It seems like Aqib Talib has been a Denver Bronco forever, even though the veteran cornerback is entering just his fourth season with the team. As one of the main pillars that make up the highly touted secondary known as the ‘No Fly Zone,’ Talib’s play has left an indelible mark as one of the best defensive backs to line up for the franchise.
Long and rangy, Talib pairs those attributes with a deep knowledge of reading receivers and quarterbacks, making his already sharp anticipation skills that much keener. In the past three seasons, Talib has been named to three straight Pro Bowls, a first-team All-Pro last season and was rated as Pro Football Focus’s top defensive back for 2016. Perhaps most important, Talib was instrumental in helping the Denver Broncos win it all in 2015, capturing the club’s third world championship.
At 31-years-old, Talib is nearing the last stages of his career. Although still playing at a high level, this is typically the age where players lose that half step that allows them to keep pace with the quickest wideouts in the league. With teams always looking to get younger and less expensive, is the sand beginning to run out on Talib’s time in a Denver uniform?
It’s the philosophy of the New England Patriots to release or trade players a year or two early, rather than have to hold onto them a year past their expiration dates. That notion applied to Talib back in 2013. Much to the chagrin of the Pats, it was a miscalculation on their part. Talib proved he still had lots of football left in him. In fact, he’s had a more accomplished career in Denver than in his previous stints with the Patriots and Buccaneers early on.
Still, Talib plays a spot on the field where speed and reaction time are a premium. It’s surprising that the defender had his best year of his career at age 30, but how many more seasons can the Broncos reasonably assume he has left after that? Looking at some of the free agent cornerbacks still available shows players like Darrelle Revis still unsigned, and for good reason. For a player that has a similar skillset to Talib, Revis, who turns 32 in July, showed last year with the Jets that his best years may be behind him. Factoring in chronic back issues last season that took him out of three games, Talib might be on that same trajectory.
Talib’s contract can also give some insight to what his long-term future may be with the team. The cornerback has a base salary of $11 million this year, but only two million of that would count as dead money towards the cap if he were to be cut, a manageable number considering his deal. There’s little to no chance Denver makes a move on Talib this year, but 2018 could be a different story.
Going into next season, the base salary is $12 million with only $1 million counting as dead money. In 2019 his salary drops to $8 million with no dead money. With a big pay increase looming for the younger and talented Bradly Roby (his salary bumps up to $8.5 million in 2018), you can’t help but think that the Broncos may have a way to free up cap space at the expense of parting ways with Talib.
For as much nastiness and bravado that Talib brings to the ball club, you also have to contend with the reality that he isn’t a choirboy either. Questionable actions on and off the field have led to Talib facing discipline at the hands of the league. Just last season, Talib ripped a gold chain off of Michael Crabtree in the season finale that could have cost him games this year (they didn’t, thankfully). An off-field gun incident also had the potential for serious ramifications, but luckily for the defensive back, neither the authorities nor the NFL found cause for punishment. Roger Goddell is stodgy about how his players represent the league and any further violations on behalf of the former Jayhawk has the potential for severe repercussions. A possible lengthy suspension doesn’t bode well if you a free agent looking to catch on with a team.
From hitting an age when even the best players at the position usually start to decline, to his contract structure and his troubles staying on the straight and narrow, they could all be factors in Talib’s departure from Denver, sooner rather than later. It’s been said that all good things must come to an end. For the Denver Broncos and Aqib Talib, that day may be coming sooner than later.
Talib has once before proven a team wrong for cutting ties with him. Denver has one, maybe two more years to decide if it’s worth the risk of possibly being another team Talib proves wrong.