You Got Served: 2013 Broncos salary cap and free agency primer - Part 1

Happy Monday, friends.  We’re on the other side of the Pro Bowl now, with only a who-gives-a-damn Super Bowl left to go.  For today, I decided to start putting together some salary cap and free agency ideas, so we can all start getting our minds around what’s to come.  There’s already a bunch of speculation out there about who the Broncos should sign or trade for, and most of it is silly.

Today, we’re going to be serious, and we’re going to dismiss all of the delusions of grandeur that a lot of fans and reporters have.  A football team has to plan for both the short term, as well as the long term, and the long-term planning that the Broncos face doesn’t allow for the big splash signings that get people excited.

Let’s start by doing some math, and by understanding how the Broncos currently sit structurally within the constraints of the salary cap.  The cap in 2013 is expected to be around $121 million, and the Broncos currently look like they’ll have $18.5 million at the beginning of the NFL year.  It’s easy to think that they can just go out and spend $18.5 million in average annual value on free agents, but it’s not that simple.

If you think structurally about the Broncos, they’re very star-heavy.  Here are the 2013 cap numbers for their five highest-paid players:

 

Player Cap number
Peyton Manning $20,000
Elvis Dumervil $12,500
Champ Bailey $10,500
D.J. Williams $6,900
Von Miller $5,300
Total $55,200
Total (excluding Williams) $48,300


Let’s remove Williams, because I think he’s probably going to be cut, and make a mental note that the top four players on the team total $48.3 million of cap room.  That’s 40% of the salary cap in four players, and you still need to account for 47 more, (since only the top 51 count against the cap).

The Broncos have a marquee free agent of their own this year in Ryan Clady, and he’s going to command big money.  Let’s assume for the moment that the Broncos use the franchise tag on him.  That’ll be $9.7 million, and they’re up to 48% of their cap on five players.

It’s worse than it seems, though, because they’re getting an artificial discount on Miller, due to his being on his rookie contract.  If he were being paid what he’s worth, his cap number would be around $15 million.  The Broncos can’t even talk about extending him until after this season, due to the terms of last year’s CBA. 

For all intents and purposes, the Broncos need to consider Miller a $15 million player in the out years of their spending plan.  They could sign one player for one year at $10 million, but after 2013, they’re going to need that $10 million of space.  Top of the market players who command $10 million salaries don’t tend to sign for one year at a time.

In a structural sense, Clady pretty much has to be the Broncos’ last high-salary guy, or the middle of the roster is going to get hollow pretty quick.  If you brought in another big-money guy, you’d suddenly have to let a lot of near-Pro Bowl quality starters walk for middle-class deals elsewhere, because you can’t afford them.  I’m talking about guys like Zane Beadles, Eric Decker, Wesley Woodyard, and Chris Harris.

The cold hard reality is that this team can afford five highly-paid guys, and maybe a sixth on a one-year deal.  So when you start hearing names like Darrelle Revis and Wes Welker bandied about, you’d be wise to forget about them. 

Are you letting Clady walk so that you can sign a 32-year-old slot guy?  Do Clady and Chris Kuper both go so you can pay Revis quarterback money?  If you’re saying yes to these questions, you should probably stick to fantasy football.

As for the question of re-signing Clady, I don’t take it as a given, especially in the sense of a long-term deal.  Left tackles with great feet are hard to find, so it’s considered a premium position.  Lots of teams have been playing in Super Bowls without elite LTs, though.  It makes me think that maybe scarcity of the resource doesn’t necessarily translate to value, vis-à-vis winning at the highest level, as much as people have convinced us it does.

In the specific case of the Broncos, Peyton Manning is as good as any QB ever at knowing exactly where he’s going with the ball pre-snap, and getting it out quickly.  He proved for years in Indianapolis that he’s just fine playing behind average (or worse) LTs.

If I were running the Broncos, I’d be planning to definitely franchise Clady, unless he wants to sign a team-favorable long-term deal.  I wouldn’t go for a 2013 cap number that’s one dollar above the franchise amount, though.  I’d offer him something on the order of five years, $56 million, with a $5 million signing bonus, and $35.1 million guaranteed, and I’d structure it like this:

 

Year Salary Prorated Bonus Cap
2013 $8,700 (fully guaranteed) $1,000 $9,700
2014 $9,300 (fully guaranteed) $1,000 $10,300
2015 $10,100 (fully guaranteed) $1,000 $11,100
2016 $11,000 ($2M guaranteed) $1,000 $12,000
2017 $11,900 $1,000 $12,900
Total $51,000 $5,000 $56,000
AAV $11,200    


If Clady didn’t like it, he’d be playing for the franchise tag, and the decision would be deferred for a year.  The benefits for the team of the structure I propose are that they don’t overspend the franchise tag in year one, and that it’s palatable as either a four- or five-year deal.  If Clady’s play has slipped by 2017, which is certainly possible, you can cut him, and not pay the $11.9 million salary at the end.  

If you're wondering why the signing bonus is so low, it's because the Broncos have been low-balling them as a cash-management strategy.  It's hard for them to write a check for $30 million all at one time, and they'd rather pay out most of the guarantees as salary in early years.  i think that the $11.2 million AAV and $35.1 million guarantee numbers are in the right neighborhood, after Clady turned down $10 million AAV, and $28 million in guarantees before the season.

With Clady settled, you can move on to thinking about who gets released for cap relief, and/or lack of performance.  I think that Williams ($6 million in 2013 savings), Joe Mays ($3.5 million), and Matt Prater (only about a $250K savings, after his signing bonus is accelerated and netted against his 2013 salary) make the best candidates. 

Let’s say all three of them go, and Clady plays for a $9.7 million cap number, because he got franchised prior to the start of the league year.  Maybe he signs long-term, maybe not.  Here’s where you end up:

 

Starting cap room $18,500
Ryan Clady (franchise number) $(9,700)
D.J. Williams relief $6,000
Joe Mays relief $3,500
Matt Prater relief $250
Updated cap room $18,550


The Broncos can pay for Clady by getting rid of two linebackers who contributed very little in 2012, and a kicker who had a pretty atrocious season as well.  That seems like a worthwhile deal to me.  There are a couple of kickers I have in mind in the 2013 Draft who’d be upgrades, and you’re losing almost nothing with the two linebackers being gone.

Prior to the start of the NFL year, in our scenario, the Broncos have retained their marquee free agent, and let go of some “name > game” guys.  They’re just about exactly where they started in terms of cap room.  The following Broncos players are set to be free agents come March:

 

Player Role Type
Justin Bannan Starting DT UFA
Keith Brooking Starting MLB UFA
David Bruton Key special teamer and backup safety UFA
Dan Koppen Backup center UFA
Jim Leonhard Sub-package safety UFA
Tracy Porter Backup CB UFA
Brandon Stokley Starting slot WR UFA
Kevin Vickerson Starting DT UFA
Matt Willis Backup WR UFA
Lance Ball Backup RB RFA
Chris Clark Backup OT RFA
Britton Colquitt Starting punter RFA
Chris Gronkowski Special teamer and occasional FB RFA
Tony Carter Sub-package CB ERFA
Mitch Unrein Backup DT ERFA


Around the NFL, here’s what the current list of free agents looks like.  Just look at all the big names!  Welkah!  Rashard Mendenhall!  Brian Urlacher!  Whee!

Your assignment for tonight is to think about what you’d do with $18.55 million in cap room, (less about $3 million for draft picks), and the aforementioned list of departures.  What do you do?  Be here tomorrow, and I’m going to tell you what I’d do.

 

Note:  For those just finding the article now, here's Part 2.  TB - 2/11/13

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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