You Got Served: Day 1 of Free Agency

Happy Wednesday, friends. Today I have a serving for you about the beginning of the annual free agency shopping spree. Coming off a Super Bowl loss, the Broncos are reloading in a resounding manner, and it obviously deserves some analysis.

Beyond the big early names, I also have ideas on some second-wave bargain shopping that I think the Broncos can do.

I think that the market is about to get much more conservative when it comes to paying veterans, and quality guys are going to be available on the cheap, like Shaun Phillips was last year.

1. The Broncos made a strong early move in signing T.J. Ward, who has done a good job for the Browns over the last four years, while playing amid a lot of derp. Ward is a big, physical box safety, and as I’ve said before, I think that box safeties are on their way to obsolescence.

The good thing about Ward, though, is that he also shows solid ability to play man coverage against tight ends. He can fill in the running game like Duke Ihenacho did at times last season, but he’s a lot better in coverage. He’ll step in as an every-down starter, and likely relegate Ihenacho to special teams, where his competency will be higher.

Ward will flash some playmaking ability that the Broncos have lacked on the back end. While he’s not a deep-half guy, the Broncos can let him diagnose and roam since they play so much Cover 1 by design. Because they’re stout up front with seven men in the run game, Ward can play halfway between the deep level and the line of scrimmage.

The best thing about the Ward deal is that he came relatively cheaply, compared to the rest of the safety market. He’s a better player than a guy like Mike Mitchell, and he’s younger and should have more longevity than Antoine Bethea or Donte Whitner. Ward came in more cheaply than all of them.

Ward ranked as the third best safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, and his signing was a very good start to things.

2. Later in the evening, the Broncos signed Aqib Talib to more of a top-of-the-market deal. It was instantly killed on Twitter, but I think that it was a solid move. Talib was the best corner on the market, and his deal was quite comparable, in terms of average annual value, to lesser players like Brent Grimes, Sam Shields, and Vontae Davis.

I think that people who are worried about the Talib deal note the difference in the length of the contract, and they think that the Broncos do business like most other teams. The fact is, they don’t. I haven’t seen the specifics yet of the Talib and Ward deals, but I doubt that there’s much in the way of a signing bonus to either one.

Taking Talib specifically, the reports say that $26 million is guaranteed out of the total $57 million stated value of the contract. (We assume that a good deal of that $26 million is only guaranteed for injury, and not for performance, but we'll see.)  The way that most teams structure contracts is that they pay a $20 million bonus, and let it be prorated for cap reasons over the life of the contract.  (More on that later.)

The Broncos tend to guarantee salaries early in the contract, with no bonuses. That way, the cash and cap hits are the same, and there isn’t dead money if they need to move on from a player later in the deal. So let’s say that the salaries break out like this:

Year Amount (000s) Guaranteed (000s)
2014 8,500 8,500
2015 8,500 8,500
2016 9,000 9,000
2017 10,000 0
2018 10,000 0
2019 11,000 0
Total 57,000 26,000

I think that’s a reasonable guess, given their recent history. What you have there is effectively a guaranteed three-year contract, and then three one-year optional contracts. Talib is 28 years old, so it’s a very reasonable assumption that the risk of diminished ability for three years is relatively low. If he starts to fade, the Broncos can get rid of him with no cap consequences.

As for Talib’s abilities as a player, he’s one of the best corners in the NFL. He’s tall, long, and strong, and he is good in both man and zone coverage. His ball skills are excellent, and he’s a willing and effective run support player.

Talib had some legal troubles in the past, and he’s had some injuries in his career. A hip injury in 2013 hampered Talib during the middle part of the season, and durability is a real concern.

When it comes to lining up and competing with top-flight receivers, though, Talib is the best guy the Broncos could have signed. The news that they were determined to sign either Talib or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and preferred Talib didn’t surprise me. I would have been thinking the same way.

3. I also welcome news that the Broncos are in on DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen, and that Denver is a preferred destination for both. I think Allen is the more consistent player, but that Ware is the more explosive one. Either one portends to help the Broncos in 2014.

Given the age of both, the Broncos should be able to give them a deal similar to the one Wes Welker got, where it’s something like two years and $13 or $14 million, with one-third payable in 2014 and two thirds payable in 2015, when the salary cap goes up again.

I would also be very focused on re-signing Shaun Phillips. He’s an ideal player to rotate with both Von Miller and the newly-signed DE, given his position versatility between OLB and DE.

4. As for bargain-basement players, I have some ideas. The Broncos can still use some assurance at free safety, cornerback, running back, wide receiver, middle linebacker, and some depth on the offensive line. They have the draft to help fill some of those holes, but there are also a number of veterans available who don’t have hot or high priced markets right now. Here are ten who I think should be attractive players to the Broncos:

a. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB - MJD has been banged up a lot lately, but he’d be a good complementary piece with Montee Ball. I bet he’d like to win some games after so much losing in Jacksonville.

b. Sidney Rice, WR - I mentioned that I like the idea of signing Rice a couple weeks ago, and I still think he’s a good fit. He has excellent ability to catch the ball in traffic, due to his size and leaping ability.

c. Willie Colon, G - Colon has mostly been a starter, but I view him as a good veteran backup at guard, who can also play some at right tackle, if needed.

d. Kevin Williams, DT - Williams isn’t a superstar anymore, but he can be highly productive as a veteran rotation guy. He’s probably not a veteran minimum guy, but he may play for a contender for $2-3 million.

e. Justin Tuck, DE-DT - Tuck said the other day that there hasn’t been much of a market for him, so it looks like he’s fitting into this category. Tuck has been a key player on two Super Bowl winners, and I think he still has something to offer in a situational role.

f. Jason Babin, DE - I view Babin as an alternative to Phillips, and I’m not sure why he opted out of his contract. I’d be surprised if he gets a lot of money.  As Doug pointed out to me, he's made $25 million in his career, and he may just want to win.

g. Brandon Spikes, MLB - I think it will take a couple million dollars to sign Spikes, but it doesn’t get much better than him as a run-stuffer. He’s also an excellent zone defender in the passing game, although he struggles in man coverage.

h. Daryl Smith, LB - Smith has more versatility than Spikes, and he’s better in man coverage. I also think he’ll cost a bit more, though. He has experience with Jack Del Rio from his Jacksonville days.

i. Chris Cook, CB - Cook has underachieved in his career, but he’s tall and long, and if you use him right, I think he can add some value as a backup who plays outside in sub packages.

j. Thomas DeCoud, S - I’ve long been a fan of DeCoud, who was a Pro Bowl-caliber centerfield safety before 2013. He struggled last year, but I tend to think it could have been a symptom of the total team struggles of the Falcons. I view him as excellent insurance for Rahim Moore struggling to return from his injury, and maybe DeCoud just beats him out.

5. Finally, I wanted to address a stupidity that I saw throughout the evening last night. The Broncos aren't going all in to win now. They aren't going to be in salary cap hell when Brock Osweiler takes over. They aren't mortgaging the future, or any other damn thing. Because of the way they manage the salary cap, the Broncos are able to make moves for the present without detracting from the future.

When I used to work for one of my past companies (a very large and well-known one), we were what you'd call a slow payer of accounts payable. Our terms were Net 55, which meant that, as far as we told our vendors, we'd pay them after 55 days. In reality, though, if that 55th day happened to fall during the last six weeks of any quarter, they weren’t getting paid until the first day of the next quarter.

That may have been hard to follow, so let me try to simplify it. Let’s say you sell that company some widgets on July 1, and you send them an invoice for it. Fifty-five days after July 1 is August 25. The midpoint of the third quarter was August 15, though, so my company is prohibiting any payments until October 1, regardless of how angry or rude the vendors get. That means the vendor doesn’t get paid for three months, all so that my publicly traded company could report a strong cash balance to Wall Street as of September 30.

A company only benefits once from playing cash games like that once, and then they have to keep up the behavior forever, so as not to report a lower cash balance in some future quarter. In the Wall Street world, if you report lower cash than expected, the stock price tanks, and the CEO gets canned. You can't exit the stretched-payables cycle without that kind of pain.

You borrowed against a future quarter’s cash once, so you have to keep doing it, and keep pissing off your vendors and causing the employees who have to deal with those vendors pain. In my following jobs, I’ve successfully advocated against those kinds of cash game tactics, because it’s not ultimately worth the ongoing cost.

Most NFL teams do this same sort of thing, by paying out huge signing bonuses. When they do, cash is paid out now, but it doesn’t hit the salary cap until later. Once you do that once, you’re always in cap trouble as the cap charges for prorated bonuses hit (for cash paid in the past), so you’re essentially forced to keep doing it.

When you’re in cap trouble, you just “restructure” your best players. That means that you convert some salary (which all hits the cap in the current year) to a bonus (which hits over a number of years). You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.  Like with my company, the benefit came once, when you paid players $25 or $30 million more in cash than the cap theoretically allowed.  You either did or didn't win the Super Bowl that year, but you entered a cycle that isn't exited without some serious pain.

Because the Broncos are disciplined enough not to lay out these big bonuses, they don’t have to sacrifice the future to pay for the present. When a player stops performing well, the Broncos can cut him, and face little or no cap consequences after doing so. That’s how you can play for both the short- and long-term at the same time.

That’s all I’ve got for today, friends. Let’s see what happens in the next few days, and I’ll get back with you.

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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