Grading the Broncos' Salary Cap Health by Position
One of the more important foundations of NFL roster-building in the modern era is balancing salary cap spending across the entire 53-man roster. Rarely do you see a team find success if it chooses to spend the majority of its cap dollars on just one side of the ball.
This can be amplified even more when you spend heavily in one particular position group. We have seen evidence of this mostly when NFL teams hand out massive contracts to quarterbacks — and thus handicapping their ability to build out the rest of the roster going forward. We have also seen similar results with running backs making top dollar in recent seasons.
As the Denver Broncos gear up for the 2020 free agency period, set to begin on March 18th, there are a lot of big-ticket names to keep an eye on.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the players currently under contract for the Broncos and compare against league averages in spending for their position groups. In particular, we will compare the current 2020 cap hits by position against the 2019 league averages. Since the cap is expected to increase around 6%, we’ll adjust the 2019 averages up by that amount.
As of right now, the Broncos have almost exactly the same amount of cap dollars committed to the offense ($72,512,763) as they do on the defense ($71,639,016). If you dive deeper into each position group, though, you begin to glean a clearer direction of where they can afford to spend some of that $75M cap space to bring in additional players, as well as areas where they are already overspending and maybe best addressed in the draft.
So let’s dive in.
2020 Cap Commitments: $25,243,368
2020 Est League Average: $15,249,600
Analysis: Overspending by $9,993,768
For the first time in a while, the QB position is not Denver's biggest question mark heading into the offseason. The only two quarterbacks under contract currently are Joe Flacco and Drew Lock. Flacco is set to make close to $24M in 2020 but the team can save about $10M by moving on from him.
At this point, all signs point to Denver moving on from Flacco. There is a small chance he could stay at a reduced price to be the backup, but betting odds would suggest the team brings in someone else that is already familiar with Pat Shurmur’s offense.
The Broncos are in a fortuitous position in having their projected starter under a rookie contract. This in itself would normally warrant an A+ grade, however, moving on from Flacco will incur a sizable dead cap hit of $13,6M. At this point, though, it’s something Denver just has to do. The Broncos' restructure of Flacco’s deal last season freed up an equal amount of cap space to roll over to offset this number.
Pairing Lock’s cheap rookie contract with a relatively cheap $3-5M backup QB salary puts Denver in a great spot for spending at the position for the near future.
Running Backs/Fullbacks: A
2020 Cap Commitments: $3,327,505
2020 Est League Average: $7,942,500
Analysis: Underspending by $4,614,995
You won’t find many NFL teams in a better cap situation at tailback than the Broncos. Denver is paying Phillip Lindsay essentially the league minimum and Royce Freeman is still on his rookie contract. The Broncos do, however, have commitments to fullback Andy Janovich over the next few seasons, averaging cap hits of about $1.75M/yr over the next three years.
This puts Denver in the prime position to go out and add an experienced veteran RB this offseason. The 2020 RB free agent class is fairly deep as well, with elite, top-end talent like Derrick Henry and Melvin Gordon, as well as productive value adds such as Lamar Miller, Carlos Hyde, Kenyan Drake, and others.
Expect Denver to be interested in bringing someone in.
Wide Receivers: A+
2020 Cap Commitments: $3,909,450
2020 Est League Average: $15,990,900
Analysis: Underspending by $12,081,450
After trading Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos were spending the least amount of money on WRs in the entire league in 2019. As we head into the 2020 draft, many analysts are expecting Denver to select a WR at some point in the first two days, maybe even more than one. But with commitments of less than $4M, and Courtland Sutton under a cheap rookie deal for two more seasons, the Broncos can afford to go out and sign a veteran free agent.
While not as deep as other free-agent positions, there are a number of intriguing names available if the Broncos were to bring someone in. Speedster Robby Anderson is a name that’s been tossed around a lot, mainly for his ability to stretch the field and take the top off a defense — something Denver is currently lacking.
But with the move to Shurmur’s offense, the Broncos can look at some of the other available options. Like RB, keep an eye out for Denver to make a move here to give Lock more weapons ahead of the draft.
Tight Ends: B-
2020 Cap Commitments: $9,873,380
2020 Est League Average: $5,612,700
Analysis: Overspending by $4,260,680
The TE position for Denver this offseason should be pretty straightforward. You’ve got Noah Fant, Jake Butt, and Troy Fumagalli all on rookie deals, and then Jeff Heuerman — who's slated to have just over a $4M cap hit.
The team could look to move on from Heuerman and bring someone else in, but it’s unlikely they’ll save any money by doing so. The team could, however, opt to move on from Heuerman and roll with Butt and Fumagalli as the backups to Fant. This new offense will not require as much depth at TE as the previous season.
All in all, Denver is in a good spot for what they have at TE. They are right in the middle of the pack for spending at the position.
Offensive Line: D+
2020 Cap Commitments: $30,455,313
2020 Est League Average: $28,910,700
Analysis: Overspending by $1,544,613
You may be surprised to hear, given the production we have seen, that Denver actually spends more on their offensive line than the average NFL team. They currently have just over $30M committed to this group, which includes a $9.3M club option on Ronald Leary. Ja’Wuan James is the biggest culprit for this group, having a cap hit of $13M for the 2020 season.
It’s safe to assume Denver is going to make some offensive line moves in free agency. The Broncos have to determine whether they want to bring back Connor McGovern, who could command as much as $10-11M on the free-agent market.
Denver will also have to decide if it wants to keep Leary, and at what price. Up until last week, it seemed like almost certainty that Leary was gone. However, he could be brought back at a slight discount now because he fits more ideally in a power-blocking scheme that Shurmur is likely to implement.
If Denver chooses to keep Leary and retain McGovern, they may be catapulting themselves into the top-5 spending for offensive line league-wide.
This is definitely one of the more problematic groups financially on this Broncos roster. This is in large part due to the lack of productivity from Garett Bolles and the availability of James.
This team’s O-line is a prime position group to get a lot of attention in both free agency, as well as in the draft (possibly multiple selections). I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to not talk about how the offensive line needs to improve for once?
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Defensive Line: B+
2020 Cap Commitments: $6,052,843
2020 Est League Average: $24,145,200
Analysis: Underspending by $18,092,357
The underspend of over $18M is a bit misleading with this group. The reason that number is so high is because literally every defensive line starter is a free agent this offseason. The team will have to decide what it wants to do with Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, and Adam Gotsis. Fortunately, the Broncos are not spending much on the position so they are financially in a good spot.
Gotsis is really the only obvious one here. All signs point to the team letting him walk in free agency, given he was a healthy scratch in a number of games this season. You’d hope the team can retain Purcell at a relatively good price, as he looked serviceable at nose tackle down the stretch.
That leaves you with Harris and Wolfe. I would bet one of these guys will return to Denver for the 2020 season. Either one of them could individually command anywhere from $8-12M per year, so it’s unlikely the Broncos will be able to retain both of them.
Elway has done a great job bringing in low-cost value free agents at this position group, so I would suspect that would be the best plan of action to replace whoever they are unable to retain between Harris and Wolfe. A free agency consisting of signing one of those two plus Purcell plus a value DE would put them right around the league average at the position.
2020 Cap Commitments: $41,736,106
2020 Est League Average: $16,202,700
Analysis: Overspending by $25,533,406
As you would expect, linebacker is the position group that’s eating up the vast majority of the Broncos' cap space. The Broncos were second in the league at spending for this position in 2019, only trailing the Carolina Panthers, who spent a whopping $40M compared to Denver’s $33.5M (2019 cap hits).
One thing to keep in mind with this group is the scheme Denver runs. Since the Broncos primarily run a 3-4 scheme, they'll naturally be a little higher at LB (similarly to how they should be lower on D-line).
The biggest culprit for this large number is obviously Von Miller. He’s going to head into the 2020 season with a cap hit of $25,625,000. Denver is at the point on his post-Super Bowl 50 contract extension that has really significant hits on the cap. Add in Bradley Chubb’s hefty No. 5 overall pick rookie deal ($7.5M this year) and Todd Davis ($6M this year) and that number climbs quickly.
The team is obviously not going to move on from Von or Chubb, but Davis is a potential cap casualty candidate this offseason, as moving on from him would free up $5M in cap space.
As long as Denver has Von and Chubb, though, its going to have to fill the rest of the LB group with low-priced free agents or through the draft. Don't expect Denver to spend much on bringing in outside free agents at this position unless they move on from Davis.
2020 Cap Commitments: $25,308,814
2020 Est League Average: $24,039,300
Analysis: Overspending by $1,269,514
Similar to the LB group, Denver finds itself in an equally difficult spot financially in the secondary. The Broncos will be paying close to $22M on just Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan in 2020. Yeah, do you remember that Callahan is on the team? Throw in another $15M at least for Justin Simmons and you're suddnely spending $37M on just three players, when you really need 5-6 key pieces.
The silver lining here is this group should return De'Vante Bausby (RFA) and Davontae Harris (ERFA) on the relative cheap. Both of these guys showed a lot of promise in 2019. But back to the issue at hand — GM John Elway doesn’t really have the money to spend on bringing back guys like Chris Harris, Jr. and Will Parks.
Needless to say, Denver has to get some solid production out of Callahan in 2019. With a large chunk of money already committed to him and Jackson, coupled with the money Simmons will get, there is not a lot of capital left to spend in this group. If the Broncos really want to bolster the CB group in free agency, they're going to have to underspend quite a bit in another area of the roster.
The financial outlook in the secondary for the next two seasons is largely why a lot of people still expect Denver to address CB relatively early in the 2020 draft.
Special Teams: B
2020 Cap Commitments: $4,910,000
2020 Est League Average: $4,447,800
Analysis: Overspending by $462,200
The Broncos are pretty league average when it comes to special teams spending. Brandon McManus is really the only person making anything more than the league minimum in this group, and is set to have a cap hit of $4.25M for 2020 (fifth-highest in the NFL for kickers).
I don’t see a reason for Denver to move on from McManus, but I remember a lot of people thinking the same about Matt Prater when he was a Bronco.
The price for a long-snapper should stay about the same in 2020, so don't expect change there. Punter is one area the Broncos could look to improve this offseason, but with so many other areas of the roster requiring additional spending, I doubt the team splurges on a much higher-priced replacement for Colby Wadman in free agency.
What it Means
As you can see, once you dive into the roster in a little more detail, you see where Elway will have the flexibility to shape the roster as the team heads into free agency. Of course, there is no hard rule on where a team needs to spend their cap space, but the more you can work to keep balance across the roster, the better chance for long-term success you’ll likely have.
One main takeaway from digging into these numbers is how significant a role the NFL Draft plays in the financial health of a roster. In the last two years, Denver has drafted offense with five of the six picks in their top-3 selections in each draft. As a result, the Broncos have had to spend more money on certain defensive positions in free agency.
Elway will be armed with anywhere from $60-$87M in cap space as the Broncos enter a critical free agency period. But only time will tell how the GM chooses to allocate those funds.