By and large, the majority of one NFL roster is indistinguishable from the next. There are 40 to 45 players that are pretty much the same from team to team. They’re talented, to be sure. But they aren’t difference makers.
The small group of players that fall into that category are the difference between franchises that are competing for championships and those who are looking up from the cellar. Every team has their “stars,” but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same.
How that select group is comprised makes all the difference in the world. If it’s a talented, motivated, inspired core of players, a team will be pretty good. If it’s a bunch of prima donnas, malcontents and troublemakers, a franchise will have trouble finding success.
Typically speaking, these stars are also the highest-paid players on the team. They’re the ones who have been signed to big contracts, as both a sign of their talent and a measure of the expectations bestowed upon them.
In a salary-cap sport like the NFL, who a franchise decides to put into this group is crucial. Typically, as much as 50 percent of a team’s cap space is allotted to the eight or 10 highest-paid players on the roster. As a result, everyone else is interchangeable; they’re a bunch of guys earning at or near the league minimums for their position and experience.
So if a team messes up and invests in the wrong players, it can be very difficult for them to overcome. Unless a breakout star emerges from the understudies, bad contracts will ultimately sink a franchise.
Not convinced? Take a look at last year’s Super Bowl participants.
The Chiefs committed salary-cap space to guys like Travis Kelce, Eric Fisher, Frank Clark, Mitchell Schwartz, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Mahomes; all were in Kansas City’s top 10. Meanwhile, the 49ers invested in Jimmy Garoppolo, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, Joe Staley, Joey Bosa and Arik Armstead.
Kansas City and San Francisco spent money on key positions. And they got great production from those players. Consequently, they enjoyed a lot of success.
Contrast that to last year’s Broncos. In 2019, Denver invested in Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe, Ron Leary, Ja’Wuan James, Bryce Callahan, Bradley Chubb, Kareem Jackson, Todd Davis and Joe Flacco. Heck, Case Keenum counted more against Denver’s salary cap last season than all but six players.
Is it any wonder that the Broncos missed the playoffs for a fourth-straight season?
Miller and Harris each had down years, Wolfe and Leary missed time due to injury, James and Callahan essentially didn’t play, Chubb was injured early in the season, Jackson was suspended for the final two games of the season, Davis was largely ineffective and Flacco was dreadful before landing on injured reserve.
Given those results, it’s amazing that Denver managed to claw out a 7-9 record. It also explains why they were 3-8 before a rookie, quarterback Drew Lock, dug them out of another deep hole.
Looking ahead to 2020, the Broncos can’t count on their young signal caller to bail them out again. They’ll need their biggest investments to pan out. And one look at their top-10 salary-cap commitments suggest that’s possible.
Now that the largest expenditures in free agency are signed, sealed and delivered, the financial portion of Denver’s roster is essentially mapped out. It’s clear to see who the franchise is counting on in 2020.
In order to find success next season, the Broncos will need strong performances out of most of these players: Miller, Jackson, A.J. Bouye, James, Jurrell Casey, Justin Simmons, Graham Glasgow, Chubb, Melvin Gordon and Callahan.
The biggest question marks amongst that group are James and Callahan, simply due to health concerns. Melvin Gordon is also a bit of a mystery, coming off of a lost season with the Chargers that got off track with his holdout.
But the rest of the group is solid. No one expects Miller to have another down season. Jackson was terrific in the games he played last season. Bouye and Casey should continue to perform at a Pro Bowl level. Simmons is a rising star. Glasgow is the definition of steady and solid. And Chubb should bounce back from his injury.
It’s not a perfect top 10, by any means. There are some gambles in there that need to pay off. But there are also enough known commodities, bona fide stars who play at a high level every week, that the Broncos have given themselves a chance.
Plus, Denver is benefiting from the fact that they have key contributors who don’t crack the top 10. Players like Lock, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, Dalton Risner and Phillip Lindsay can fill the void if a big-money player or two slips, given that they’re all relative bargains still playing on rookie contracts.
In other words, John Elway has constructed a roster that has a chance to compete. He has a group of stars that should be able to live up to their contracts, while also boasting a cast of bargains that provide more margin for error than most teams possess.
The past four seasons, the Broncos couldn’t make that claim. But heading into 2020, they’ve finally constructed a roster that has playoff potential.