The news that the Denver Broncos released Matt Prater Friday dropped like a bombshell for some, but we've mentioned this possibility several times since Prater's suspension came down (especially after the Broncos signed the strong-legged Brandon McManus). Let's break down the Broncos' reasoning, as far as we know it.
Prater's release saves #Broncos $3.25 million off '15 salary cap -- Prater had one year left on deal will be $812,500 dead money next year.— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) October 3, 2014
Prater was the 2nd-highest paid kicker in the NFL, according to spotrac, and the Broncos paid him $10 million over 7 seasons. That's a lot of cheddar. And it was only getting stinkier.
Prater was owed over $4 million in 2015, and he was already set to be one of the highest paid Broncos in 2014 at a pricetag of $3 million (just behind T.J. Ward and just above Terrance Knighton). Was Prater worth that much? No. He was always a little overpaid. The Broncos cleaned up their cap by releasing Prater now, saving them room to sign the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas this offseason (we hope).
As far as the timing of this move goes, we've learned that Prater would have been owed termination pay if he was still on the roster as of Saturday, a note first reported by 104.3 FM The Fan in Denver and that we were able to confirm with a team source. While the exact financial ramifications are unknown (we don't think the Broncos would have owed him his full-salary, vested veteran guarantee), they were enough to cause the Broncos to pull the trigger now.
Of course, the Broncos never would have released Prater if he hadn't been suspended in the first place. It is our understanding that Prater is still one sip of alcohol away from at least a one-year ban. As GM, John Elway has to weigh risks vs. reward, and the risk of Prater slipping again just couldn't be justified.
There's a bit of a culture issue going on in Denver when it comes to alcohol and substance abuse, still lingering over the team following the suspensions of front office members Tom Heckert and Matt Russell for separate DUI charges a year ago. Wes Welker's suspension for allegedly taking Adderall (or Molly, as one report said) didn't help matters.
Does releasing Prater clear the air of these lingering clouds? No. But it helps.
Let's pause for a minute and remember that Matt Prater hasn't made a clutch, long, game-winning kick in awhile - his only game-winner in 2013 was from 28 yards against Dallas, and I could have made that (okay, Stefan Fatsis could have made that). He missed a field goal in the 2012 playoff game that ended in a Broncos loss to the Ravens - remember that?
Furthermore, his execution in the preseason and training camp this year merited pause. Prater didn't look great in camp by most accounts (I was there and remember thinking he seemed off); that was compounded by his misses in the preseason during Week 3. Prater later admitted that his looming suspension affected his play during that game and presumably training camp, but that begs the question:
Is that really something you want your kicker to admit?
Excited to be staying in Denver and help bring a championship back to Bronco Country #UnitedInOrange #HailHelga— Brandon McManus (@thekidmcmanus) October 3, 2014
Finally, the reason the Broncos let Prater go was because they've seen enough to believe in Brandon McManus.
"I've been very impressed with him. He's got great potential," John Fox said. "He's kicked really every ball out of the end zone as far as kickoffs; he's 3-for-3 in field goals. He's 100 percent extra points. So we feel really good and part of any football decision is you go with who you think gives you the best chance right now."
Let's be clear: this isn't a "football decision" outside of the fact that it's a "decision that affects a football team." But the Broncos believe McManus has untapped potential. Why not see what's there?
McManus hasn't been tested, it is true. He hasn't had to make a clutch field goal or even a really long one yet. But he's nailing deep kicks in practice, according to his teammates.
"He does it in practice," punter Britton Colquitt said. "He has plenty of practices where he doesn't miss one."
That's the risk the Broncos assume with McManus - will his practice reps become game successes?
The Broncos weighed that risk, as well as the rewards, when they decided that Prater's risk-reward ratio no longer measured up.