And you thought the Ravens defense was a challenge. The choice Mike Shanahan and his band of merry men will have to make after dealing with Ray Lewis and Trevor Pryce Monday night might be just as daunting. When the gun sounds to end the Monday Night affair, the 4-game suspension doled out to P Todd Sauerbrun will come to an end, and he'll be allowed back to the Dove Valley Complex. The Question is, will the Broncos welcome him back?
In his absence, Paul Ernster, the 7th round pick in the 2005 draft, has done an admirable job. After having a great preseason, however, the pressure of Sauerbrun's pending return has weighed on the 2nd year player. His stats so far during the regular season are nothing to write home about - 44.6 yard gross(18th), 36.2 yard net(23rd) wouldn't get Ernster to the Pro Bowl, where Sauerbrun has been multiple times, but it would be better than the vet's average in 2005(43.8 gross) though the net is slightly worse(38.0).
Last year it was widely speculated that Shanahan was going to keep 3 kickers, with Ernster handling the kick-off duties. That was until the rookie tore up a knee during the pre-season, missing all of the '05 campaign. Sauerbrun handled kick-offs in '05, registering 6 touchbacks, while Ernster has 3 already this season in 10 kick-off attempts. Would Shanahan consider keeping 3 kickers again? No doubt money will play a facor in the decision. Sauerbrun will get a portion of his salary for '06, and is due 1.5 Mill next season. Ernster is much more cap friendly, making $275K this year, and a modest $360K next season. That would be the biggest plus to keeping the youngster. Any other position, you'd look at age with Ernster 9 years younger than Sauerbrun, but with punters and kickers, they can go into their 40's easily, just look at Morten Anderson in Atlanta.
Will money be the determining factor? I don;t think so, but what could be is the fact Sauerbrun was suspended in the first place. Mike Shanahan is a coach that will give a plpayer 2nd and sometimes even a 3rd chance, Hell, he even brought T.O. in for a visit. But he also has little patience for a player that puts the team in a compromising situation. Shanahan virtually rescued Sauerbrun from Carolina, where his contstant run-in's with the law had worn out his welcome. Not only did Shanny give the Panthers a starting punter, but a 7th round draft pick as well. And even then, there were grumblings that Sauerbrun was involved in a steroid scandel, one of the Panthers to get a perscription from a doctor the week of the Super Bowl in 2003. How does Sauerbrun repay the Coach? Get busted for testing postive for Ephedra. A 4 gamer. The next indiscretion by Sauerbrun and he's done for a year. Can the Broncos afford to take that chance?
If the Broncos decide to keep Sauerbrun, and not keep Ernster on the roster, there is no doubt in my mind he won't make it through waivers. And I doubt Ernster would take an assignment to the practice squad anyway, knowing that he can kick in this league.
That leaves the Broncos 2 choices. The first, simply choose Ernster and give Sauerbrun his walking papers, thus sending another message to the team and league that Denver is not a place where multiple indiscretions will be tolerated. It also sends the message to the players that Shanny is going to keep the guys that give the team the best chance at winning, while also rewarding loyalty and effort. Let's not forget, though Ernster's salary may not be that high, the Broncos have invested a lot of time and money into his surgery and rehabilitation.
The second choice? Keep three kickers, as was the plan last season, with the intent of kicking Sauerbrin to the curb after he 2006 season, or before if he doesn't return form the suspension in good form. That is a big question mark, since Sauerbrun has not been able to work out with the team for 5 weeks.
You'll notice that both of my scenarios involve keeping Ernster to handle the kick-offs. I have not been blown away by his performance so far, but if Todd Sauerbrun has showed us anyhing, it has been he cannot be trusted or counted on, and to me, that is worth a yard in gross average.
photos courtesy of DenverBroncos.com