Love or hate the way John Elway ran the Broncos personnel decisions, one thing he did well was utilize the cap rollover rules.
The last three years, Elway’s cap decisions rolled over $8 million, nearly $15 million and this year $17.8 million to the next year’s salary cap. And this year, that number is incredibly important because, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a big-time reduction in the cap coming for the 2021 season.
This year’s cap was $198.2 million, and next season’s could be as low as $175 million, though it could be higher than that agreed upon salary floor.
So, according to Spotrac, the Broncos currently have $16.8 million in cap space thanks to that rollover. That is, if you’re only counting the team’s top 51 contracts, which are the ones that end up counting against the cap because they come after cut downs happen.
That $16.8 million of cap space is decent, landing Denver in 13th, with the Jacksonville Jaguars leading the way with $74.5 million in space. Of course, the Jags were awful this year and others — like the New York Jets with $65M — are on the high end, with more competitive teams having considerably less money to work with.
In comes George Paton, the Broncos new GM tasked with transforming a roster from perennially missing the playoffs to one worthy of being back in the postseason tournament.
Defensively, the Broncos are fairly well-built. There’s Bradley Chubb on one side of the line — a young star pass rusher — superstar safety Justin Simmons on the back end, with Bryce Callahan, Kareem Jackson, Von Miller and more. Offensively, the Broncos have some playmakers, but outside of the star wideout Courtland Sutton and the great Phillip Lindsay, Denver’s offense is littered with youth who are still looking to reach their potential.
And the team needs more talent overall, which shows on their struggling special teams units, too.
The good news for Paton and the Broncos is: This is the perfect time for a new GM.
Two of the team’s most costly players, Miller and Simmons, could either be retained or let go. Simmons is already an unrestricted free agent, as Denver tagged him and paid him $11.4 million last year. Does Paton want to keep Simmons — a top-5 safety — on the team?
“We’re not gonna let our good, young players go,” Paton said to the media on Tuesday during his introductory presser. So, it would seem the Broncos will try to keep him around.
Spotrac says his market value is $15.4 million per year, which would be almost all of the team’s salary cap (before other moves, we’ll get to those in a second). As for Miller, he’s owed $22.25 for 2021, the last year of his deal, but could be cut. Cutting him would mean a $4.2M hit in terms of dead cap, but would save the team around $15 million.
Miller is likely the greatest defender in Denver Broncos history. He was the 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year, he’s the team’s all-time leader in sacks and he was the Super Bowl 50 MVP. But, this is a “what have you done for me lately” league and Paton isn’t Elway.
Elway was staunchly loyal to his draft picks (Miller was his first), and Miller may not be as willing to work on a restructure with Paton as he may have been with Elway.
Then come the easier decisions for Paton. Both Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye were traded for last offseason and both veterans were a disappointment in Denver. Casey was injured early in the year and Bouye was too before also being popped with a 6-game suspension which will bleed into 2021.
Cutting those two would come with no penalty, saving the Broncos $24.2 million. Nick Vannett, the tight end who did very little in 2020, could also be cut for a $3.6M savings.
So, to recap. The Broncos could: Save $15 million by cutting Miller, save $12.3M by cutting Casey and save $11.9M by releasing Bouye and $3.6M for Vannett. Add that onto the $16.8 they already have, and that’s $59.6 million in cap space.
Then, Paton can turn around and sign Simmons to a massive deal, re-sign Lindsay and still have $35-40 million to use on other players of his choosing.
Of course, there are plenty of other Broncos free agents to look at as well. (We ranked them here.) Shelby Harris, Tim Patrick and Alexander Johnson are all seemingly no-brainers, but Paton will be tasked with evaluating them all and making tough decisions.