The NFL offseason is here and all 32 teams have to be wondering the same thing: when will the league office announce the 2021 salary cap and how far will it drop? Just this past week, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported that the NFLPA agreed to raise the 2021 salary cap minimum from the previously agreed-upon $175 million up to $180 million. A $5 million difference may not seem like much, but that wiggle room could make-or-break a lot of decisions for teams this offseason.
While the final cap has yet to be determined (likely waiting to see if impending TV contract negotiations can be settled before having to officially announce the 2021 cap numbers), the Denver Broncos have little time left to determine what to do with some large contracts with several well-known veteran players. The Broncos are not in salary cap trouble like a large portion of the league, sitting with a projected $39,789,390 in space, but still, GM George Paton has some tough decisions to make.
In a recent article by NFL.com and Around the NFL’s editor Gregg Rosenthal, the Broncos have two of the most likely cut candidates of any players in the entire AFC. Edge rusher Von Miller and interior defensive lineman Jurrell Casey are listed as the first and second most-viable cut candidates in the conference, and what Paton decides to do will have massive ripple effects for the Broncos’ 2021 salary cap.
Much to the likely dismay of much of Broncos Country, Rosenthal first discusses Miller as a likely cut candidate:
The Broncos are in better salary cap shape than most, but this was always going to be an inflection-point year for Miller, even if he wasn't coming off a dislocated tendon in his ankle that forced him to miss all of last season, due to his contract's club option for 2021. Miller's performance had already dipped before the injury and the Broncos can save $18 million against the cap by declining the option. Also, news broke in January that Miller was under criminal investigation, with the team releasing the following statement: "We are aware of an investigation involving Von Miller and are in process of gathering more information."
It's hard to overstate Miller's excellence or importance to the Broncos over the last decade. The Hall of Fame-caliber pass rusher could still have good years left, albeit at a reduced price. He could renegotiate a pay cut with Denver, but hitting the market is more likely.
No one should envy Paton coming into Denver and having to make this tough of a decision in his first year on the job but this is what being a GM is all about. Miller has an argument for being the Broncos organization’s best defensive player alongside first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey, but Miller’s contract is simply too bloated to swallow as it currently stands, especially given the myriad of factors Rosenthal listed above.
There is no doubt Miller still has good to great years left in the tank, but coming off an injury in a restricted cap season with a release that could create $18 million in cap space at the cost of $4.225M in dead cap might be too enticing to pass up.
If Paton did have to make the tough decision to move on from Miller, it would likely indicate that the GM doesn’t view the 2021 Broncos as a contender and that the savings and cap flexibility are worth more than what Miller could bring with his large contract at 32 years old. The best-case scenario for the Broncos is that Miller agrees to a contract extension that can kick some of the cap hit into future years at a lower per-year rate, but given Von’s previous disposition when approached about taking less per season, there may not be a mutual deal that can be agreed upon by both parties likely leading to the end of his time in Denver.
If Denver does decide to move on from Miller, the team will likely look for an edge rusher early in the NFL draft. The Broncos don’t have to come away with one, of course, but if there is one the team likes in the first three rounds, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the position selected. The draft makes more sense than the open free-agent market because the likely return of edge rushers in free agency won't eclipse that of Malik Reed’s value on his rookie undrafted free agent contract. Denver could get by retaining Jeremiah Attaochu (or an equivalent) for depth on the market and be stable for 2021 with Bradley Chubb and Reed returning.
Now for Casey. After what was considered a great buy-low option by then-GM John Elway, the Broncos hardly got to see Casey last season after suffering a season-ending bicep tear in just the third week of the season. Rosenthal writes:
It was always going to be a challenge for Casey to reach the final season of a four-year, $60.4 million extension he originally signed with the Titans. Denver had high hopes for Casey after acquiring the five-time Pro Bowler via trade last March, but he missed most of the season with an injury. The Broncos can save $11.9 million in cap space by cutting the 31-year-old.
Thanks to how contracts are accounted for in the NFL, moving on from Casey results in $0 dead cap if the Broncos decide to move on from the interior defensive lineman this offseason. Creating nearly $12 million in cap space in a year where every dollar is going to be more valuable given how limited a majority of teams will be on the open market this year with the cap crunch seems like a no-brainer.
With Shelby Harris set to hit the free-agent market this season and how well he played in 2020, allocating some of the cap savings from moving on from Casey makes too much sense. If Denver were to move on from Casey and lose Harris, there will likely be a viable free agent option on the market for a deal that makes sense for Paton.
With nose tackle Mike Purcell under contract and hopefully ready to start 2021 coming off of foot surgery, blossoming young interior pass rusher Dre’Mont Jones, as well as 2020 third-round pick McTelvin Agim, whom the team will likely attempt to put in the rotation next season, Denver will no doubt bring in someone to further solidify the interior defensive line.
Who that could be remains to be seen. Given there are many teams that are over the salary cap and trying to maximize dollars just as Denver will be doing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the free-agent market shift drastically as teams cut players in an attempt to get under the cap and make moves this cycle.
With a March 16 deadline to decline Miller’s 2021 contract or guarantee $7 million of his salary against the 2021 cap, the grains of sand are quickly tumbling down the hourglass. Given that Paton didn’t even inform Elway of releasing cornerback A.J. Bouye prior to it actually happening, what the Broncos GM decides to do won’t likely be known until it is officially announced.
Creating space could put the Broncos in position to be one of the few true players this offseason, as well as give themselves a leg up in negotiating deals for current free agents like Justin Simmons and Harris, as well as players who will likely command large contracts soon in Courtland Sutton and Bradley Chubb. Paton is going to have to make some tough decisions, but that is the job of being a GM in the NFL.
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