Garett Bolles has made the most of the final year of his rookie contract, the pending expiration made so after the Broncos declined his fifth year option. His OTC valuation has been one of the greatest deals at the position, coming in at well over $18 million over the season. What lies ahead for his contractual future with the Broncos?
How consistently long will Bolles’s improvement last?
The reason the Broncos declined Bolles’s fifth year option was that his play was not consistently on that level in his first three seasons–hence, the question at hand. The more cynical take would be to observe that holding penalties, of which Bolles struggled with prior to this season, have bizarrely dropped leaguewide in 2020. But a more common concern would be Bolles’s age. A famously later arrival to the NFL, he will turn 29 next season, and be in his 30s for the majority of any multiyear extension.
If I were the Broncos, I would want flexibility to exit the contract as the top priority, in case Bolles does regress back to his previous mean. But in order to do so, assuming normal circumstances (more on that later) the Broncos would then need to cede favorable metrics to Bolles elsewhere in negotiations.
And Bolles has been consistently getting good news in those metrics. At first, the contract signed by Laremy Tunsil in Houston looked like an outlier. It is a short $22 million APY deal that was sealed via tremendous leverage for being traded to the Texans for top tier draft compensation. But just a week ago, the Packers and David Bakhtiari agreed to an extension on typical relations that pays him $23 million APY, and also sets new two and three year running cash flows at $53 million and $70.5 million. Also, less than a month ago, the Ravens signed Ronnie Stanley to a strong $19.75 million APY deal that also features market setting figures of $51.25 million in new money full guarantees, and a $41.75 million paid by Year 1. These are the benchmarks that Bolles will aim for.
The ideal contract
If we were in a better world, this is the type of contract I’d like to see, one that I feel is fair to both Bolles and the Broncos:
|Year||Base Salary||Prorated Bonus||Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings|
italics – fully guaranteed salary
This is a four year, $82 million contract with a $20 million signing bonus, and guaranteed salaries of $19 million in 2021 and $15 million in 2022. That total of $54 million edges Stanley in new money guarantees, and the running cash flows of $39 million, $54 million, and $70.5 million over the first three years either match or beat Bakhtiari. But in exchange for excellent guarantees and cash flows, the APY comes in at only $20.5 million, and Broncos in turn gain team friendly base salaries at $16.5 million in 2023 and particularly $11 million in 2024, salaries that could be attractive as a trade to another team should the Broncos wish to move on. Furthermore, by 2023 any lingering dead money will only be in the seven figures, very easy to manage. 2025 is a void year to maximize signing bonus proration, and it also provides Bolles another shot at unrestricted free agency one year earlier.
Unfortunately, 2020 is not in a better world–it is in a world of shit. The expected plummet in the 2021 salary cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely leave the Broncos, after tenders to exclusive rights and restricted free agents are factored in, with only about $13-14 million in 2021 cap space with their current roster payroll. It’ll likely be impractical for them to carry a $23 million cap number in 2021 on a new contract. Thus, even more money will have to be deferred to future caps to account for this acute short term loss.
Unfortunately, by doing so, while still retaining the metrics favorable to Bolles, it removes the flexibility favorable to the Broncos. In order to drive Bolles’s 2021 cap number down as low as possible under these conditions, you’d need a dramatically increased signing bonus, as well as an option bonus in Year 2, as the Ravens did with Stanley. Such a contract on this extreme would look like this:
|Year||Base Salary||Prorated Bonus||Option Bonus||Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings|
As you can see, the dead money liability throughout the contract skyrockets, to the point where the Broncos are losing cap space on every single year upon moving on. A June 1 cut could ameliorate the situation, but make it worse later on. And finally, that $11.6 million dead money total in 2025, even if Bolles completes the contract, could not be avoided without another extension.
There are obviously ranges in between the ideal and the extreme that can be met to deal with this leaguewide cap crunch. But should the Broncos wish to retain their existing high cost contracts, or sign some additional external unrestricted free agents, they may have to utilize some leverage that they’ll have over Bolles.
The team friendly contract
|Year||Base Salary||Signing Bonus||Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings|
On the surface, this $20 million APY contract, exactly breaching nine figures over five years, has more earning potential than Stanley’s contract. But in other metrics, this is woefully behind the top tier. This contract offers only $42 million in fully guaranteed money, and the running cash flow totals come in at $27 million, $42 million, and $60 million.
Now, those numbers aren’t pulled out at random. But as you may ask why, you’re likely also asking why would Bolles have any desire to sign such a contract. It’s summed up by the continuing sucktitude of 2020.
The franchise tag may be the likely bridge toward a long term contract.
A plummet in the 2021 salary cap will also mean that the tenders for franchise and transition tags will also fall. Currently, OTC has the offensive line tag estimated at a shade above $14 million. That is well below the Bakhtiari/Tunsil/Stanley level of left tackle pay. And if Bolles were tagged again in 2022, even a 20% raise would only come in at around $17 million, which again is a number I consider team friendly. Now, consider that the sum of the two, $31.1 million over two seasons, is abysmally low compared to some of the two year cash flows I have demonstrated above. Those flows would be more comparable to what DJ Humphries or Taylor Decker have earned.
And now, I reveal the precise structure of the team friendly contract: in guarantees and running cash flows, it is approximate to the midpoint between the leading benchmarks of the top left tackle contracts, and what a franchise tag over two seasons would offer.
|Guarantees||Year 1 Running Cash||Year 2 Running Cash|
It would be terrible luck for Bolles if it comes to this. He’d be in a situation where he clearly wanted to improve more than just $3 million over the fifth year option of around $11 million that he would have been stuck in had it been exercised. But that’s how the dice have been rolling in 2020. Hopefully, the Broncos treat him fairly and pay him closer to the top tier of left tackles in multiple metrics, and that in turn Bolles helps the Broncos with flexibility to improve the entire team. But I can foresee this extension negotiation to have complications, and it would not surprise me if it takes a while to come to agreement on a long term contract via utilization of the franchise tag.