As it stands, the Denver Broncos are projected to have $63 million in cap space for 2020, according to Over The Cap. That's a nice chunk of change, you might say, but believe it or not, it barely ranks in the top-10 in the NFL.
Teams like Miami and Indianapolis will have north of $90M to spend when free agency rolls around in March. As in all free-agent periods, the Broncos will have to compete for the services of the veterans they want to sign.
The Broncos could set themselves up in even better position if they could free up even more cap space. There's only one way to do that, though; cutting players.
That's where Denver's cap wizard Mike Sullivan comes into play. His cap-onomics expertise will help the likes of GM John Elway navigate the nuances of both freeing up space and managing the cap.
By this point, even though the Broncos' brass are taking time off away from the team to kind of reset and recharge, Elway and Vic Fangio, along with Director of Player Personnel Matt Russell and Director of Pro Personnel A.J. Durso, already know which veterans the team is likely to cut in order to free up cap space.
Who are the prime candidates to be cut in Denver? How can the Broncos free up some additional spending power, while unloading veterans who aren't playing up to their contracts? Let's dive in.
Joe Flacco, QB | Cap Savings: $10.05M
We begin with the most obvious candidate. Flacco arrived via trade last spring and the Broncos genuinely thought he was still in his prime and could at least help keep the team competitive while a quarterback-to-be-drafted later could be groomed and developed.
Drew Lock ended up being that QB, as the Broncos drafted him in the second round not long after acquiring Flacco. But even then, going into OTAs and training camp, it was clear; Flacco was 'the guy'.
As 'the guy', Flacco was the epitome of impotent, leading the Broncos to a 2-6 start before suffering a neck injury that would land him on injured reserve and open the door for Lock's eventual ascension. Lock grabbed the bull by the horns and never looked back.
Meanwhile, by virtue of the restructure the Broncos did with Flacco's contract on the doorstep of the regular season, the team will incur cap penalties by cutting the veteran QB. However, it shouldn't be viewed by fans as money the Broncos 'lost' with regard to Flacco.
Basically, without bogging down this story with boring mathematics, the Broncos put Flacco's 2019 salary on a credit card of sorts. Long story short, when the Broncos move on from Flacco, the team will free up $10.05M in cap space, which can be spent on free agents this year, but Denver will also incur $13.6M in dead cap. But that $13.6M in dead cap has already been accounted for in the $63M the team currently is projected to have entering free agency.
Flacco is scheduled to earn $20.25M in 2020 and there's no way Denver will be willing to pay that kind of money to him in the wake of Lock's emergence. So, by cutting Flacco and moving on fully to the Lock era, the Broncos will free up some significant cheddar to build the nest around their young QB.
Running Cap-Space Total: $73.266M
Ronald Leary, OG | Cap Savings: $8.5M
Since arriving as a free agent in the spring of 2017, Leary has missed at least four games in each season. In 2019, he missed four starts after suffering a concussion in Denver's Week 13 victory over the Houston Texans.
If it's not one thing, it's another with Leary. It's a shame, too, because he's a great leader and locker room presence. But the Broncos aren't getting value at his current cost.
Now, in the strictest sense, this wouldn't be a 'cut' because year four on Leary's deal was set up as a team option. But considering that the Broncos could save $8.5M on the cap by not picking up that option, thus being able to invest that money on a younger, ostensibly better and more reliable right guard, it becomes a no-brainer.
Running Cap-Space Total: $81.766M
Jeff Heuerman, TE | Cap Savings: $4M
Heuerman is a solid player and if the Broncos end up cutting him, I'll be surprised. He's an Elway guy after all and a former 2015 third-round pick of the Broncos'.
But with Noah Fant primed to make a quantum leap in year two, do the Broncos really need to earmark $4M for the journeyman-caliber Heuerman? Heuerman is the in-line 'Y' tight end to Fant's 'F' but considering the latter's willingness and dedication in becoming a complete player, the Broncos could kill two birds with one stone and just focus on Fant.
Even if Fant's blocking acumen doesn't improve by leaps and bounds in 2020, the Broncos still have a very capable blocker in Andrew Beck, plus depth options like Troy Fumagalli, Jake Butt and Austin Fort. That's if no additional tight end was brought in during the offseason.
Heuerman finished 2019 with 14 receptions on 20 targets for 114 yards and one touchdown. He also missed two games due to injury, making it his fifth-straight season since entering the league that he's been sidelined for at least two games.
Heuerman is a solid pro but he's not a game-changer. For the reasons iterated above, I could see the Broncos cutting bait but I wouldn't expect it to happen.
Running Cap-Space Total: $85.766M
Todd Davis, LB | Cap Savings: $5M
Of all the veterans I've listed today, Davis is the one I'm least likely to advocate for being cut as a matter of what's in the Broncos' best interests. Davis benefited greatly from the 'Fangio bump', finishing 2019 with 134 combined tackles (78 solo), despite missing the first two games with a calf injury.
Davis is on the books for $5M in 2020 and considering his ability as a two-down thumper in Vic Fangio's scheme, it's not terrible value for the Broncos. Davis is one of the best run-defending linebackers in the league.
Davis is entering the last year on the three-year extension he received back in 2018. He's never going to be that game-changing LB because he lacks the explosive athleticism to run with tight ends and running backs in the passing game but he's a very valuable asset to have nonetheless.
Davis is a locker room leader to boot. However, with Josey Jewell taking a back seat in 2019 in the wake of Alexander Johnson's emergence, the Broncos might want to open the way for Jewell to get on the field more.
Even if that's not necessarily the case, I wouldn't expect the Broncos to ignore the LB position during the offseason. Jewell failed to really grasp his opportunity as a starter and Davis is entering a contract year (if he isn't a cap casualty), and behind Johnson, the team's depth careens off a cliff.
Don't expect Davis to get cut. But, the Broncos could have as many as 12 picks in the 2020 draft, so if the team valued the cap space cutting Davis would provide, he could ostensibly be replaced with a young draft pick or two.
Running Cap-Space Total: $89.766M
With the exception of Von Miller and Brandon McManus, every other player making top-20 money on the Broncos' salary cap is either a young guy drafted over the last three years or is a veteran signed to a big-money contract over the last two whom the team is tied down to for 2020.
I wouldn't expect the Broncos to approach McManus about a restructure. I could see it happening with Miller — but only if the Broncos really find themselves in a pinch. I doubt such a situation will arise, however. Even if only Flacco and Leary end up as the cap casualties this year, those two alone would give the Broncos $81.76M in cap space to attack free agency.
Miller is on the books with a $17.5M base salary in 2020, with an additional workout bonus of $500K he can earn. Call it a cool $18M.
That's a lot of money to pay any defensive player but the Broncos have to remain open to the possibility that Miller's 'down year' in 2019 was more of an outlier or an anomaly, based on how he's produced in each of his previous eight seasons.