“You think you can be a great cornerback? Prove it.”
So far, he has proved it. He is on a quest to earn the big bucks this offseason, and he’s thriving. The clear star in the Broncos secondary, Rodgers-Cromartie has intercepted three passes and defended 15 (in fewer than 14 games).
He hasn’t batted an eye.
Jackson caught two passes for 34 yards against Rodgers-Cromartie, and Johnson hauled in just four for 63 yards (and Rodgers-Cromartie had an interception as well). These receivers have both eclipsed 1,300 yards this year, but neither succeeded against Rodgers-Cromartie.
Receivers haven’t been the only ones frustrated by Rodgers-Cromartie’s amazing work; quarterbacks have also had trouble against him. He has yielded a 67.8 opponent passer rating and a 44.1 opponent completion percentage, which leads the league. He also grades out as the NFL’s fifth-best overall corner, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
So, you could say he’s been a bargain.
How much does Rodgers-Cromartie deserve annually?
However, this offseason, he won’t come at a nice price. He's has proved his prowess, and consequently, teams will be all over him. In today’s pass-happy league, cornerbacks are integral, so he will have ample suitors.
But no matter what the price is and no matter which teams bid for Rodgers-Cromartie’s services, Denver must retain him.
Champ Bailey held down the role of Denver's top defensive back for years, but he handed over that honor this year. That's because he is aging rapidly and could be out of Denver and even retired at the conclusion of this season.
If he leaves, it would open a gaping hole at cornerback and create a need for an impact defensive player. If Rodgers-Cromartie left, the Broncos would need to do a lot and take a plethora of risks to fill his spot.
One of those risks would probably have to involve gambling in the draft, which the Broncos can’t afford to do. Their title window is closing as Peyton Manning’s age increases, and they can’t go off risk-taking at this stage.
Rodgers-Cromartie is undoubtedly as safe as the free-agent cornerback choices get, making him perfect for Denver. He's the glue preventing the Broncos secondary from falling apart, and the Broncos dearly need him.
That was proved when he succumbed to a shoulder injury in November. Without Rodgers-Cromartie, the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots combined to score 62 points in fewer than seven quarters.
Oh, and the Patriots were able to turn a 24-0 deficit into a win. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Rodgers-Cromartie left with an injury when the score was 24-0. The Patriots then outscored Denver 34-7.
The Broncos weren’t able to simply outscore the Patriots without a fully functional defense, and they won’t be able to do that in the playoffs. If Manning and the offense go cold, the defense would have to step up.
With a poor secondary, those games can't be won. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys, owners of a superb offense but an abysmal defense and a mediocre 8-7 record.
By retaining Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos could stay away from that path.
However, it would certainly cost a lucrative contract, and that's not something the Broncos can afford easily. Denver has other important players, such as Chris Harris, Eric Decker, Zane Beadles and Knowshon Moreno, hitting free agency.
It needs to sign these players as well. Luckily, it can sign most of them while also keeping Rodgers-Cromartie.
Harris is arguably the league’s best slot corner, but he’s unheralded and will come at a nice price. Denver almost certainly will keep him, and it should do the same with Beadles as well. He’s a decent all-around guard who won’t break the bank, and the same goes for the durable, trusted Moreno.
Should the Broncos attempt to retain both Decker and Rodgers-Cromartie?
However, Denver will likely have to choose between Rodgers-Cromartie and Decker. According to overthecap.com, the Broncos will have about $8 million to work with in cap space for next year. Obviously, the Broncos can increase that number by restructuring and terminating some contracts, which they will likely do.
Bailey would cost the Broncos $10 million if he were to remain on the roster, so the team will almost certainly try to restructure or terminate his deal. Chris Kuper is due to cost $6 million against the cap next year, and he’s a backup and frequently inactive. Joel Dreessen is arguably Denver’s worst tight end, and he’s due for nearly a $4 million cap hit.
Tampering with those deals could allow the team to make some splashes and re-sign key players, but Decker and Rodgers-Cromartie still can’t both be afforded easily if Denver wants to keep its other important free agents.
The Broncos will also be on the prowl for players from other teams, which makes Decker returning to the team unlikely.
Why? The wide receiver class is weak, and Decker has eclipsed 10 touchdowns and 1,000 yards for the second straight year. He’s clearly the best wide receiver on the market, and because mediocre receivers like Mike Williams have cashed in, he’s going to receive a monstrous payday.
So, the Broncos will likely have to choose. And because Rodgers-Cromartie is harder to replace, the Broncos must choose him.
Manning can make any receiver look good. Decker, for example, graded out as a below-average receiver (minus-4.6) with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at the helm in 2011. With Manning, he’s accumulated 23 touchdowns in his last two years.
Even if the Broncos were to start Andre Caldwell, another free agent or a rookie, it wouldn’t significantly dent the offensive production.
Caldwell has proven himself capable, and the Broncos have other options on the practice squad (notably Gerell Robinson). Plus, Manning already has Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. He isn’t short on quality targets, and Decker isn’t absolutely necessary to the Broncos’ success.
Is Rodgers-Cromartie replaceable?
However, the Broncos simply can’t replace Rodgers-Cromartie. The only other stellar corner on the market (besides Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie) is Brent Grimes, and he's unlikely to wind up a Bronco.
In other words, if the Broncos don’t re-sign Rodgers-Cromartie, their secondary would be depleted and in shambles.
Denver currently has a solid trio of corners, but all three could be in their last year as a Bronco. It needs to prevent that, and its first course of action should be signing Rodgers-Cromartie to a lucrative deal. He’s proven that he can stabilize Denver’s secondary and replace Bailey, and he’s proven himself worthy of a big deal.
And most importantly, he’s proven that it would be much harder for Denver to win without him.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).