One of the biggest issues of Denver's offseason has concerned what the team will do once linebacker D.J. Williams is eligible to return from suspension.
Williams faces a six-game ban for having violated the league's policy against performance-enhancing drugs, has been relegated to inaction throughout training camp, and was not in uniform for the Broncos' scrimmage yesterday at SAF@MH.
Complicating matters is that Williams may face an even longer ban pending his upcoming DUI trial.
Fifth-year veteran Wesley Woodyard has operated in Williams's starting weakside linebacker spot for the entirety of camp.
Also adding to the intrigue is Denver's Week 7 bye; as it now stands, the 30-year-old would be allowed to rejoin the team during the bye week, and play Week 8 when the Broncos host the Saints, a team ravaged by its own suspensions thanks to the recent bounty scandal.
If D.J.'s DUI trial, scheduled to take place later this month, were to result in a conviction, it's reasonable to expect the league to extend his suspension beyond the current six games. And since bye weeks do not count as time served toward suspensions, a theoritical seven-game ban would make Williams ineligible through Week 8. Likewise, an eight-game penalty would mean D.J. would not be able to return to action until Week 10, and that's even if he's in good enough shape to do so.
Naturally, the situation has prompted several questions:
Will the former first-round draft pick be handed his starting gig back once eligible? (Probably not)
Will he have to earn it back, and will he even be afforded the opportunity?
Why hasn't the team already cut the talented, but underperforming and boneheaded player, what with the $5M salary he's due this season?
It's been our contention that the Broncos have plenty of time to make a decision on the former Miami Hurricanes star, and thanks to MaxDenver writer Andrew Mason, IAOFM has learned that the team has even longer than previously figured.
According to Mason, the Broncos will have until after D.J.'s suspension, whenever it does end, to make a decision on the ninth-year linebacker without financial consideration.
NFL players are considered "vested veterans" once they've been credited with four accrued NFL seasons. Each year, under normal (non-suspension) circumstances, the base salary of a vested veteran essentially becomes guaranteed when he's on an NFL roster Week 1. If he's cut after that point, he is able to claim his full salary for that season, although he can only do so once during his career.
But with D.J. currently banned six games for his non-human urine submission, and perhaps more for his pending DUI trial, he will not be afforded this vested veteran guarantee until after he's done serving his suspension.
Under the terms of the six-year extension he signed in September of 2008, Williams is scheduled to earn $5M this season and $6M in 2013, the final year of the deal. There is apparently no more guaranteed money in the contract, and according to our calculations, D.J.'s cap number each year includes $900K more than his salary thanks to a $4.5M "signing" bonus paid out in 2009.
With that bonus factored in, a release of Williams would result in a cap hit of $900K in each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but would save the Broncos the $3.235M salary he'd be due this season with a six-game ban ($5M divided by 17 weeks, times 11) and his $6M salary next year in terms of both cash and cap.
In conclusion, Denver has more than two months to make a decision on Williams, while Woodyard has that same window to prove he can be depended upon to hold down the starting Will linebacker job and remain healthy. If not, the Broncos will have the option to bring D.J. back without having had to pay him for those first six (or more) weeks. While he's suspended, he won't even count toward the 53-man roster limit, either, and during camp, he has not been taking all-important snaps away from other linebackers.
So as much as we've criticized D.J.'s play on the field and actions off of it in recent years, there's just no reason for the Broncos to get rid of him at this juncture. Doing so would be as dumb as driving drunk (on multiple occasions, to boot) despite free access to a car service, or tweeting out a page of the team's playbook, not that anyone would ever do such a thing.