Why Malik Jackson's future is dependent on Peyton Manning
We have now seen back-to-back seasons of quality play from Malik Jackson, and that means that he is chasing a big-money contract as he enters free agency. After posting a very strong +35.2 cumulative grade a year ago as a rotational body in Denver’s front, he repeated that performance (+37.9) as a starter this year, playing 1,023 total snaps (including the playoffs).
In abstract terms, the Broncos would be crazy to let Jackson walk, but the problem Denver has is that their cap is being held ransom by Peyton Manning and his desire to take every possible minute to decide on his future. Manning’s cap number for 2016 is $21.5 million, and the Broncos would get $19 million of that back if Manning is no longer on the roster.
Denver isn’t just dealing with Jackson—Von Miller, Danny Trevathan, and Brock Osweiler are also impending free agents. As good as Jackson is, in a straight choice between him and Miller, he is the second priority.
While Jackson is an impact player on defense, we need look no further than the playoff run to see that Miller is one of the few defenders in the NFL that can change games single-handedly. In the three playoff games, he averaged over seven total pressures per game, and in the final two outings, he was likely the difference between winning and losing for the Broncos.
Denver likely uses the franchise tag on Miller, eating up $14.1 million of cap space and putting them around $5 million over the cap—effectively ending any chance that the team can retain Jackson until Manning retires and frees up that cap space.
As soon as that happens, though, they can play with around $13.5 million of cap space to try and get a deal done. If they re-work Ryan Clady’s deal, or cut him entirely, they can free up at least another $4 million of space. At that point, retaining Jackson becomes a very real possibility.
Jackson notched 75 total pressures in the 2015 season (playoffs included); over those 19 games, he registered at least one pressure in every game except one, and that outing saw him record a pair of batted passes.
In a league swimming with high-quality talent on the defensive interior, Jackson generated more total pressure than all but six other interior defenders. Two of those players were J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald. There is no doubt that Jackson has shown himself over two years to be a disruptive force and a key part of a defense that was one of the best the league has ever seen.
The alternate scenario for the Broncos is that they manage to get a long-term deal worked out with Miller, freeing up the franchise tag to be applied to Jackson. Jackson’s franchise tag number as a defensive end ($15.7 million) would exceed that of Miller as a linebacker, but he would still be worth that figure if it enabled Denver to work out a long-term deal and prevent him from hitting free agency. The team could even try and tag him as a defensive tackle to save another $2 million or so, and see what comes of him challenging that designation.
The Broncos have been working on an all-in basis with regards to their salary cap as long as Peyton Manning has been the quarterback, loading up as best they can to take home a Lombardi Trophy. That strategy was ultimately successful, getting them to the dance twice and finally winning it all in February, but with Manning likely retiring, now is the time to try and return to normality and retain the core players that got them there.
With two or three key players all scheduled to hit free agency, the Broncos just don’t have enough money to go around until Manning walks, and as good as Malik Jackson is, he is definitely the second priority after Von Miller.