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Cash Cow: Is it win big or blow it up for the 2018 Broncos?

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Is there a rebuild around the corner? John Elway could be on the verge of starting over with the Denver Broncos.

Denver Broncos Introduce Vance Joseph - News Conference
Elway has a lot of options in front of him.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

So this week I thought we’d try something a little different; i.e., my brother and I are being reunited after two years apart, so I struggled to find time to deep dive into tape. Welcome to “Cash Cow”, GIF Horse’s illegitimate cousin and a fun exercise where I get to dig out my GM hat and provide Broncos Country with thoughts and perspective on the 2018-2020 Denver Broncos as currently constructed.

Oh and GIFs, I promise I won’t forget a few of those. Let’s dive in.

The two-year amendment on a four-year plan.

First a look back. Denver is coming off a Super Bowl championship and Elway’s eager to keep the key pieces in place, resigning Brandon Marshall and CJ Anderson to go with the recently extended Derrick Wolfe. Two tackles are signed to solidify the offensive line and the Broncos will resign Darian Stewart and Emmanuel Sanders during the 2016 season. It all comes together financially because Paxton Lynch was just drafted and rookie QB contracts offer THE biggest bargain in sports so long as the guy pans out. By the time Lynch is up for an extension, it’s 2020 and there’s oodles of cap space to utilize.

Of course, Lynch lost his starting job to Trevor Siemian and here we are, two years in with the lion’s share of those contracts hanging on the books. Most of the team’s core pieces are older veterans hovering around 30 years old. Rebuilding is an ugly word when 80% of the roster is ready to win now, so Elway signed Case Keenum to the kind of short term deal that fits perfectly into that window while providing Elway an opportunity to pivot at a more opportune time: in 2020.

So here we are, hopefully chasing another Lombardi.

What changes could come in 2019?

As of now the Denver Broncos will have either $4 or $16.5 Million as they enter the 2019 offseason. That’s a huge disparity, but what makes it even nuttier is just how much flexibility Elway has built into the contract structure.

I did a lot of digging into the numbers to see which contracts could realistically be altered in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. (I may have a problem. I love doing this kind of stuff.) Here is a short list of the starters and key reserves who may not play for the 2019 Broncos.

Bradley Roby – UFA in 2019.

Darian Stewart – $2.8 million in dead money if he’s cut vs $3.6 million in cap savings.

Tramaine Brock – UFA in 2019.

Demaryius Thomas – $3.5 million in dead money if he’s cut vs $14 million in cap savings.

Emmanuel Sanders – $2.68 million in dead money if he’s cut vs $12.9 million in cap savings.

Jared Veldheer – UFA in 2019.

Max Garcia – UFA in 2019.

Billy Turner – UFA in 2019.

Menelik Watson – Some disparity in reports. A team option in 2019. $1.3 million in dead money if he’s cut vs $6.1 million in cap savings.

Ronald Leary – $1.75 million in dead money if he’s cut vs $7.6 million in cap savings.

Derek Wolfe – $2.37 million in dead money if he’s cut vs $8.5 million in cap savings.

Clinton McDonald – No dead money if cut. $4 million cap number.

Domata Peko – UFA in 2019.

Shelby Harris – Some disparity in reports. Either he’s an RFA or a UFA in 2019.

Zach Kerr – UFA in 2019.

Brandon Marshall – $4 million in dead money vs $5 million in cap savings.

Todd Davis – $2 million in dead money vs $3 million in cap savings.

Obviously that list doesn’t include guys like Matt Paradis, Shane Ray, and Shaquil Barrett. They’re status going forward is far more dependent on their own performance and cost than the Broncos’ record next year. I’d also be shocked if Von Miller or Chris Harris weren’t on next year’s team as they’re both Hall of Fame talents at priority positions. Lastly, Paxton Lynch will finish his rookie deal here unless someone offers Elway more than a ham sandwich. It makes little sense to cut him.

That’s a ton of guys, and I doubt they all go. So who’s most likely playing their last year in orange and blue?

Probably gone

Menelik Watson is the first guy that comes to mind. Last year, he allowed nine sacks by the time of his season-ending injury, which was the highest number of sacks allowed by any tackle at that point. Watson, you’ll remember, was signed in part because the Broncos 2016 signing of Donald Stephenson was such a disaster. The Donald went to Denver on the same day Mitchell Schwartz signed with Kansas City. One year and a day later, Watson came to Denver. Watson currently makes $600 thousand less than Schwartz, who is arguably the best right tackle in football.

Things never really got better for Watson (75)

Neither Garcia or Turner seem likely to stick at this point as neither has been particularly impressive. Unless one of these three have some sort of career year that offers a glimpse of hope in the midst what have otherwise been disappointing careers, I would expect them to hit the market.

On the other side of the ball, one has to hope Peko, McDonald and Brock rented homes rather than buying them. All three of these older free agents are holding positions that younger guys have been drafted to. Thus, these young guys could potentially take these positions over. It’s just the nature of the business.

Toss-up

I’m one of many who believed the 2016 Broncos were a quarterback away from true contention. In 2017, I hopped off that train because of moves both made and passed on, but every time I’ve watched tape, the team certainly shows flashes of what could be if the Broncos had a little more injury luck and a steadier arm throwing the ball. If Case Keenum is that guy, many of the following are probably safe, but it bears monitoring.

Darian Stewart is in the most danger. The addition of Cravens could make Stewart expendable and he’s reaching that age where declining secondary players often hit a cliff. He was markedly average last year and subpar in coverage, yet he’ll be paid better than all but 10 safeties in 2018.

The most impressive pick Stewart (the deep safety here) made in 2017.

I hate to be the boy who cried Wolfe all offseason, but Derek is another veteran who I think is facing the ax. This isn’t entirely his own fault, of course. He’s had a couple of scary injuries over the years and was never the dominant force that Malik Jackson was in 2015. Rather, he was the “bargain” resigning that Elway elected for when it became painfully apparent Jackson would command a Brinks truck in free agency.

At the same time, it’s hard to ignore that Wolfe will make more than all but three other Broncos in 2018. As I alluded to last week, Shelby Harris badly outplayed Wolfe a year ago and should be a priority next offseason.

Not to kick a man when he’s down, but Wolfe (95) did little to impress last season.

Got to think health is the big question for Jared Veldheer. Elway seems keen on cute gambles on the right side and the former Cardinal could be the bargain he’s looking for. He and Zach Kerr are both players I plan to look at more for GIF Horse in the future. The former Colt was actually the best pass rusher on the 2017 Broncos by Pro Football Focus’ grade.

Probably safe

The deal for Bradley Roby will speak volumes about how Elway and the Broncos front office sees Chris Harris long term. As of now, Harris makes less than 20 cornerbacks in the league and he’s long represented one of the best contract bargains in professional sports. What’s more, since the 2014 addition of Aqib Talib, Elway has allocated roughly $20 million to $25 million for the cornerback position annually.

Harris will be 29 in June and his contract expires after 2019. If the Broncos throw Kyle Fuller kind of money at Roby, it may be a sign that 2020 will be the year Harris leaves. Let’s hope not. He’s a revolutionary talent, the first Hall of Fame slot defender in NFL history.

Case Keenum would have to completely tank for Elway to separate him from Demaryius Thomas, who’s arguably a top 10 player at the position. Sanders is a bit riskier because he was reportedly floated in trade rumors this year and offers a ton of cap relief if released or traded next offseason; ultimately, I think he sticks if the Broncos are contending in the playoffs in 2018.

As for Keenum and Thomas in 2020? I think one, or both, are gone because they’re both currently on deals that are set to expire after the 2019 season and they have much cheaper replacements on the roster. Enjoy this dynamic duo while you can, guys and girls.

Still Grazin’? Some other fun nerd facts.

  1. Even with Case Keenum’s new deal, there are 19 teams spending more at QB.
  2. No one is spending less on running backs in 2018.
  3. Despite the questions on the OL, Elway is spending more on the unit than all but eight teams. Thank Menelik Watson. Only Ron Leary is paid more...
  4. One sign the WR crew is going to get overhauled soon is that Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders account for 12% of the teams cap.
  5. Consider this another sign that Derek Wolfe’s contract is untenable long term—he makes more than twice as much as every other defensive end on the current roster.
  6. The DT position is built with a bridge—Peko and McDonald make $8.2 million between them, but no other tackle on the roster passed $650 thousand.
  7. The Broncos currently have 14 linebackers on the roster. Of those, Miller, Marshall, Davis, Barret, Ray and Chubb are locks. Every one of them makes $2.9 million or more. Only Miller and Chubb have deals that would be prohibitive to move after the 2018 season.
  8. If the Broncos move on from Darian Stewart after the 2018 season, it would only cost them roughly two-fifths of what Watson will make this year.
Stewart (Deep here) had one other pick in 2017, a halfback pass that I could have caught.