford to invest in a veteran contract on this position?
By themselves, extending Davis and/or Nelson are hardly cap busters. But I think all Broncos fans are aware of what the highest priority for 2018 is, and the possible resources it could take to satisfy that priority. If the Broncos invest nearly all of their available 2018 cap space on a veteran quarterback at a starter’s salary, it leaves little room to make additions elsewhere on the roster. It’s possible to do this and bring back Davis and/or Nelson. But it may also be equally reasonable to see if Zaire Anderson, a practice squadder, a bargain basement street free agent, or a rookie can replace the snaps of a position that is of marginal starting quality on the Broncos.