Shaun Phillips was signed by the Denver Broncos to help chip in to a collective effort to replace premier pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil. He’s ended up replacing Dumervil superbly while also carrying the Broncos pass rush.
The veteran Phillips was thought to be washed-up, and even though he came up with 9.5 sacks in 2012, he garnered little interest on the market. He ended up signing with the Broncos during the NFL draft for a mere $1 million.
This offseason, he will command a bit more money.
Phillips had 10 sacks in the 2013 regular season (and two more in the divisional round). His sack numbers were nearly the same as they were in 2012, and he was still a bit inconsistent. (He had just one sack in the Broncos' last six games.)
However, he was much better against the run, and he was much more important as a pass-rusher. The Broncos have no one else with more than seven sacks (including the playoffs), so Phillips has definitely done a lot of the heavy lifting.
He’s had to do that because of Von Miller’s absence. In eight games without Miller, likely Denver's best defensive player, Phillips had 7.5 sacks. That amounts to 15 sacks over a 16-game season. Even without Miller's ability to wreak havoc on quarterbacks, the Broncos haven't suffered.
Next year, however, the Broncos will benefit from having the now-injured Miller. If the Broncos do re-sign Phillips and if Miller fully recovers from his ACL tear, Phillips would see favorable matchups and no double-teams.
That’s what Denver envisioned when it signed Phillips, but the duo didn’t end up working together extremely well in 2013. Phillips wasn't at his best when Miller played (he had just 4.5 sacks in nine games), which is a bit confusing. The sample size was small, and fatigue could have played a role (Miller played from Week 7 until Week 16), but the facts are the facts.
Still, if the Broncos could afford to re-sign Phillips, it would be great. But can they afford him?
Other teams wouldn’t love his inconsistency, but many teams could use his playmaking ability. Teams will also like that he rose to the occasion when the Broncos needed him to.
In other words, teams will want Phillips. And teams will offer him money.
The Broncos have to wonder if Phillips, who will be 33 at the start of the 2014 season, can live up to the big contract he’ll desire. He might not command a long-term deal, but he will still want money. Anyone who doesn't demand ample money after accumulating 10 or more sacks would be crazy.
Denver should go for Phillips if the price is right.
But unless Phillips is cheap, the Broncos won't be able to afford him, not with players such as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno entering impending free agents.
Moreno and Decker can be replaced, but the Broncos would love to keep them both. Rodgers-Cromartie, who defended 15 passes, absolutely must be re-signed (no matter the price). The same goes with the injured Chris Harris, a restricted free agent who rarely surrenders completions and big plays.
The Broncos can free up some cap space for these players by restructuring or terminating some contracts (we're looking at you, Champ Bailey). Players like Robert Ayers, Wesley Woodyard, Zane Beadles or some of the aforementioned players could be playing in a different uniform next season. Yes, Phillips could be as well.
Quite frankly, he should be.
The Broncos already have their playmaker in Miller. They can re-sign Ayers, who has the seventh-highest pass-rush productivity rating among 37 defensive ends and isn’t even known for his pass-rushing skills, at a better price. They can then use Derek Wolfe, Jeremy Mincey (if he returns) and potentially Malik Jackson to fill Phillips' spot.
Phillips has been huge for the Broncos this year, but the Broncos have more important needs. Ayers is an extremely underrated player who the Broncos should certainly keep, and he is more affordable and arguably better. Plus he’s younger and is a perfect complement to the sometimes inconsistent Miller.
If Phillips ends up giving the Broncos a discount or doesn't receive the interest he should, the Broncos should bring him back. But if there's a bidding war, the Broncos would be wise not to participate.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).