It's not often teams talk about letting go of a Pro Bowl guard only 30 years old with three years left on his contract, but that seems to be the case with Denver Broncos offensive lineman Chris Kuper.
Drafted in the fifth round out of North Dakota State, Kuper has proven himself to be one of the top guards in the NFL. The problem is, the last couple of years, he hasn't been able to stay healthy and the Broncos are on the hook for $6 million in 2013, $5 million in 2014, and $5.5 million in 2015.
Kuper certainly doesn't have to re-structure his contract if he doesn't want to, and why would he? He is one of the longest tenured Broncos, a Pro Bowler when he's healthy, and one of the team leaders in the locker room. The Broncos would obviously prefer to keep him, but they'd also prefer that he were on the field on a more consistent basis.
With Manny Ramirez trading in the baseball bat for a pair of shoulder pads (I'm sure he's never heard any baseball jokes before), the Broncos had a decent backup in Kuper's place this past season, but they probably want some more certainty at the position for the years to come as they try to keep their $100 million investment protected, as well as their 2012 second round pick and QB of the future (Brock Osweiler).
The stars seem to have aligned pretty perfectly for the Broncos, who will have an opportunity to re-negotiate with Kuper this offseason if he's open to such discussions. The team drafted a 26-year old rookie last year in offensive lineman Philip Blake, who came out of college with experience at both center and right tackle. If you're asking me, a team should not use a fourth round pick (relatively high) on an offensive lineman who is 26 years of age without him having at least the potential to be a starter for you.
Here is what The Draft Xchange (NFL Draft Scout) had to say about Blake coming out last year:
Draft Scout Snapshot: A closer look at the Broncos' picks: Round 4/108 -- Philip Blake, C/G, 6-2, 312, Baylor...Blake started at right tackle in 2009 and center in 2010-11, replacing J.D. Walton, a Denver draft pick in 2010. But he projects to guard as a pro and will likely back up at all three interior spots as a rookie. - The Sports Xchange
They also had Blake rated as the number three overall center in the draft, and a potential late second round pick. The Broncos wound up getting him with their fourth round pick, which now appears to be good value. Blake obviously spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and likely would have gotten a chance to start in Kuper's place had he not been injured. If he had played in 2012, we may not even having a discussion about whether Kuper would be on the team in 2013--it may already be a foregone conclusion that he was out of here.
Hypotheticals aside, the Broncos seem to have already drafted Kuper's replacement. I'm not so sure they weren't drafting Blake to be Zane Beadles' replacement, but I thought Beadles played well in 2012 (well enough to earn 1st alternate in the Pro Bowl).
Another form of leverage the Broncos have is the 2013 NFL Draft. This year's crop of players features two guard prospects who figure to be immediate Pro Bowl caliber players. Alabama's Chance Warmack is being touted as a potential top five talent as a guard, and it's expected he will be gone within the first 15 selections.
North Carolina's Johnathan Cooper is considered 1a to Warmack's 1, and is considered to be a sure-fire first round pick. The Broncos can go to Kuper's agent and let them know their intentions to use an early round selection on an offensive guard if Kuper is unwilling to re-negotiate his contract.
Another potential first round pick is All-American Barrett Jones, who was a starter at pretty much every position on Alabama's vaunted offensive line. His versatility will be viewed as extremely valuable, especially since he excelled in each area in college and doesn't appear to be a jack of all trades, master of none.
Wisconsin's Travis Frederick is an early-entrant who is absolutely massive at 6'4" 338 pounds, and he has been a stud in college both at center and guard. He could be an immediate starter at either position in the NFL.
Kentucky's Larry Warford is an underrated prospect who is expected to go in the late second or third round and should be an immediate starter at guard in the NFL as well. He was an All-American in 2012 and an All-SEC selection.
The other leverage the Broncos have comes in the form of 2013 NFL Free Agent guards. Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre and San Diego Chargers guard Louis Vasquez are both 27 or younger and headline a decent class of available players which also includes Kevin Boothe, Ramon Foster, and Donald Thomas, all of whom are the same age or younger than Kuper.
A good free agent class allows the Broncos to potentially pursue other younger, healthier options if Kuper won't re-negotiate.
The going rate for elite guards these days (Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph, Marshal Yanda, Logan Mankins) is right on par with what Kuper is making this year, so maybe his pay is fair. That could be an argument in his favor. Some of those guys listed are making as much, more, or less than Kuper.
Kuper's situation will be interesting to monitor as the offseason progresses, and it could impact the team's decisions in the rest of free agency/trades in a big way, potentially providing the Broncos with salary cap ammunition to acquire Darrelle Revis.