BRONCOS

The wisest course of action for the Broncos could be to not spend big in free agency this year

Mar 12, 2023, 5:56 PM | Updated: 6:04 pm

When the legal-tampering flag drops, the stampede begins. Best Buy at 6 a.m. on Black Friday has nothing on 10 a.m. MDT Monday morning.

And the Broncos will be one of those with cash in hand: over $33 million of cap space after paring RB Chase Edmonds, guard Graham Glasgow and CB Ronald Darby from the roster Friday.

None of those created gaping roster holes. Granted, the Broncos could use a running back while Javonte Williams heals. But Damarri Mathis pipped Darby last season. And Glasgow was the primary backup on the interior. That job is necessary, but those who handle it are replaceable in the NFL’s cold calculus.

So, in essence, the Broncos are in the same spot roster-wise as they were before. They just have the ability to squeeze some new contracts into the fold. Even some big ones.

But should they?

Because there is a case for the Broncos to avoid the early frenzy, make only targeted, lower-cost additions, and ride into Sean Payton’s first season without coming close to spending to the cap.

See, cash is no longer the issue. It’s all about cap space and manipulation of it. And every dollar under the cap that you save now can be carried into a future year.

And no matter what happens with Russell Wilson this year, the Broncos are going to need every dollar of cap room they can find down the road. By 2025, Wilson’s cap number will be $55.4 million — 19.6 percent of a projected $282 million salary cap.

And that’s if things go well this year. And make no mistake, for the Broncos and Wilson, it is all about this year. That’s because of the additional $37 million — his base salary in 2025 — which becomes guaranteed if he is on the roster for the fifth day of the 2024 league year.

Wilson must do enough this season for the Broncos to believe they can continue going down the path with him, choosing to accept the contract rather than fall victim to the sunk-cost fallacy if his 2022 form is a decline, and not a dip.

If he doesn’t, and the Broncos move on, Wilson’s dead-money cap figures would be $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025, per OvertheCap.com. Those figures represent 13.8 and 17.6 percent of those seasons’ projected caps, respectively. This season, Wilson’s cap figure is $22 million — 9.8 percent of the salary cap.

So, even as the cap grows, so does the percentage chewed up by Wilson’s contract — whether he remains a Bronco or not.

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THE BRONCOS WILL MAKE MOVES, BUT TO WHAT DEGREE?

Denver will add players. The roster needs restoration work and depth. The team lacks the capital to find immediate help in next month’s draft — unless they trade players of high-enough value to fetch perhaps a Day 2 pick.

But this is not the time to go willy-nilly converting salary to signing bonuses, and spreading the cap hit out over future years, effectively taking a credit-card approach to cap management.

That’s what you do when you believe you have a Super Bowl within your realistic grasp right away.

That isn’t the case for the Broncos. Just one of the previous 57 Super Bowl winners lost at least 12 games the previous season: the 1999 St. Louis Rams. And that happened because the Rams unearthed the outlier to end all outliers: a grocery-clerk-turned-Arenaball-legend-turned-NFL Europe-standout named Kurt Warner.

Realistically speaking, the ceiling of the Broncos this season is probably a playoff win. And simply breaking .500 can be considered a successful campaign in the long haul.

Is it worth creating future issues to go for it all right now?

The heart of Broncos Country says, “Yes.” After all, the last six years have been a truly dreadful period for the franchise. No Broncos fan below the age of 55 has even a faint memory of anything similar to Denver’s current six-season streak of irrelevance and losing records. In a purely football sense, this has been a traumatic era.

But the mind says, “No.” Not with the spot from which the team must build. And not with the AFC filled with dazzling young quarterbacks, including some like Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence who are on their rookie contracts. The cap numbers will rise for them. They’ll rise for Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, too, as they proceeded deeper into their second contracts. For the teams blessed with these passers, their team-building calculus will evolve and make it more difficult in the future.

So, the window to ultimate success is unlikely to be the present day.

But it can be a year or two from now. That would be a better time to hit the market with ferocity.

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THE DRE’MONT JONES FACTOR

Furthermore, if they lose Dre’Mont Jones, preserving the third-round compensatory pick they would likely receive for his departure would be wise. If Jones yields a contract with an average annual value of $20 million, the chances of getting a third-round pick are excellent as long as the Broncos avoid doing one thing:

Signing a comparable unrestricted free agent in return.

If the Broncos do that, a signing would cancel out the Jones departure. They’d be left with nothing in return for Jones. Which means they would have been better served by trying to execute a tag-and-trade.

There are possibilities to provide upgrades that preserve the potential comp pick. Players who were cut — termed “street free agents” — qualify. So, former Titans center Ben Jones would fit in that category.

A potential cap casualty in New Orleans, guard Andrus Peat, could be a perfect fit.

Some other players who fall into this pool include:

  • WR Adam Thielen, ex-Minnesota
  • G Gabe Jackson, ex-Seattle
  • CB Shaquill Griffin, ex-Jacksonville
  • DE Frank Clark, ex-Kansas City
  • Edge rusher Bud Dupree, ex-Tennessee
  • Edge rusher Leonard Floyd, ex-L.A. Rams
  • QB Marcus Mariota, ex-Atlanta
  • DL Michael Brockers, ex-Detroit
  • ILB Zach Cunningham, ex-Tennessee
  • LT Taylor Lewan, ex-Tennessee

More could come.

None of those players would count toward the compensatory calculus. Most are likely available at bargains, although age must be considered; most of those players are on the other side of 30.

And if they do re-sign Jones, that, too, limits their ability to target other positions. They could structure contracts to push cap hits into future years … but that brings the Broncos back to the conundrum of increasing salary-cap percentage hits for a quarterback whose future rides on what happens in the next 10 months.

So, ultimately, it still comes back to Wilson’s contract, a new coach and where the Broncos stand. And if they make the call to prioritize the long term, they won’t be the champions of this March. But that could mean a better chance of being champions at some point in the years to come.

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