Trick question. They'll need to either way. Keeping Marshall in town and getting him happy doesn't complete the WR position. Even if Marshall and Royal stay happy, health and members of the Broncos for the next 10 years, there's still work to do. And I think we'd be nuts not to keep this in mind as we sort through the latest melodrama.
There are two main reasons why.
I'll start with the obvious one. If Marshall plays this year and plays well, the Broncos have gained nothing in terms of long-term certainty at the position. To state the obvious, would you count on this guy long-term? Let's say he plays well and they even negotiate a team-friendly, incentives-based contract (unlikely under any collective bargaining agreement). If my team depends on that guy enough to give him a big contract, they'd better have a stellar back-up plan in place. He's the solution who's not a solution, the player whose presence virtually requires the team to handcuff another talented receiver in anticipation that he gets suspended, ends up in the clink, loses flexibility in his hip, loses feeling in his right hand, or walks out on the team.
That the obvious argument. But there's another one that I think is more potent. As they're built right now, the Broncos are a team stacked with possession receivers. Last year, Marshall played in a pass-centric offense that emphasized the medium- and long-range passing games. Apparently he also played with a quarterback who's arm was so strong, the earth's axis shifted each time he threw. Playing in that offense, Marshall led Broncos' receivers with 12.2 yards per reception -- the 33rd highest number in the NFL. 33rd. I love Eddie Royal and Brandon Stokely. But they were good for about 8 yards per reception. Kenny McKinley looks good, but he's the same kind or receiver.
The Broncos need a field-stretching receiver in their arsenal, and keeping Marshall happy, healthy and free doesn't solve that problem. Hmm, excuse me? Yes, you in the back? OK, you're asking what good it does to have a field-stretching wide receiver when the quarterback's arm is so weak, his deep balls go backwards. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the offense will not consist entirely of bubble screens, that the one and only Devin Hester averaged more yards per catch than Marshall last year despite a supposedly Jell-O armed quarterback, and that a stronger-armed quarterback awaits in the future. The Broncos need a deep threat one way or another.
This brings us, inevitably, to the salary cap. First, teams that dish out multiple cap-busting contracts to wide receivers find themselves pinched for cap space at other positions. If you had to give out two high-dollar contracts to wide receivers, would you give them to receivers who are both possession receivers? If you only decided to give out one big WR contract, as Xanders almost surely will do, who would you give it to? Don't think too hard.
As a quick addendum, I know that some folks around here are big at pointing out that 2010 will most likely be an uncapped season. Let's start with "most likely." If a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is worked out in advance, then it will be a capped season, and a big contract to Marshall would be a problem. Now let's move on to the 2010 part. As stands, that season will be uncapped. But just that season -- the salary cap will come back in 2011. Why do I say that? Well, the 2010 season will be uncapped only because that condition was written into the previous CBA, as recompense for the owners terminating it early. That's a sign of strength, not weakness, on the owner's part, and the NFLPA is not a particularly hard-fighting union. The owners remain in the driver's seat, and when the new CBA is settled, it will bring back the salary cap. To state the obvious, the salary cap benefits management, not labor, and we can count on management to push it through (heck, the NHL management was willing to kill their sport to get one).
So we're looking at an uncapped season and a free-agent spending bonanza next year. Followed by the resinstitution of a cap of uncertain size. If there's one thing I know, it's that I want my team to keep its commitments low and let other spend like drunken sailors -- they'll have to make some big cuts when the cap comes back and their 2010 contracts count against it. I want the team with the flexibility and low cap commitments to pick up the many good players who are cut. The Broncos won't be that team if they're committed to two possession receivers long-term. And, just to twist the knife, they also wouldn't be that team if they had two first-round draft picks in 2010 -- those first-rounders are going to get crazy contracts in the uncapped season.
All things being equal, I'd prefer David Harris and a pick. The upgrade over Andra Davis would far outweigh the downgrade from Marshall to Stokley in 3-receiver sets. The salary cap situation would be better. But whatever they do, they need a deep-threat receiver. We can't lose sight of that.