NFL free agency is upon us. Well, kinda sorta.
Beginning today at 10:00 a.m. Denver time, teams can start negotiations with players who have hit the open market. It’s what the league calls their “legal tampering” window, one of the best oxymorons in all of sports.
Then on Wednesday at 2:00 p.m., the Broncos and other franchises can make signings official. At that point, contracts can officially be inked.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what John Elway will do in the next 52 hours, as he tries to patch as many holes on his roster as possible. But the last few days have provided some clues as to what Denver’s plans might be during free agency.
The Broncos could’ve gotten out of the three-year, $15 million contract they signed with Todd Davis prior to the 2018 season. The team decided to not to exercise the club option on the deal, however, which would’ve freed up an extra $4.5 in cap space to use during free agency.
That’s a clear sign that the Broncos aren’t planning on spending money on a middle linebacker. They’re perfectly content with the combination of Davis and A.J. Johnson.
Denver also showed that they aren’t in any hurry to sign Justin Simmons to a long-term contract. Yes, they’d like to keep the All-Pro safety in a Broncos uniform for years to come. But the price has to be right.
On the open market, Simmons will garner a multi-year deal that will average $14 to $15 million per season. He’ll also land a hefty signing bonus, which would require an immediate outlay of cash.
Instead, Denver used the franchise tag to keep the safety on the roster for 2020. In the process, they lowered the cap hit to $11.6 million and avoided having to write a big check in March.
Elway accomplished the same goals when he traded for A.J. Bouye two weeks ago. With a cap hit of roughly $13.4 million this season, the former Jaguars cornerback will likely be cheaper than Byron Jones, Chris Harris Jr. and other available free agent. Heck, he’s not much more expensive than former Bradley Roby, as the former Bronco signed a three-year, $36 million deal with the Texans on Sunday.
Plus, Denver won’t have to provide Bouye with a signing bonus, either. Simply having to pay game checks in order to retain the services of two premium defensive backs is solid financial planning.
Both of those moves will give Denver more flexibility with other free agents. They can use cash reserves to add other players, allowing them to solve four or five problems instead of two or three.
That said, the Broncos haven’t done everything perfectly when it comes to setting themselves up for free agency. In fact, one big question mark remains:
Why in the world is Joe Flacco still on the roster?
Currently, Denver has $38.7 million of available cap space. Some of that will have to be set aside for the team’s rookie class, while a little wiggle room will also remain for any last-minute signings that might arise prior to or during the season.
While that’s a decent chunk of dough, it’s not enough to make a huge splash in free agency. It’ll limit the Broncos to one big move, followed by some signings of second-tier players.
That’s not exactly what fans have had in mind. Heading into this week, Broncos Country is expecting Elway to be as aggressive as he’s been since the Peyton Manning era.
That’ll be tough to accomplish with less than $40 million in available cap space, which is why Flacco’s presence on the roster remains such a mystery. Jettisoning the veteran quarterback would provide Denver with an additional $10 million to add to that number.
Yes, cutting Flacco would add $13.6 million in dead cap to the Broncos 2020 ledger. But most of that is covered by the dollars Denver rolled over from last season, savings that came from restructuring the quarterback’s deal. In other words, it’s a wash. And it’s still better than his current $23.65 million cap hit.
So why haven’t the Broncos made the move? Well, there are a couple of potential reasons.
Perhaps Elway is still holding out hope that he can trade the quarterback. Depending on where players land during free agency, there might be a team that is on the outside looking in when the game of musical chairs concludes. They might talk themselves into Flacco being an answer, allowing the Broncos to restructure the quarterback’s contract and part ways in a manner that’s less damaging financially.
There’s also the option that Denver is waiting until June 1 to cut Flacco. If they do that, they’ll only have to endure a $3.4 million dead cap hit in 2020, while gaining more than $20 million in cap savings. The problem with that plan, however, is that there won’t be as many ways to put that money to use come summertime.
Maybe the Broncos plan to spend every available dollar currently available in free agency, with the idea that they’ll cut Flacco after June 1 in order to free up money for rookies and other signings. Or maybe they’re intentionally limiting their options, providing a false budget constraint that will provide them an excuse for not spending more during the upcoming league-wide shopping spree.
Then, there’s the idea that Elway is considering having Flacco on the roster in 2020. It sounds preposterous, especially given how the quarterback played last season and the fact that Drew Lock has emerged as the starter, but it’s not outside the realm of possibilities. Yes, he’d be an extremely expensive backup. But there’s no guarantee he’d remain No. 2 on the depth chart. The Broncos are desperate to end their four-year stretch without a playoff appearance and three-year run of sub-.500 seasons. They could be talked into a veteran QB giving them the best chance of turning the tide.
When Denver beat Oakland to end the 2019 campaign, no one expected Joe Flacco to be a part of the Broncos future plans. But on March 16, with free agency getting underway and the NFL’s new year only two days away, he’s still on the roster, tying up a huge chunk of cap space.
The reason why will be revealed in the coming hours, days, weeks or months. And it’ll say a lot about the Broncos approach to the 2020 season.