Exploring the True Cost of Broncos Re-Signing Wolfe, Harris & Gotsis
The Denver Broncos have three defensive linemen who are set to become unrestricted free agents after this season: Adam Gotsis, Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe.
Each player brings pros and cons, meaning the Broncos are going to have to choose between the three as to who will be extended.
It's easy to think that both Harris and Wolfe will be back while Gotsis is the odd man out. But is that really the case?
Keep in mind that it's not just the talent level of the three players that will prioritize who comes back. It's a matter of how much each player is seeking and how that compares to what the Broncos think each player is actually worth. You also have to keep in mind that the Broncos have other young defensive linemen whom the team might want to give an opportunity to start.
Let's look at what each of the three players might expect in a contract and other factors the Broncos must consider before extending any of them.
Harris, Gotsis and Wolfe are all interior defenders who are categorized as 3-4 defensive ends, but would be considered 4-3 defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme. None of them are true nose tackles, meaning their market will most likely be set by what 4-3 DTs and 3-4 DEs will fetch (though there is an exception I will discuss).
However, none of the three are elite at their position, so none of them are going to get the money that, say, Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs will command.
The better comparison would be to look at more recent signings across the NFL for interior defenders who aren't elite players. For 3-4 defensive ends, it's hard to judge by the top players after Aaron Donald, because they all signed their extensions in 2017 or before.
However, there are a couple of 4-3 defensive tackles who can be considered. Sheldon Richardson got $37 million over three years with $15M fully guaranteed from the Cleveland Browns this past offseason, averaging $12M per year, while Star Lotulelei got $50M over five years, $10M APY, with $18.5M fully guaranteed from the Buffalo Bills in 2018.
And while 3-4 nose tackles don't necessarily command top dollar, there is one who can be thrown in for comparison. Eddie Goldman received a four-year, $42M extension from the Chicago Bears in 2018 with $17.25M fully guaranteed.
D-Line Dollars are Rising
If salaries continue to rise, you can expect many of the better interior defenders to command deals averaging between $11-13M per year with full guarantees coming in between $15-20M. A few might push for $12M per year, while Chris Jones — the best among all of them — will definitely want to exceed what Grady Jarrett got from the Atlanta Falcons (four years, $17M APY with $38M fully guaranteed).
Harris and Wolfe won't approach what Jarrett received, but they are likely looking at what Richardson, Goldman and Lotulelei received.
I suspect that Harris is the more likely player to get the bigger contract because he is a year younger than Wolfe and doesn't have the injury history Wolfe has. But that doesn't mean Wolfe will be cheap — he has shown he can thrive in the right scheme and there will be some interest if the Broncos let him walk.
It's possible Wolfe could take a 'hometown discount' because he likes Denver, but that doesn't mean 'cheap'. When he signed his extension with the Broncos back in 2015, he took a four-year deal averaging $9.175M per year with $12M fully guaranteed. That was the going rate for interior defenders of his skill level if they stayed with their current teams.
So, with Wolfe, it stands to reason that he will want a contract that pays him more per year than his current deal. If he's willing to take less to stay with Denver, he could take $10M in APY salary, but it's more likely it will come closer to $11M APY.
The fully guaranteed money might be about the same as what Wolfe previously got, should he only get a three-year extension. If it's for four years, it could come in a bit higher.
Regardless, Broncos fans shouldn't expect Wolfe to take less than he's currently getting. This will likely be his last chance at a significant contract, so while he won't look to re-set the market, he isn't going to take any old deal you put in front of him.
As for Harris, I could see him taking a deal averaging $12M per year to stay with Denver, but he would likely expect to exceed the full guarantees that Richardson received from the Browns. I would also expect Harris to want a contract that ensures he'll get paid for the next two seasons. Therefore, I wouldn't expect him to take less than a four-year deal that guarantees his salary into the second year of the deal.
But if you are looking at $12M per year for Harris and nearly $11M per year for Wolfe, that's going to be a lot of money tied to the defensive line. I'm not positive the Broncos will want to tie up that much money into the defensive line.
Stick to Your Guns With Gotsis
This brings us to Gotsis. Because Gotsis would fall a tier below Harris and Wolfe, he's not likely to hit an APY salary of $10M or more. However, he's not going to take a super-low deal, either. Gotsis isn't a top player at his position, but he's better than what most Broncos fans give him credit.
Gotsis is most likely to command a deal that's in line with what Dean Lowry received from the Green Bay Packers earlier this year. Lowry signed a three-year extension that gave him $20M in new money and $6M fully guaranteed in a signing bonus. That deal averages $6.775M per year.
Lowry and Gotsis are similar in that both are good against the run but don't offer that much in terms of a pass rush. Lowry is a starter, but he isn't an every-down player — in 9-of-12 games thus far this season, he's played no more than 66% of the defensive snaps. He also plays a lot on special teams.
Gotsis has received a similar snap workload and plays special teams when he is active, so a deal like Lowry's is what he's most likely to get. However, I would add one word of caution: Gotsis should only get that money if the Broncos can't extend either Harris or Wolfe.
If Gotsis is brought back to be a rotational player, it needs to be for less money than Lowry. Though Lowry isn't an every-down player, he is a starter. If Gotsis is retained as a depth player, he needs to be paid in line with that.
Other Factors to Consider
But why wouldn't the Broncos just pick two to keep and let the third walk? Answer: Because the Broncos have a couple more defensive linemen who they would like to get more snaps, to see if they can be part of the long-term picture.
Dre'Mont Jones has received more playing time in recent weeks, though DeMarcus Walker missed time with a shoulder injury and has been a healthy scratch for the last two weeks, but before the injury, he got out to a fast start this season (four sacks). Walker enters the final year of his rookie deal in 2020, while the Broncos think highly of Jones, to the point they took him in the third round when they could have addressed other needs.
It stands to reason that the Broncos would like those two to compete for a spot on the defensive line next year. Because neither Walker nor Jones is a true nose tackle, that means they would be looking at the starting spots which Harris and Wolfe have held for much of the season.
Don't forget the Broncos claimed Jonathan Harris off waivers earlier this year and seem to like him as a depth player. With Wolfe on injured reserve, it's possible you see Jonathan Harris active on game days, so the Broncos can evaluate how he handles playing time.
This means that you will likely see either Shelby Harris or Wolfe move on after this season. The Broncos will try to keep one or the other, but aren't likely to keep both. As for Gotsis, that really depends on how much the Broncos value him.
How to Prioritize
I believe the Broncos would be better off extending Shelby Harris because he is a year younger and hasn't had an extensive injury history like Wolfe has. However, the Broncos can't overpay for his services. If he tries to push past the $13M APY salary mark, the Broncos need to move on from him and focus on Wolfe instead, in the hopes that he'll take a deal slightly below market value to remain in Denver.
Gotsis should be allowed to test the market, but he can be brought back if the Broncos aren't able to get either Harris or Wolfe extended and if Gotsis is willing to take a deal similar to Dean Lowry. Gotsis is in no position to demand $10M or more in APY salary, so it goes without saying the Broncos need to hold firm on contract value there.
If the Broncos don't get any of the three extended, the team will need to explore free agency but look for value. As nice as it would be to land a Chris Jones, I'm skeptical Denver will be able to get him, especially if he looks to reset the market. There will be a few options the Broncos can consider, but they should be patient in finding their guy who fits Vic Fangio's defensive scheme.
No matter what happens, Broncos fans should be prepared to say goodbye to a player they like. With several players seeking extensions, a number of positions to address and several younger defensive linemen who deserve their shot, the Broncos can't afford to pour too much into veterans on the defensive line.
As Erick Trickel said the other day, get ready for a tough decision — perhaps the toughest one the Broncos will have to make this offseason.