Looming free agents give Broncos’ postseason a now-or-never feel

Von Miller, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Brandon Marshall are all set to hit the free agent market.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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.

Edge defenders

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.

Defensive interior

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.

Inside linebackers

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.

Summary

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.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • James Winslow

    I am glad the steroids wolfe took helped him step up his game.

    • codered5

      Why would you be glad about that. His wife isnt. Glad is a little overboard satisfied would be a more suitable word

  • Tim Edell

    As much as I love Malik Jackson as a player I highly doubt he will be seeking Suh or Dareus money!

    • larry mckinney

      Why would he not try to get the maximum dollars in the Not For Long league?

      • Tim Edell

        Well im sure everyone would love that type of money but as much as i like Jackson as a player I sew him getting a lil more then Derek Wolfe and Mike Daniels type money

        • Thomas Bell

          Exactly, even the biggest Jackson fans wouldn’t put him in the same category as Suh. Folks in Denver know that Malik, like Wolfe had an offer on the table. Wolfe took his, Malik, it appears is looking for more. Appreciate the distinction on interior run defenders being easier to find than interior pass rushers, but isn’t it possible that Malik’s pass rush numbers are a bit high given the talent coming from the edges?

          • anon76returns

            Malik’s first got on the map in the 2013 season, when he was the #3 interior defender, and there was no D Ware/Dumerville off the weakside, and Miller only played in 8 games (the other 8 games Nate Irving played as a traditional SAM backer, meaning he hardly ever rushed the passer). In 2013 Malik got pressure at the 3rd highest rate of any interior defender in the league without elite help (http://mmqb.si.com/2014/01/03/nfl-playoffs-purple-chippers), and he’s maintained that production over 2 more seasons. I don’t think he’s earned Suh money, but I do think he’s earned Calais Campbell money (~$11M/year):

            http://overthecap.com/position/3-4-defensive-end

  • Brit

    Suh’s contract will seem pretty normal after this offseason.

  • anon76returns

    This article has a very one-sided way of looking at free agency.
    Here’s the deal: Elway wants a “draft-driven” team. That means a couple of things, paramount among them probably being to draft well. But what it doesn’t mean is “keep all your draft picks”. We’ve seen that with successful players from the Broncos- Eric Decker, Orlando Franklin, Julius Thomas, Zane Beadles, Wesley Woodyard, and Terrance Knighton were all very good players for the Broncos who had (to varying degrees) good seasons for other teams this past year. Why weren’t they with the Broncos? A number of reasons:
    1) You can’t pay multiple big contracts at single positions. Paying DT meant Decker & Julius Thomas had to go. Paying Clady/Vasquez meant Franklin/Beadles had to go, etc.
    2) Letting good players go returns compensatory draft picks. There’s no trick to consistently win the draft. What you have to do is scout very well, and then make as many picks as possible. Compensatory picks help out immensely in the second category, especially the 3rd and 4th round comp picks.
    3) Letting good players go allows your new draftees to play prominent roles. No point in drafting well if your great selections are going to be riding the pine. With the new collective bargaining agreement, the guys on rookie contracts are enormous bargains. They’re young (great physical abilities & less prone to injury) and they’re cheap, often times an order of magnitude cheaper than a 2nd contract player of the same skill level. In order to take full advantage of these guys, they have to contribute, which means you can’t keep them buried on the depth chart, which means letting guys go. This keeps your cap space in order and keeps your roster young.

    This has been the Green Bay/Baltimore model of doing business, and it is one that Elway has tried to emulate. So what does it mean for the upcoming free agents?
    -Von Miller: will get paid. Pretty simple.
    -Malik Jackson: much as the author here, I had advocated for Malik over Wolfe since July, but two things happened. Malik played as well as I expected (value might be around Calais Campbell’s contract now ~$11M/year), and Wolfe played much better than I expected, particularly in the pass rush. I do think Wolfe got a bit too big of a contract, but no question he played very well. What this likely means is that Elway is not going to also splurge on Malik- he’ll let Malik return a 3rd-4th round comp pick (Malik was originally a 5th round pick, so pretty good deal there), he’ll use Kenny Anunike for pass rush from the interior (and possibly extend Antonio Smith for cheap), and he’ll rely on Vance Walker & Darius Kilgo (and perhaps a draft selection) on run downs. Probably not as good performance-wise compared to Malik, but much more cap friendly.
    -Brandon Marshall: a second round tender (~$2.5M) will almost certainly be enough to keep him. Any team that wants to get into a bidding war will not only have to match the salary, but will have to cough up a 2nd round pick that will be much higher than Denver’s own 2nd round pick. I can’t see any team desperate enough to do that.
    -Danny Trevathan: Broncos will (likely) Marshall, along with Todd Davis (played great at the end of the year/playoffs last year), Corey Nelson, and Zaire Anderson. Trevathan is a great asset, but no way to justify paying him big money to keep the kids behind him on the bench. He’ll bring around a 5th or 6th round comp pick, which again is a pretty good deal considering he was originally a 6th round pick himself.
    -DeMarcus Ware: he’s an interesting case (and not a free agent). I think what will happen will depend a lot on how he does in the remainder of the playoffs. If he plays well and decides he has a lot left, the Broncos might keep him, even though they have Barrett and Ray waiting in the wings. The main reason for this will of course be that he is still the better player (provided he can stay healthy). But another important consideration here is that he’ll likely finish next year somewhere around the top 5 all time in career sacks, and on pace with where Bruce Smith and Reggie White were at the same age/spot in their careers. If he decides to commit himself to the record, he’ll likely get a good chunk of money from some team in free agency. If the Broncos cut him this year, they won’t get anything from that. But if they keep him for a year they get 1 year of production from a certain HOFer, and they’ll likely get another 3rd-5th round comp pick when some other team picks him up.

    • Sean

      good points, I think they offer Ware a “restructure” like they did to Manning. finish your career here with opposing teams focusing on Von Miller instead of a bad team so you can get plenty of sacks to catch the records of Bruce Smith and Reggie White. I bet they offer him 5-6 mil like they did to Elvis Dumerville

      • anon76returns

        If they can pull the same trick with Clady they should be ready to roll, with the remaining roster spots being filled through the draft/UDFAs.

        Still a lot of variables with Ware: Can he play well without aggravating his injuries? If he plays well, will he still want to play in pursuit of the record? If he wants to continue playing, can he be convinced that he’ll improve his future earnings by reducing his 2016 salary with Denver (or would the “Miller argument” convince him to reduce his salary regardless)? I hope it works out for the Broncos, because D Ware is not only still a hell of a pass rusher, but also a great locker room presence.

      • Thomas Bell

        Good points anon. Jackson will be this year’s pot roast, and Trevathon walks a la Woodyard. We’ve been great at drafting and developing LBs in the past, and no reason that shouldn’t continue. Wish we had a better stable at DE. I had forgotten both Anunike and Walker have another year on their deals — though it’s hard to believe they’ll put a ton of faith in Kenny, given his injuries, and Kilgo is an NT. Maybe their first round pick is Malik’s replacement?

        • anon76returns

          I think Kenny’s “injuries” have been more about keeping a talented young player on a packed roster than they’ve been about actual physical damage to his body. He played pretty much the entire preseason game 4, and was put on the IR immediately afterwards with a mystery elbow injury. This season he was barely playing due to being behind Malik/Wolfe/Smith/Walker, and was conveniently put on IR right when a 3rd QB was needed while Manning dealt with a foot injury.
          I think his lack of playing time is much more due to veteran depth ahead of him.

  • Ben

    How can any discussion of the Broncos salary situation not include PFM’s $21.5 million cap hit given the likelihood that this is his last season? Disappointed, PFF.

    • Aaron McFarland

      Yeah, but it could be replaced by a 15 million cap hit we need to give to Brock…since he is a free agent also.

    • anon76returns

      This really isn’t a discussion of the Broncos’ general cap situation. They’ll do one of those when the Broncos bow out (or emerge victorious). This is a more focused look at which Broncos defenders could be on the FA market this offseason.
      Also worth keeping in mind for when that discussion does occur: a win this weekend and Manning’s cap number for 2016 goes up to $23.5M, and a win in the SB takes it up to $25.5M. And, unlike the $21.5M, if Manning rides off into the sunset after this year, the Broncos will still be on the hook for the extra $2/4M.

      • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

        forgot about those escalators, good stuff

        • anon76returns

          LOL! I was kind of upset about those, actually. I’m sure they’re good motivators, but at the time I was like “what have we really gained cap-wise if we win the SB?” They’ve been on my mind all season, because next year is going to be tight.

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            costs of success

          • Thomas Bell

            Please send me a text a 430 PM MT reminding me of this fact if we lose on Sunday. I will be in desperate need of some good news.

      • Thomas Bell

        Wait — are you saying we still take the larger cap hit if Manning wins and retires, or only if he returns to play in 2016?

        • anon76returns

          If he wins the AFCCG & SB and retires, Manning will count $6.5M on the 2016 cap.

          If he wins it all & doesn’t retire, he’ll count $25M on the 2016 cap.

          If he loses the AFCCG and retires, it’s $2.5M on the 2016 cap.

          And if he loses the AFCCG and doesn’t retire, it’s $21M on the 2016 cap.

          If he wins the AFCCG, loses the SB, and retires it’ll be $4.5M.

          If he wins the AFCCG, loses the SB, and doesn’t retire it’ll be $23M on the 2016 cap.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      right, lol

  • James Krefft

    Denver has a better cap then this author and some posters think. Clady is owed 10 Million yes but he has suffered 3 horrible injutries in 5 years. I doubt he comes back at all particularly with Donald Penn a UFA. So thats 10. Manning is not going to be a Bronco next year either he retires or the team will release him post June 1st. This saves between 12 and 15 million depending on how the cookie crumbles. You are looking at 22-25 million in savings right their. Ware is probably gone too or comes back at a pay cut, picking up Shane Ray was a sign of this AND Shaq Barrett is a great talent.
    Potentially Denver will have a whopping 30-34 million in addition to the 20 mentioned. They can tender Marshall with a first round pick and get most to the team pack. I do think we will lose Jackson and a few others
    .
    The big question for me is at QB, Manning will be gone but Osweiler may be too expensive due to bungaling. The team just wont pay 7-10 million a year for a guy who played in 6 games. Any team that did is idiotic. This year we also have 4 top tier QBs who either are at odds with management or will have to take pay cuts: Rivers, Romo, Drew the beer man, and Eli Manning. If you want to go see a Salary Cap disaster go look at the Bears

    • anon76returns

      I thought Clady was gone the moment he got injured, but the way things have worked out (including the failed negotiation for Joe Thomas) has left that much more up in the air. Sambrailo did not look like a cornerstone LT (one of Elway’s big 4 positions), and it’s unlikely for the Broncos to get one through the draft. Clady might be the best bet the Broncos have for quality LT play next year.

      I still think there’s no way he’ll be back at $10M, but he might be back for $5M, especially if it provides him with a couple years of financial security. Considering his injuries in 2013 and 2015 and his sub-par play in 2014, $5M might be about his free market value.

      We’ll see on Ware. Last off season I was hoping the Broncos would draft Ray in the first round just so they could spell Ware more often, but I thought (and still think) that Ware brings considerable value to the franchise as a pass rusher and locker room leader. And keeping Ware at his current salary for 2016 could potentially bring a mid round draft pick in 2018, which Elway loves.

    • Names Unimportant

      Another cap savings will come with Evan Mathis, $4M this season. Max Garcia is clearly good enough and has three years left on his rookie contract. I agree that Manning is gone, period. Clady is likely to be gone, too, in my opinion. It’s hard to imagine a contract that the Broncos would offer Clady without ridiculous protections against injury—think veteran minimum with bonuses for snaps played or games started. Would Ryan Clady accept that when there are plenty of teams desperate to take a gamble on him and offer a multi-year deal?

      It looks like the cap mysteries for next year are Ware, Osweiler, Malik Jackson, and Danny Trevathan. Von Miller will obviously get the franchise tag followed by a late signing (he stayed healthy and is out of the drug program). anon76returns is right: Brandon M. Marshall will get a solid tender and is likely to stay. Sadly, Vernon Davis has been a bust but won’t give back much cap room—although perhaps he’ll attract enough interest to earn the Broncos a compensatory pick?

      What’s interesting to add to the mix is: will the Broncos have any flexibility to shop the phase 2 free agent market and pick up any depth or quality veteran help? A decent slot receiver, downfield tight end, and reserve swing tackle seem like pressing needs.

      • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

        evan isn’t under contract next year, no 2016 impact

        • Names Unimportant

          Yes, what I said. His $4M contract is off the books.

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            4 mil is not “off the books”, it was accounted for this year. since he has a cap hit of ZERO in 2016 it is not “another cap savings” as you said.

      • James Krefft

        I think they will. I have the feeling Jackson will take a big payday somewhere although if someone pays him the same money as Suh they are total morons. Ware will probably be back at a pay cut if at all, again they really like Shaq Barett and cancelled the Joe Thomas trade because Clevland wanted SB too. Trevathan will probably get a good offer imho or a tag even.
        Denver needs to find OL help and a Slot Reciever. Defense is solid. We need a TE badly but none are available so they will have to draft, something the Broncos are just 50% at
        Osweiler is the big ?. If Denver can get him in that 7 million a year range then its a good punt. But the talk of him gettign 12 million is just insane. Is he reallly equivalent to Tom Brady….child please.

    • larry mckinney

      http://www.spotrac.com/research/nfl/nfl-2016-team-financial-power-rankings-562/

      Bronco’s number of starting players under contract for 2016 is the lowest of any NFL team. This means the large number of players that must be signed will stress the number of dollars the Broncos have available for that task. And they do not have an excess of cap dollars available, like the Raiders and others. This will be a very difficult off-season for the Broncos.

  • Zachary Mills

    Cut Ware, Clady and Manning. Franchise Miller, re-sign Osweiler and Jackson. Re-sign Trevaithan and hopefully Jackson. Let Marshall and Hillman walk. Try to bring back CJ.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      marshall is an RFA, no point in “letting him walk”, otherwise agree with you

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    i’d be willing to bet elway offered the exact same contract to both wolfe and malik, wolfe even mentioned it had been on the table for some time, he just was the first to accept it

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    CJ isn’t an UFA, he too is restricted

  • davechave .

    Damn I would really hate to see any of these defensive FAs go, or any of the offensive FAs for that matter. Do your magic Elway!

    • Thomas Bell

      I felt the same way about Decker, and along came Sanders. Last year fans were up in arms over losing pot roast. Hell, Doomerville was replaced by Shawn Phillips. One thing Elway has done really well is replace our FAs. (JT being the obvious exception.) Malik Jackson will be missed, but my guess is we’ll get better overall value at the position group, and play won’t drop off much. The good news is the Denver secondary is all wrapped up for at least 2-3 more seasons. (Though somebody will likely correct me on that.)

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Broncos will probably resolve any personnel problems with their tried and trusted strategy of dumping their garbage on the Bears.

  • larry mckinney

    Great exercise in positive thinking from Bronco fans. Just a couple of caveats 1) If Manning is gone, it would be hard to figure out who would be the 2016 QB other than Osweiler. Any outside, established FA QB would look at the dollars saved by cutting Manning with a gleam in his eye; Osweiler will do the same, and likely would expect $10 – 12M per year to take over. So potential QB savings might not work out to be much. 2) Looking closely at the Broncos cap space is one thing, but a more focused view sees how many roster spots have to be filled with the available cap dollars (see below). Elway leveraged the signing of Manning as several defensive stud FAs came on over for under-market dollars to gain the possibility of getting a ring with Manning leading the way. With Manning gone, or viewed as ordinary, that leverage disappears.

    For an objective and focused view of Bronco 2016 money issues, try this: http://www.spotrac.com/research/nfl/nfl-2016-team-financial-power-rankings-562/

    Elway will earn his pay this year. Have a nice off-season