It's easy to look back on the years when GM John Elway was able to bring in every notable name under the sun to come play for the Denver Broncos. There was Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders, T.J. Ward — heck, you can add some of the lesser-known names who were value signings such as Terrance Knighton and Louis Vasquez. And most of them took team-friendly deals.
And it's easy to look back on those days and wonder why it can't be like that again. Elway was so good at getting these team-friendly deals, that certainly he should be able to do it again.
However, the reality is setting in that, if Broncos fans want to get the best possible talent to come to Mile High or to stick around, they're going to have pay market prices more often than not. That means you can't go cheap on elite or good talent.
You can say what you want about the play of Chris Harris Jr., but the truth is, he is still a good player. After playing out his undrafted rookie deal, and then under a restricted free agent tender, he took less money to stick around with the Broncos in the hopes of winning a championship. Now he's reached the point in which he would like to cash in, because it's likely to be the last time he can get a big contract.
The Broncos aren't wrong to hesitate to give him big money given that it would be his third contract with the team and there's no telling when decline will truly set in. However, whether you think it was Elway or Harris (or perhaps you think both or neither) who wasn't reasonable in negotiations, the Broncos can't use Harris' case to declare that everybody else, at every other position, needs to take less money.
Discounts Aren't Happening
The Broncos aren't going to get the hometown discount for Justin Simmons that some people think they might. I don't think he necessarily hits $15 million APY, but he's going to be at least $14M APY when all is said and done.
Nor are the Broncos going to get a hometown discount from Derek Wolfe if he sticks around. Anyone expecting him to take less than the $9M APY he got on his last deal isn't being realistic. That doesn't mean you break the bank for Wolfe, but $10M APY on a three-year deal should be enough to get it done.
And, especially, when it comes to free agents from other teams, the Broncos aren't going to get a lot of bargains. If they want the best, they're going to have to pay top dollar.
The conditions that existed when Elway first took over personnel decisions are going to be difficult to recreate. Having Peyton Manning around certainly helped, but it's important to remember how Elway got Manning in the first place.
If you'll recall, Manning spent time visiting multiple teams, with his intention to sign with the team that gave the best sales pitch. And his instructions to Tom Condon — one of the toughest negotiators among NFL player agents — was clear: Manning would pick his team, then Condon would get the best possible deal done and not haggle too much. Thus, all Elway had to do was sell Manning on the organization.
If Manning had gone a different route and sought the most money possible, things may have turned out differently. But if Elway had won a bidding war, who knows if he would have gotten others to take less money. After all, some might have seen Elway's willingness to go "all in" on Manning and assume he'd do the same for them.
But while things may have worked out in the Broncos' favor with Manning and others back then, the landscape has now changed. Most of the players hitting free agency are looking for the best deals they can get. Thus, if you are a top player at a position and that position is in demand, you aren't necessarily taking a bargain deal.
There, of course, are exceptions. Players who want to play for Vic Fangio could come at less money, which is why Broncos fans should keep CB Prince Amukamara in mind (and that he's a street free agent is another reason he'll have to take less than the market). But that's going to be the exception.
And the same is likely to apply to other teams. The New England Patriots won't be able to go cheap everywhere, because they don't have the selling point of Tom Brady and the best possible path to the Super Bowl.
The Kansas City Chiefs aren't guaranteed to benefit, because while they have won a Super Bowl, it remains to be seen whether they'll be true a dynasty, even if Patrick Mahomes looks like the guy who can help them get it. The Baltimore Ravens have a promising young quarterback in Lamar Jackson and multiple years of playoff trips, but aren't guaranteed to land bargains everywhere, either.
Simply put, more players are becoming aware about the market being re-set and are going to try to leverage their positions. That means that if the Broncos want the best possible talent, they have to pay for it.
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Still Have to be Smart
That doesn't mean the Broncos are forced to overspend on every player. They just have to do a good job evaluating players who fit what they want to do and pay accordingly. Elite talent should be paid like it. Good talent should be paid like it, though it may come in at elite prices, but if not, it's going to be slightly, not massively, below that.
When it comes to average talent or depth players, though, that's where you watch your money. I'm fine with signing Mike Remmers for depth, but treat him as depth and don't give him starter money ($2M to $3M is about the range for that).
Amukamara isn't in a position to demand "re-set the market" money, but you don't want to go too far below the $9M APY salary he got on his deal with the Bears (meaning you can try for $5M APY but might have to go with $6M APY).
You just have to remember some of the things I've discussed — don't overpay for average talent, be careful how you structure contracts, don't give up too much draft capital and, when the times come when cap space is tight — and believe me, they will again — sit out free agency and don't try to squeeze in that one player you're desperate to get.
Times Have Changed
Expecting the conditions that allowed Elway to attract top free agents in the past is expecting to capture lightning in a bottle. It's the draft through which the Broncos need to build and they need to use free agency to fill holes.
I'm fine with building an offense through the draft and filling defensive holes in free agency, but if that's the approach, expect the Broncos to have to compete and pay market price for good to elite talent.
There are certainly plenty of ways for Elway to improve as general manager — and he has done so in a few ways but still has room for growth. But expecting him to re-create the free-agent discount frenzy he got in years past is expecting too much. That involved a set of conditions that isn't likely to happen again.