The Denver Broncos will enter the offseason with little wiggle room under the salary cap. This problem is created by a few big contracts, none larger than the $17.5 million cap number Peyton Manning has in 2014.
The financial freedom they had in 2013 could be quickly evaporated in 2014.
They have a few big-name players like Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (along with others), who are set to be unrestricted free agents. Between navigating those contract negotiations, signing other free agents, signing draft picks and undrafted rookies, there is little room for wasted money in 2014.
The Broncos will still be in a Super Bowl window in 2014. So long as Manning is their quarterback, the team will be championship contenders. In order to make sure they compete at the highest level, the Broncos need to keep and sign (and draft) the correct players.
Here's an overview of Denver’s cap situation, as well as thoughts on where the money should be spent.
Creating Wiggle Room
According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today Sports, the 2013 NFL salary cap of $123 million will likely increase by 2.68 percent to $126.3 million—providing Denver with an extra $3.3 million in cap space right off the bat.
The Broncos also have nearly $9.5 million of dead money from the 2013 season that will be coming off the books, according to Spotrac.
“Dead money” refers to guaranteed money that a team still has to pay out to former players.
For example, ex-Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil counted for $4.8 million against the 2013 cap, even though he was no longer with the team thanks to “FaxGate.” That money was still guaranteed to Dumervil, and thus it went against the Broncos' cap in 2013.
That brings to total of $12.8 million in extra cap space.
Next, the Broncos will need to make some cuts.
Champ Bailey may be cut after a disappointing, injury-riddled season in 2013.
He has a $10 million cap number in 2014, but there is zero guaranteed money for Bailey this year. That means the Broncos could cut him and free up an extra $10 million of cap space.
Chances are the team will ask Bailey to take a pay cut. Either that, or they will release him with the intention of signing him back at a more cap-friendly deal.
Chris Kuper is another player who is likely to be cut. Kuper is due $5.9 million in 2014, and only $1.8 million will count as dead money. That is a saving for the Broncos of $4.1 million.
Veteran tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are both possible candidates for getting cut, or at the very least contract restructuring. If both are cut, the Broncos would save about $5.5 million between the two.
If only these four players are cut, the Broncos would have $19.5 million in extra cash, bringing their total space to somewhere around $32.3 million.
Ryan Clady will see his cap number drop in 2014. He counted $12.6 million against the cap in 2013, but this upcoming season that number will drop to $8.6 million. This is a saving of $4 million, which brings the extra space total for the Broncos to a potential $36.3 million.
Next, the Broncos need to spend some of that money.
While Clady’s cap number will decrease in 2014, there are a few big-money Broncos who will see their salaries inflated in the new league year.
Wes Welker will see his cap number rise from $4.1 million to $8 million in 2014. Louis Vasquez will see an increase from $3.2 million to $7.2 million in 2014. Von Miller will see a slight increase in his cap number, from $4.9 million in 2013 to $6.6 million in 2014. The combined increase between these three players is around $9.6 million.
Subtract that figure from the $36.3 million potential cap space, and that leaves $26.7 million.
Next up, the Broncos need to sign their draft picks.
If they win the Super Bowl, then they will have the No. 32 selection in the first-round. This would be followed by (approximately) the 32nd pick in each additional round.
The Broncos have all seven of their draft picks for 2014 at this time. Below is the cap hit from those same picks in the 2013 NFL draft, according to Spotrac:
Round 1 (32): Matt Elam, Baltimore ($1.2 million)
Round 2 (62): Christine Michael, Seattle (from Baltimore) ($615,000)
Round 3 (94): Brandon Williams, Baltimore ($533,000)
Round 4 (129): John Simon, Baltimore ($501,000)
Round 5 (165): Sam Martin, Detroit (from Baltimore through Seattle) ($445,000)
Round 6 (200): Kapron Lewis-Moore, Baltimore ($427,000)
Round 7 (247): Baltimore ($416,000)
Total: $4.137 million
Subtracted from the $26.7 million, that leaves around $22.5 million in potential cap space.
The Broncos may restructure or extend players that are possible cuts due to their salary. Instead of cutting guys like Bailey or Tamme, the team may instead choose to change the terms of their current contracts. The $22.5 million figure is a rough number, but it shows that the Broncos will have a little bit of money to play with in 2014.
How Should the Money Be Spent?
Of course, the totals I’ve calculated above are not 100 percent accurate, but it gives us an idea of what may be coming from Denver this offseason.
The Broncos have got enough room to try to keep at least two of their three big-name free agents.
Between Rodgers-Cromartie, Decker and Moreno, I would give top priority to the cornerback. Signing Rodgers-Cromartie to a long-term deal would be wise for many reasons.
The contract he’s seeking will likely be less than what Darrelle Revis got from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. Revis signed a six-year, $96 million deal last year, but that came with zero guaranteed money. Rodgers-Cromartie won’t reach those numbers, but he could essentially get a cap number similar to what Bailey would, if he’s kept in 2014 ($10 million).
By signing one player, their cap space would nearly be cut in half. The new number to assume is $12.5 million.
I reached out to Broncos fans on Twitter, and most agreed with me that Rodgers-Cromartie is the more valuable asset.
@cecillammey To answer your question tho, DRC is more important considering the age of champ and lack of depth at secondary.— Rodi (@BluenorangeFTW) January 9, 2014
@cecillammey DRC and its not even close...— Jeffrey Brink (@jbnuggets) January 9, 2014
@cecillammey I'd keep Cromartie. Manning can make a receiver out of anyone.— Beau Shaw (@720beauCBS) January 9, 2014
@cecillammey DRC by a mile. I think Decker is gone anyway. Someone will pay him 8-10 mill per year. Too much.— Mike G (@Bronco_Mike251) January 9, 2014
There were a few fans wanting to keep Decker (or both).
@cecillammey Decker, Manning likes stability in his receiving core and love Decker.— Doug Nelson (@dnel0780) January 9, 2014
Decker would get the next priority for me, but it may be tough to compete with the other offers he’s likely to get when (if) he hits the open market.
He could get offers somewhat similar to what Mike Wallace received from the Miami Dolphins. Wallace signed a five-year $60 million deal with the Dolphins last offseason, and $30 million of that contract was guaranteed. Last year, Wallace had a cap number of only $3.2 million. However, that number rockets to $17.25 million in 2014.
What complicates things further is that the Broncos will have to attempt to re-sign Demaryius Thomas before his contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. It may come down to an either/or situation. When push comes to shove, I would prefer Thomas (even at a likely inflated price) over Decker.
Decker and his wife Jesse have said before on ESPN Denver that they both want to stay in the Mile High City. Broncos fans are hoping the team can do some salary cap gymnastics to keep Decker (and eventually, Thomas) around for the foreseeable future.
There may be little cap room for the Broncos to sign Moreno, if they somehow get deals done for both Rodgers-Cromartie and Decker. This would make Montee Ball the team’s lead back in 2014, and they would likely add another player at that position in the 2014 NFL draft.
In addition to unrestricted free agents, the Broncos have to match potential offers coming in for guys like Chris Harris and Mitch Unrein. With the way he’s played in 2013, there may be a team interested in offering Harris a deal too sweet for the Broncos to match.
This offseason is full of difficult decisions.
The Broncos want to maintain the team strength they’ve assembled over the last two years. They are one of the best teams in the NFL, and they want to stay on top of the mountain as long as they can.
It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of tough calls the Broncos make in 2014.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.