What a difference a week can make. During the NFL offseason, nothing is a guarantee, and things can change drastically for a player or team on a day to day basis. With player cuts, free agent signings and of course the draft, this is often the busiest time of year for NFL front offices as they look to set their teams up for ultimate success in the coming season. A week ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion the Broncos would hit Von Miller with the franchise tag in order to keep him from hitting the open market on March 9. However in recent days, multiple reports have come out, and Broncos executive VP of football operations/general manager John Elway has confirmed, that talks between the Broncos and Von Miller on a long-term deal are getting very close. If the Broncos are able to lock up Miller to a long-term deal in the coming days before free agency officially begins, they will be then free to apply the franchise tag to someone else, such as Malik Jackson or Brock Osweiler.
This is significant because, given the Broncos many free agents and limited cap space, the chances of signing both Miller and Jackson to long-term deals before March 9 seems unlikely. But if Miller gets signed, the Broncos can tag Jackson, allowing them until mid-July to continue negotiations before his 1-year franchise tender would be fully guaranteed. This would be a huge plus for the Broncos considering how dominant their defense was last season. If the team was able to bring back Miller and Jackson, at least for 2016, they would return a defense almost fully intact that finished in the top five of almost every significant statistical category in 2015. As of now, the only starter who is unlikely to return would be inside linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Denver also has the option, if they can get a deal with Miller done soon, to hit Brock Osweiler with the franchise tag, but this seems like it will not happen. First, John Elway said it won’t happen. Second, the franchise tag for a quarterback is significantly higher than the tag for a defensive end, by at least $5 million. For a team looking to retain as many of its own players as possible, guaranteeing and extra $5 million to a player with just seven career starts seems like a bad idea, especially considering it was Denver’s defensive prowess that brought the third Lombardi Trophy to the Mile High City.
Further, as it seems more and more hopeful (for now) that the Broncos could return both Miller and Jackson, two of its most coveted free agents, the feeling is a little more cloudy surrounding Osweiler. Elway said he will not tag Osweiler, which seems like a smart move, but he was also quoted by Mile High Report’s Scotty Payne saying “this won’t be his big contract.” That is an interesting comment from a man that has had nothing but good things to say about Osweiler. Elway has consistently been on record saying he thinks Osweiler has a high ceiling and is a great fit for the offense the Broncos run, but it makes sense Denver’s front office is approaching the contract talks with caution. Osweiler’s numbers from his eight games played last year are 1,967 passing yards, 11 total touchdowns to 6 interceptions and a passer rating of 84.6. Nothing there jumps off the page at you, although they certainly do show some promise, especially considering those were the first seven starts of Osweiler’s career. But that is all he has to his name after a four-year NFL career, just seven starts. It does not make sense to give him a bunch of money to be the team’s franchise quarterback when there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and it certainly does not make sense to hit him with a franchise tag that would pay him around $20 million.
The Broncos are looking for cap room anywhere and everywhere they can get it, and after the cap for 2016 was officially set at $155.27 million, Denver sits at just about $11 million under that number at the moment. Peyton Manning is due $21.5 million this coming season and if he retires, which I think is likely, that will save the Broncos $19 million of that salary number, pushing their cap room to about $30 million. Given the number of free agents the team would like to resign, the Broncos are currently in talks with both Ryan Clady and DeMarcus Ware to restructure their contracts. Clady is coming of a season where he missed every game after tearing his ACL in May, and will count just over $10 million against the cap. Ware had a very productive season for the Broncos in 2015, recording 7.5 sacks in 11 games, as well as 3.5 sacks during the postseason. The concern with Ware, who is due $11.67 million this season, is his back issues. He missed five games last year with back problems and at 33 years old, those issues are not likely to disappear. With Clady a restructure seems imminent, considering he currently holds the fourth-highest cap number on the team and has missed two of the last three seasons due to injury. If he does not take a significant pay cut, he will likely be a cap casualty. Ware’s situation is a little more tricky, though. He can obviously still be productive when healthy, and at 33 is not likely to get another big contract. Ware has also said he has no plans to retire, meaning if he is not willing to take a pay cut (his cap figure is third-highest on the team behind Manning and Demaryius Thomas) there is a very real possibility he can get cut.
Cutting Ware seemed unfathomable a week ago; in fact I wrote about how I just don’t see that happening. But again, things change quickly this time of year. Cutting Ware would save the team $10 million in cap space, but the ramifications would be far greater than a dollar amount. Von Miller has repeatedly praised Ware for helping him become one of the league’s best pass rushers since Ware’s arrival in Denver in 2014. Ware is an unquestioned leader in the locker room and one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. Cutting a guy like that will definitely have an effect in the locker room. The one position Denver is deep enough and talented enough to lose a player of Ware’s caliber though, is outside linebacker. With Miller, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett, the Broncos have both depth and youth at the position to still be productive, even without 9-time Pro Bowler. Ware’s departure would without a doubt be a big loss, both on and off the field, but sometimes tough decisions need to be made for the betterment of the team. If Ware stands firm with his cap number, there is a real possibility he does not return next season.
The best-case scenario for the Broncos would be to get Miller to agree to a long term deal, hit Jackson with the franchise tag and come to terms with Osweiler on a deal where he is not overvalued. To do all of this, as well as signing other free agents like C.J. Anderson and Brandon Marshall, the team will likely need pay cuts from both Clady and Ware. There are a lot of moving parts to this and if just one piece does not fit into the puzzle, there could be a domino effect that costs the Broncos more than one of these players. Things appear hopeful at the moment, but nothing is guaranteed until the papers are signed, just ask Elvis Dumervil. For now we will wait and see what the next week brings.