With a coach on the hot seat, a quarterback-of-the-future to be found and a host of Bronco free agents to deal with, the offseason for Denver is going to be interesting to say the least.
And that could likely include breaking up one of the more iconic units - and certainly the best-named - in all of the NFL.
The No Fly Zone.
In danger of being grounded this offseason when contracts and salary cap hits will undoubtedly threaten this group, the end of the NFZ could be looming.
But if that’s a surprise to you, it certainly isn’t to the group’s fearless leader, Aqib Talib, who told Altitude 950 that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos moved on from him.
QUOTABLE: "Nothing would surprise me, I'm just going to leave it at that," - Aqib Talib to @VicLombardi on potential changes this offseason to the Broncos— Altitude 950 (@Altitude950) December 26, 2017
Talib - a veteran cornerback who came to the Broncos in 2014 as part of a John Elway coup to beef up the Broncos defense and give Peyton Manning some strength on the other side of the ball - has two years left on his contract with salary cap hits at $12 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2019.
Since the dead money on Talib’s contract is $1 million next season, the Broncos would save $11 million if they cut the 31-year-old cornerback - money the Broncos arguably need to go after some more needed positions (notably, quarterback).
But getting rid of this chain-yanking, butt-shooting fiery corner also means subtracting one of the most crucial players in the Broncos’ No. 3-ranked pass defense.
Talib was considered Pro Football Focus’ top coverage defender last season in which he posted a 49.5 passer rating against him and didn’t allow a single touchdown all season.
Although the cornerback has given up three touchdowns this season, he has still only allowed an average of just half a yard per snap while in coverage.
After shutting down virtually every big-time receiver over the past three years, the Talib-led NFZ has achieved hero status among teammates and opponents alike.
MHR’s Taylor Kothe put together an interesting table comparing the NFZ’s performances in 2015 and 2016. The secondary held playoff teams to an average of 250 passing yards in 2015 but just 200 yards per game in 2016. And in both seasons, the NFZ held playoffs QBs to an average completion percentage of 59.
A five-time Pro Bowler (earning a slot every season he was in Denver), Talib leads all NFL cornerbacks in interceptions (34) since 2008 when he entered the league and ranks fourth in the NFL for pick-sixes with 10. Additionally, his six pick-sixes with Denver put him atop the Broncos’ leaderboard in that category.
Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Woods said he has seen Talib play “tremendously well” since coming to Denver.
“Every year I’ve been here he’s played tremendously well for us against a lot of the No. 1 receivers from the other team,” said Woods, former defensive backs coach. “I feel like he still plays at that level, but when you get older, it’s a little bit harder to recover and he’s a veteran that is at that stage in his career. But I feel like he’s still playing at a high level for us.”
So what’s the right move for Elway here? Talib turns 32 in February and has possibly reached the peak of his game. His $11 million cap savings would be some nice padding heading into free agency, especially during an offseason where a few expensive quarterbacks are being sought after.
But he’s also a cornerstone of the No Fly Zone - or at least what’s left of it - and there is something to be said for leadership and consistency with an elite group that has been a staple for the defense.
The harsh reality of the NFL became clear this past fall, however, when T.J. Ward was suddenly cut by the Broncos and the No Fly Zone was down a man. Second-year safety Justin Simmons moved in to take Darian Stewart’s spot at free safety while Stewart switched over to strong safety to replace Ward. Bradley Roby and Will Parks also became more regular contributors to the No Fly Zone.
Finding a top talent like Talib doesn’t happen very often, and it would be folly to assume that Roby and Parks will easily fill in and keep the NFZ intact should No. 21 be cut.
But if you ask Talib and Chris Harris Jr., the true “NFZ” was dismantled before this season even started. And if you read much into his comments on Altitude 950, it seems he doesn’t expect to part of it next season.
If that is the case, you can bet his counterpart - and the other half of the best cornerback duo in the NFL - will miss Talib the most.
“We definitely have a lot of great teammates here that we’ve played together and have won a lot of games with each other," said Harris. "You never know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if we’re going to rebuild or are we trying to win a Super Bowl next year. We don’t know the plans. Everybody’s just trying to put good film out there on the field this week, go hard and be pros. We have defensive goals to finish No. 1 and that’s our goal.”
Would you like to see Elway keep Talib and save the strongest secondary duo in the NFL?
This poll is closed
Yes! We can find $11 million among other dead weight on this team.
Love Talib and his attitude, but it’s probably best to move on.
$11 million will go a long way in bolstering weaker positions.