Another year, another season of missed expectations for the Broncos. Where do John Elway and the Broncos need to go to prevent a repeat of this in 2019? Here’s where I recommend going with respect to roster decisions.
1. Improve the quarterback position.
Clearly the Broncos are still not where they need to be at the most important position on the team.
a) Do not cut Case Keenum, and do not renegotiate his contract.
I’m not as absolute on this one as I was earlier in the season. Keenum danced dangerously toward below replacement territory as we got closer to the end of the regular season, and no one should be deluded into thinking he’s going to be a long term solution at the position.
However, even if Keenum is overall a below replacement quarterback, can he be replaced effectively with another veteran? I’m skeptical. Will the likes of Teddy Bridgewater or Tyrod Taylor be substantially better than Keenum? Will Nick Foles even leave Philadelphia, and if he does, can he sustain success over a whole season instead of a few games?
Also, know this: the Broncos are already sunk into $10 million in cap dollars and $7 million in cash for Keenum in 2019. If you let Keenum go, you’re on the hook for likely almost all of that, plus you need to sink more dollars into signing a replacement. And I don’t think the leading candidates are going to be had for less than the $11 million in cap space that the Broncos would gain by cutting Keenum.
I don’t see a change in veteran quarterback as being effective for the Broncos. Instead, they need to look young.
b) Acquire at least one rookie quarterback.
Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly did not work out as possible young quarterbacks of the future. The Broncos have absolutely nothing in this department right now. This must change, and it must start this year.
I will not yet offer an opinion on who those quarterbacks will be, nor will I yet offer an opinion on whether they should be acquired via high draft picks, low draft picks, or in undrafted free agency. We still don’t even fully know the totality of the rookie quarterbacks that will be available. There will be plenty of time to get a better idea of that in the coming months.
But one thing I will emphasize is that the Broncos should not rule out acquiring two rookie quarterbacks. That’s not a mandate, but a strong suggestion should the draft boards or the undrafted free agent market lean favorably in that direction. See how the 2012 Redskins indemnified themselves against Robert Griffin III by also drafting Kirk Cousins as the prime example. Another less known example was the 2008 Packers taking Matt Flynn in the 7th round, protecting them from 2nd round megabust Brian Brohm.
c) Do not offer an RFA tender to Kevin Hogan, but don’t rule out bringing him back for cheaper.
Hogan is clearly not worth even an right of first refusal tender of which will likely come in over $2 million, but if he’s willing to come back at the veteran minimum for a chance at training camp, I would be open to allowing him to do so at least at this time of year. Certainly nothing should be guaranteed to him, however.
2. Do not offer RFA tenders to Jordan Taylor or Deiontrez Mount.
Like with Hogan, neither of these decisions should be controversial, and I would not rule out bringing either back on deals much cheaper than the ROFR tender.
3. Do not offer an RFA tender to Casey Kreiter, but do offer him a commensurate long snapper deal.
Long snappers don’t make more than just a shade over $1 million APY. Any RFA tender on Kreiter would dramatically overprice him, but the Broncos need to get someone to long snap, and I see little reason to break continuity with Kreiter. Maybe Tom McMahon or whoever the special teams coach will disagree, but in any case the Broncos need to budget a very small amount of money at this position.
4. Make some decisions on the offensive line.
a) Extend Matt Paradis.
I see this as the #1 priority by far among the Broncos’ pending unrestricted free agents. The offensive line still remains a work in progress, and losing someone of Paradis’s caliber will destabilize that goal. Even if you have confidence in moving Connor McGovern over to center, McGovern would vacate a big hole at right guard–and then he’s a unrestricted free agent in 2020.
During the summer of 2018, I felt that Paradis could be extended for around $9.6 million APY. I now feel that I undervalued Paradis’s value on the open market. I think if the Broncos want to keep him, they will need to make him the highest paid center in the league, of which will likely come out to about $11 million APY.
The one metric where I think the Broncos can afford to stick with is to keep any extension offer limited to three years to account for his age. But other than that, I think the Broncos should pony up and not degrade their offensive line further. To seal the deal, I would also be willing to offer Paradis more in signing bonus money, given that while the Broncos’ 2019 cap could be otherwise tight, 2020 and beyond has lots of room to work with. Paradis should like that as that means more money in his hands immediately.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, due to archaic rules in the CBA that group the entirety of the offensive line together, the franchise and transition tags are impractical for usage on Paradis. Using one of those would establish Paradis’s value at least $13 million APY, a figure that would be way out of whack with the center market. So the Broncos have to negotiate with Paradis against the full force of the free agency market.
Should the Broncos be unable to extend Paradis, they should prioritize getting a 3rd round 2020 compensatory pick for him, and adjust their own free agency plans accordingly with that goal.
b) Try to bring back Jared Veldheer on a one year deal.
Veldheer offered some stability to a position that’s been notoriously unstable ever since Orlando Franklin vacated it way back in 2014. But at the same time, Veldheer will be 32 next season, so I think you need to go year to year with him. I would be willing to meet Veldheer at or near his 2018 pay of $7 million APY for a one year 2019 deal. For cap purposes the Broncos may need to clerically make it a two year deal with an option on the second year to spread out the cap hit of a $7 million salary should they desire to be more aggressive in free agency.
If Veldheer cannot be retained, then budget that $7 million limit for a replacement at right tackle.
c) Let Max Garcia and Billy Turner walk unless they are willing to take team friendly deals.
In Garcia’s case, he may not have much leverage on the open market given that he tore his ACL in November. Turner may have a better case given that he got $2 million from the Broncos in 2018 and valiantly played at multiple places on the offensive line. But neither should be free agency priorities, and Turner in particular could help pad the Broncos’ compensatory free agents lost should they want to sign some CFAs of their own.
5. Make some decisions on the defensive line.
a) Exercise the 2019 option on Derek Wolfe’s contract.
The Broncos could gain $8.55 million in cap space by declining this option. But I don’t think the Broncos should give up the leadership intangibles that Wolfe offers on defense in addition to his football talents. Allow him to finish out his contract, and then see where he’s at in 2020.
b) Offer a 2nd round tender to Shelby Harris.
I think Harris has played well enough to merit such a tender that should come in a shade over $3 million. I would also consider negotiating a possible extension for Harris after the draft should the conditions be favorable for it.
c) Bring back Domata Peko on a one year deal.
Peko says that he wants to come back here. I see little reason why he shouldn’t for 2019 given his contributions on the field and in the locker room. He made $3.75 million APY on his previous contract, I would be willing to bump it up to an even $4 million for 2019, and then visit again where he’s at in 2020. I would be willing to be flexible on the total money to some extent, but at his age (35 in 2019) like with Veldheer I would want to go year to year at this point.
d) Try to bring back Zach Kerr on a one year deal.
Like Peko, Kerr has brought some positive contribution to the defensive line. He made $1.5 million APY on his previous deal, I would be willing to bump it up to $2 million for 2019. But unlike with Peko, I’m not as willing to be as flexible with his pay should he get a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
e) Acquire a rookie defensive lineman.
Establishing that, note this: even if goals 5a) through 5d) above are achieved, Wolfe, Harris, Peko, Kerr, and Adam Gotsis will all be unrestricted free agents in 2020. A position of strength could turn into a position of weakness very quickly. So it makes sense in my opinion to take advantage of this depth in some manner when it’s available. Again, I will not yet offer an opinion on who and how the Broncos should acquire such a player.
6. Extend Jeff Heuerman, but limit his compensation to $3 million APY.
It may be the case that the Broncos make Heuerman a high priority candidate for an extension. I don’t oppose extending Heuerman, as without him the tight end room is very young and inexperienced. However, I may dissent from the Broncos on the priority level.
Given Heuerman’s production, I don’t see him as being valued any better on the market than what Virgil Green has received in his veteran deals, which is three years and around $2.8 million APY. If Heuerman is willing to accept a Green-type deal, then I would welcome him back. But anything more than that, and I’ll congratulate him on a getting a better deal elsewhere, and wish him well there.
$3 million APY is not only an appropriate comparison to Green, but should also be close to the cutoff point between the 6th and 7th round for compensatory pick purposes. I think I’d rather take a potential 6th rounder in 2020 than retain Heuerman for the cost of that contract.
7. Let Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett walk.
Succeeding in this goal should be pretty academic. Both Ray and Barrett have made it clear that they want to be starters. The presence of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb ensures that’s not going to happen in Denver. I think it’s solidly a mutual understanding between both the Broncos and Ray and Barrett that it’s best for everyone for Ray and Barrett to continue their NFL careers elsewhere.
It will be intriguing to see what type of compensatory picks the Broncos will be eligible for based upon the deals Ray and Barrett get. At the worst, I think both can meet the deal that Kareem Martin got from the Giants last year, a deal that should net the Cardinals a 6th round comp pick this year. At best, I could see a team gambling on a one year “prove it” deal in the $6-$8 million APY range that could push Ray and/or Barrett to the 4th or 5th round level. In any case, I believe the losses of Ray and Barrett will give the Broncos flexibility in free agency to sign a compensatory free agent or two if they need to while preserving some CFAs lost to increase draft capital for 2020.
8. Sign a midlevel veteran wide receiver for around $6 million APY.
Emmanuel Sanders suffered an Achilles tendon tear late in the 2018 regular season that leaves his full availability for 2019 in doubt. While I am overall bullish on the development prospects of Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick, the loss of Sanders crippled the Broncos’ offense so significantly that the team should not blindly assume that any of their young receivers will be able to cover for the real possibility that Sanders will not be able to play in the beginning of 2019.
Thus, I advocate that the Broncos bring in an experienced wide receiver on a short term deal to indemnify against that uncertainty. I would set a limit for this at around $6 million APY, to ensure that if the Broncos have to sign a compensatory free agent to achieve this goal, they are not cancelling out any comp pick higher than a 6th rounder that they may receive. I feel there will be plenty of wide receivers, both with expiring contracts and ones that may be cap casualties, available for the Broncos to achieve this goal.
9. Set a budget of $10 million APY to sign a starting cornerback.
Isaac Yiadom showed some promise in his rookie season, and Brendan Langley can’t be completely written off yet. However, I do not believe that either is yet ready to move up to the #2 cornerback position alongside Chris Harris, Jr. The Broncos need to set aside a good portion of cap dollars and cash to get a veteran here.
Should that be Bradley Roby on an extension? I’m conflicted. While Roby did not play terrible on the balance of the 2018 season, I also do not believe he played to the level of the $13.5 million APY deal I would have offered him in the summer of 2018. That being said, I think it is very possible that Roby could get that kind of deal or more on the open market, and the Broncos have to be prepared for the real possibility that he will get more from another team than they’re comfortable in offering.
Why am I setting a budget of $10 million APY? I believe that this will be close to where the cutoff point will be between the 3rd and 4th round for 2020 compensatory picks. If Roby is able to get well above $10 million APY from another team, I would want to ensure that the Broncos get a 3rd round comp pick for him if they go a different direction. If they sign a compensatory free agent below that cutoff, they can still get that 3rd rounder as long as they lose more CFAs, even if they’re ones valued in the lower rounds.
I also believe that the Broncos can fit a $10 million APY deal in within the salary cap, as they can rely heavier on signing bonuses with this deal, or
10. Consider trading Devontae Booker.
This is a minor point, but it’s still one I think the Broncos should seriously consider. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman are clearly the future at running back for the Broncos, and Booker will be entering the last year of his contract in 2019. I would not expect to get much back for Booker, but I feel he’s done enough in 2018 to give him some minimal trade value. Plus, it would be better to get guaranteed compensation for him now than to tinker with 2020 free agency in order to get a possible 2021 comp pick for him later. Finally, there’s no urgency to trade Booker right when they’re able to, and it may be better to hold off until later when some teams may suffer unfortunate injuries at running back.
11. Do not cut Darian Stewart…at least not now.
The Broncos are fairly deep at safety, and it could be tempting to let Stewart go to pick up $3.6 million in 2019 cap space immediately, or $5 million after June 1.
However, that depth could be deceiving, given that both Justin Simmons and Will Parks are entering the final year of their rookie deals in 2019. Beyond them, there are also questions as to whether Jamal Carter will recover from injury, or whether Su’a Cravens will ever put it together in the NFL. Keeping Stewart in the fold would be smart to indemnify against those uncertainties.
However, should Simmons and/or Parks be extended, or should Carter and/or Cravens show some positive development, I would be willing to reconsider Stewart’s place on the 2019 Broncos at that time.
12. Decline the 2019 option on Brandon Marshall’s contract.
It really hurts me to say this, as I don’t want to make this transaction. While Josey Jewell and Joseph Jones both showed some promise in covering for Marshall when he was injured this season, I’m skeptical that ether have shown enough in 2018 to make an leap to starter in 2019 completely assured. Despite his age and recent injury, I’m also not convinced that Marshall is past his prime. Marshall also says he wants to finish his career in Denver, and Elway likes it when players want to be here.
However, in reading the tea leaves of the beat writers—as well as statements from Marshall himself, it appears that this transaction will indeed happen. And as badly as I want to dissent, I think the cold math of the salary cap will force me to concur.
The Broncos currently have about $42 million in effective cap space, accounting for when future contracts will push the team up to the Top 51 offseason accounting rules. If the entirety of the goals I’ve stated above are achieved, here’s how I would see the expenditures shaking out.
Note that expenditures with asterisks are multiyear deals in which signing bonuses would result in a lower 2019 cap number than the APY of these contracts.
|Estimated 2019 Cap Expenditure
|PPE raises for Justin Simmons, Connor McGovern and Will Parks
|2nd round RFA tender for Shelby Harris
|Casey Kreiter extension
|Matt Paradis extension*
|Domata Peko extension
|Zach Kerr extension
|Jeff Heuerman extension*
|Veteran CB signing*
|Midlevel wide receiver signing
|2019 rookie class
As you can see, those expenditures push the Broncos beyond what they currently have available. Now, one could squeeze out more space by being more aggressive with using signing bonuses, or by creating void years or options years to spread out the cap hit further. That may be reasonable for the Broncos to do given the low amount of cap expenditures they have for 2020 and beyond.
One tactic that won’t be as reasonable this year, though, would be restructuring existing contracts. Von Miller holds the only contract that would be practical to be restructured, and since they already restructured the 2018 year last offseason, I would not go down that path again in 2019.
One could also make the argument that the Broncos shouldn’t adhere to all the goals I’ve listed out. I would like to be convinced to do something else in order to keep Marshall. However, I think that declining Marshall’s option, which would save the Broncos $5 million in 2019, as well as $7 million in cash due to Marshall, is going to be the best among an array of not so good options:
- By declining his option, Marshall will be eligible to become a compensatory free agent, something not available to the Broncos if they cut Stewart instead.
- Marshall should also be able to fetch a higher valued comp pick–I would guess a 5th rounder–than Heuerman, Peko, or Kerr would generate if they let them walk instead.
- They could try to go cheaper at cornerback or wide receiver, but then the team risks having those positions degraded, and we all saw how losing Sanders and Harris completely derailed the Broncos’ 2018 playoff hopes.
- They could let Paradis walk instead, but the savings from that aren’t going to be as substantial as one thinks when you consider that someone else will have to be signed to fill the large void that Paradis leaving would create.