The catalyst for the performance was star linebacker Von Miller.
The fifth-year playmaker earned Super Bowl MVP honors for his brilliance, capping off a terrific postseason run with five tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He finished the 2015 NFL playoffs with 11 tackles, five sacks and one interception on top of the numerous times he pressured opposing quarterbacks.
Miller’s timing couldn’t have been better, as he is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. There’s no chance the Broncos allow him to hit the market, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the team will franchise-tag him if no long-term deal is struck.
This would usually mean the team has all of the leverage, but Miller is in a unique position to negotiate.
Coming off a Super Bowl run where the Broncos desperately needed their defense to come through as they did, Miller is the best player on the team. But he’s also young and just entering his physical prime.
At 26 years old, Miller will be a building block for the next five or more years.
We’ve seen elite pass-rushers age gracefully in recent history, including Miller’s teammate DeMarcus Ware. With that in mind, Miller should approach negotiations looking for a seven-year contract. This would provide him with the most long-term security since a deal so long would have considerable salary-cap implications through three or four seasons.
The argument for Miller to receive the largest contract in NFL history for a defender isn’t just based off projection, though.
He’s put himself in rare company through his on-field achievements. The former No. 2 overall pick has exceeded his lofty draft status and expectations to become a top-three defensive player in the NFL.
Of the 25 active players with at least 60 career regular-season sacks, only J.J. Watt and Ware had more than Miller through their first five seasons. Watt never hit the open market in 2014 but signed the biggest contract for a defender at the time with his six-year, $100 million pact. He was 25 at the time of the signing.
Since then, two other defenders have bested Watt’s deal.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston signed a six-year deal worth $101 million before the 2015 season. Miller had 0.5 more sacks than Houston entering the season and offers more versatility than him.
Although Houston is similarly terrific as a pass-rusher, he can’t drop back into coverage and lock down opposing tight ends like Miller regularly does. Miller is the ultimate defensive weapon and has proved that every season through his Super Bowl 50 performance.
Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh did reach the open market and benefited greatly. The leverage Suh had from multiple bidders is something Miller will not have. Suh signed for six years, $114 million. His annual average value in that contract is $19 million.
According to CBS Sports' Joel Corry, Miller will look to best that with the Broncos.
There are multiple benchmarks Miller should aim for with his new deal. The first is to surpass Suh’s contract, of course. He and Watt are the two best defenders in the NFL, and the statistics prove it.
But he’s also hitting free agency at the perfect time.
The other significant mark Miller should go for is the most guaranteed money in the league. Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus received a whopping 62 percent of his $96 million deal guaranteed. The table below shows how that compares with the other top defensive player contracts.
|Player||Year Signed||Age at Signing||Years||Total Value||Average Per Year||Guaranteed Amount||Guaranteed %|
Predicting contract extensions and free-agent deals is generally not that hard if we use comparisons and statistics to project new deals. Some factors like unknown injuries or character concerns can lead to some fluctuation, but top positional players will get paid similarly to their peers more often than not.
The market is about to explode as the NFL continues to increase revenue, and we’re already seeing the effects.
With all due respect to those players, they were overpaid based on old contract comparisons. Curry is being paid as a top-12 defensive end and Ertz as a top-four tight end. The league is flush with cap space and the demand outweighs the supply for quality players, so the old contract comparisons no longer apply.
The top of the talent pool will benefit as well.
Specifically Miller since he is so young and has a stellar track record. His only two blemishes came in 2013 when he tore his ACL and was suspended for six games.
He’s missed just one game outside of 2013, and that was in his rookie season, so durability isn’t a concern either.
It seems safe to say those issues are in the rear-view mirror. Miller had 25 sacks in the last two seasons since returning from his torn ACL. Then he was instrumental in breaking the spirit of 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50.
The other positive for Miller is the current state of the Broncos roster. Even if quarterback Peyton Manning retires this offseason, this is a team expected to be in the hunt again next year. The team has a handful of veterans in the twilight of their careers and can retain most of its free agents with proper planning.
There’s no way Denver can replace the production Miller provides. It's fortunate to have one of the two best defensive forces in the NFL, and the nature of the business means he will be handsomely rewarded.
The only question is what the final price tag will be.
With the baseline set from Suh’s deal for average annual value at $19 million per year and Dareus’ record guarantee at 62 percent of the total deal, we can project Miller’s asking price off those numbers. A six-year contract would merely match Suh’s deal, though, and another milestone is attainable for Miller.
If Miller really wants to set the record, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s deal is the standard right now. Cutler has the highest total dollar value in the NFL with a seven-year, $126.7 million contract. That’s an average of $18.1 million per season.
Would Miller be willing to take slightly less money per year and a seventh season to best Cutler’s record deal?
A seven-year deal with an average of $18.5 million per year and 62 percent of the contract guaranteed would certainly be a lofty goal. The total value of the contract would be $129.5 million with $80 million guaranteed. This is the contract Miller and his representatives should demand.
The Broncos would actually benefit from this contract as well. They would receive a slight per-year discount by giving the higher guaranteed dollar amount and a seventh season. If Miller were to play out his franchise tag instead, he could see $20 million-a-year offers with all of the cash sitting on the market next year.
This is a never-ending cycle in which free agents will continue to one-up their peers as the cap continues to skyrocket.
In just two or three years, our proposed seven-year, $129.5 million contract for Miller won’t seem as cumbersome for such a premier player. That will be the time for the next generation of elite defenders to cash in similarly.
At this rate, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald may be the next defensive superstar to break Miller’s defensive contract records.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.