Only weeks into the NFL offseason, there's been a lot of turnover of veteran talent around the league, notwithstanding the trades of multiple quarterbacks and Houston's recent release of J.J. Watt. Still, as we approach the new league year, more aging big names will be released.
NFL teams are always looking to get younger, cheaper, and, ultimately, better. As Meatloaf would say, 'Two out of three ain't bad,' and getting younger and cheaper — even if it means a slight downgrade in performance — is important.
Against this backdrop, the Denver Broncos have big decisions to make on franchise icon Von Miller, Kareem Jackson, and Jurrell Casey, the latter of whom was limited to just three games last year. It figures that what happens with Shelby Harris will have a significant bearing on what happens with Casey.
At this point, though, Harris has more proven production in Vic Fangio's defensive scheme and it would be in the Broncos' interest to bring him back. Here are the big questions new GM George Paton must answer between now and March 17 when the new league year opens.
Resolve the Miller Situation
Paton does have a few options when it comes to Miller, pending his legal case, of course. The Broncos have until the beginning of the new league year to decide to pick up his option at which point, $7 million of his base salary would guarantee.
From there, Paton could look to keep Miller in hopes that he rebounds from his serious injury and provides Fangio's defense with that key pass rush component. The Broncos could exercise Miller's option and then trade him before the season in the hopes of adding more draft capital this year or next, freeing up $11M on the salary cap.
However, his value would be relatively low on the trade market due to his age (soon to be 32), recent injury, and legal concerns. The Broncos could extend Miller with the aim of lowering his cap hit over the next few years and making the cash flow more even, though that would come with its own pitfalls.
If Paton was feeling bold, he could decline Miller's team option and free up $18M in cash and cap, allowing the eight-time Pro Bowler to test unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, but it is important to note that declining his team option would not factor when it comes to the compensatory pick formula. Comp picks are useful, but they're not the be-all and end-all.
John Elway has made good use of the compensatory formula by incorporating team options into contracts and declining them. However, since last season, players hitting unrestricted free agency because of declined options no longer count towards the compensatory pick formula.
Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman has made significant use of the compensatory pick formula to get cheap, cost-controlled talent in the draft, and while draft picks aren't a sure thing, compensatory picks are ultimately a means of getting more ammo to trade up, or as more lottery picks. It stands to reason, that compensatory picks will be important to Paton.
However, when it comes to the compensatory pick formula, teams have to have a net loss in talent over the first free agency period to qualify. Keeping in-house talent like Shelby Harris is important but keeping homegrown talent like Justin Simmons is essential, as he is a franchise building block at this point his career and a franchise building block given his leadership and play.
Expect Simmons to be franchise-tagged again to give the Broncos and his team more time to come to an agreement, but it would be shocking if he played on the franchise tag twice, for sure.
At this stage, the Broncos need to be adding talent to the roster, through the draft, by trade, in free agency (in a responsible way), and a big part of that is not losing key talent. Denver's roster is closer to being a competitor than many will give credit for but the team doesn't want to lose talent.
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Substance, Not Flash
It's often said those teams that appear to 'win' free agency rarely do well when it comes to the NFL season. Players going to bad teams, teams over-paying for talent based on past production and not projection — here's looking at you, Jets and Raiders.
In truth, the Broncos won't have the option to make such big splashes due to their limited cash situation. However, there are a few names that are currently going under the radar that warrant further consideration.
Although the Broncos have a veteran-heavy defense in need of an infusion of youth through the draft and an influx of cheap, capable depth, the value in free agency is usually on the defensive side of the ball. With the way the league is heading, the value early in the draft is usually on the offensive side, especially with the massive contracts on offer for 'great' talent and the propensity to get such talent early in the draft with team control.
Let's take a look at a few free-agent options to bolster the roster without having to break the bank.
Free Agent: William Jackson III | CB
One player the Broncos should be 'in' on in free agency is Jackson. He would be in his age-28 season (sixth in NFL), but a ballpark three-year, $27M deal would not be unreasonable.
The former Bengal has good awareness in zone-coverage, can play man coverage, and is a really good athlete. Such a move wouldn't preclude the Broncos from signing a veteran like Eli Apple, who did his best work in Cover 4 with help over the top and should only cost $3M or less given his availability on the market. Apple would be another former first-round reclamation project for Fangio and would fit nicely into his scheme.
Ultimately, free agency is about filling glaring roster needs, and those two, in conjunction with each other, would shore up the cornerback position and would set the Broncos up to get the BPA (best player available) approach in the draft, or find more value in a trade down, while still enabling the team to find a scheme-compatible corner a little later.
Free Agent: Nick Vigil | LB
The Broncos should also be 'in' on Vigil, who is a capable and athletic linebacker in coverage. In his return from injury, Justin Strnad figures to factor into Fangio's desire to improve the coverage ability of the linebackers, but as a 2020 fifth-round pick, coming off a big injury, with more injury issues in college which caused him to fall in last year's draft, the Broncos need more than just him.
Vigil, just like Strnad, wouldn't represent the complete answer, and the Broncos would still be best served to improve through the draft as well, but it would be another useful hedge. Such a move would change the dynamic of what the Broncos look to do in the draft and it might be the difference between landing a linebacker like Ohio State's Justin Hilliard in Round 4 and drafting his teammate Baron Browning in Round 2, for example.
Wait, What About QB?
There's a lot of consternation in Broncos Country about acquiring a better QB, but the contract situations of potential trade targets like Deshaun Watson and Matt Ryan lends to being post-June 1 trades, given that their respective current teams can command more capital for them. Unlike post-June 1 cuts, which can be designated before but not made effective until after, post-June 1 trades cannot be executed until after June 1st.
While the Broncos should be 'in' on the right guy, should there be an opportunity to trade for them, there's a lot of moving pieces. Jimmy Garappollo could be a trade name to watch depending on what happens with San Francisco's QB situation, but teams wouldn't want to move on from their QB without an answer waiting in the wings.
More likely still, the Broncos will probably look for a veteran hedge like Andy Dalton or Alex Smith, though the latter would have to be acquired via trade, in addition to draft options such as Alabama's Mac Jones or Stanford's Davis Mills.
There are more difficult decisions for Paton to make in the coming days and weeks, but it's shaping up to be an interesting start to free agency as the new GM gets his first major opportunity to shape the roster in his image.
Follow James on Twitter @JamesC_MHH.
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