Looming free agents give Broncos' postseason a now-or-never feel
The Broncos slipped past the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night to claim a spot in the AFC Championship Game, setting up a rematch with the New England Patriots. While their offseason plans remain very much on the back-burner, Denver is facing some tough decisions regarding their defensive personnel. GM John Elway has done a fantastic job assembling the league’s best defense, but faces the tough task of deciding which players to retain, particularly in the front seven.
The Broncos have an incredibly talented front seven, but four of their starters have expiring contracts in 2015. With a projected $20 million in available cap space, Denver’s finances make a return for all four unlikely.
Blue-chip pass rusher Von Miller headlines the list. He finished third in 2015 amongst edge defenders, with an overall grade of 92.1 and a pass rushing grade of 90.5 (1–100 scale). Miller tied for the league-lead with 82 combined pressures (11 sacks, 21 hits, and 50 hurries). Judging by Justin Houston’s contract, he’ll be expecting to get paid the big bucks. Kansas City’s premier pass rusher signed a six-year, $100 million extension with $52.5 million guaranteed last summer. A deal in the same ballpark for Miller would consume the entirety of Denver’s free cap space. Despite the financial investment required, it’s very unlikely the Broncos will allow Miller to walk away. Depending on the contracts given out at the quarterback position, Denver might be forced to release DeMarcus Ware. The former Cowboy remains an outstanding pass rusher (84.4 pass rush grade, 12th-best in NFL) but the Broncos can save $10 million by cutting him.
On the defensive line, the Broncos already got the ball rolling by giving Derek Wolfe a four-year, $36 million contract with $17.5 million guaranteed. The contract compares favorably to the deal the Titans gave to Jurrell Casey (five years, $37 million, $20 million guaranteed), but looks a little inflated compared to the Packers’ deal with Mike Daniels (four years, $42 million, $12 million guaranteed). Wolfe has been outstanding since returning from suspension in Week 4, recording a 90.6 overall grade and 91.0 grade against the run. He’s not as dominant of a pass rusher, however, having recorded an 81.1 grade in that facet of play.
The Wolfe re-signing brings into question the future of the Broncos’ other starting defensive end, Malik Jackson. Jackson recorded an 86.8 overall grade this year, standing out as a pass rusher in particular (88.2 grade). However, he wasn’t as effective against the run (79.1 grade). Considering the difficulty in finding interior pass rushers, it’s something of a surprise that the Broncos resigned Wolfe before Jackson. Run defenders of Wolfe’s quality are rare, but even adequate interior rushers are far from a dime-a-dozen. Vance Walker, for example, would have been an ample replacement for Wolfe on early downs, even if he lacks the potential of his teammate. He recorded an 83.3 run defense grade and finished third in the league with a run stop percentage of 11.8. To be fair, Wolfe topped that list, making a stop against the run on 13 percent of plays; there’s no denying he’s the better player. The point, though, is that the Broncos could find a sufficient replacement for Wolfe much easier than they could find an adequate replacement for Jackson. Perhaps Jackson’s contract demands are in the Ndamukong Suh/Marcell Dareus territory ($100 million total, $60 million guaranteed), in which case their decision to target Wolfe first does actually make more sense.
Both Broncos’ linebackers ranked in the top 10 at their position in 2015. Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall recorded 88.9 and 87.0 overall grades, respectively. They have different strengths, however; Trevathan is better in coverage (86.1 grade) while Marshall cleans up against the run (89.2 grade). Trevathan allowed a QB rating of only 88.9 and picked off two passes, while Marshall made 37 stops and missed just a single tackle. The Broncos might be able to avoid choosing between the two, with Marshall only a restricted free agent, but they need to be wary to make the tender offer high enough to prevent other teams from trying to pry him away.
The Trevathan negotiations will be trickier, and they are perhaps more essential for Denver’s defense. Inside linebackers who can hold their own in coverage are hard to find and Trevathan is far from a one-trick pony, with a solid 86.4 grade against the run. His representatives will likely look for a contract similar to the deal the Seahawks handed K.J. Wright, who was given four years, $27 million, and $8.5 million guaranteed. This means the Broncos would need to unearth an additional $6 million from somewhere.
Denver’s defensive success has inevitably led to admiring glances from around the league toward their standout players. The front office has some flexibility with players like Ryan Clady, who is unlikely to see the $10 million he’s owed in 2016. Still, they’re probably short in financial terms if they want to to bring back every guy listed above next season—and that doesn’t include FAs on the offensive side of the ball, including QB Brock Osweiler, G Evan Mathis, and RBs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Denver can’t give big contracts to all their starters meaning there’ll be some tough decisions for the Broncos this offseason.
To view the pending free agents for all NFL teams, visit PFF’s 2016 free agency tracker.