The Salary Cap and the Denver Broncos: It’s a Puzzle


Jan 13, 2015; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway speaks to the media at the Broncos training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The new league year in the NFL is a little over a week away and the Denver Broncos have some work to do if they want to remain as a serious Super Bowl contenders. The first step in that process is the start of free agency on March 10th.

Free agency is a lot of things but one thing it is not is fantasy football. The Broncos want to do what they can to get better via free agency but they also have to make it work within the salary cap.

Putting together a roster in the NFL is like a puzzle, a very complicated puzzle, but a puzzle nonetheless and the pieces have to fit. Would the Broncos like to have Julius Thomas and Terrance Knighton back? There’s no question they would but if the Broncos give them what they are likely to get on the open market, then that severely limits what they can do at other positions.

Everyone knows that the Broncos have to rebuild the offensive line and for a team with championship aspirations, they can’t just rely on young players in the draft. Therefore, they probably need to sign two free agents to come in and be immediate starters. So it comes down to a choice.

Do the Broncos re-sign Thomas and Knighton, and put Peyton Manning behind a very young and inexperienced offensive line or do they rebuild the offensive line through free agency and look for less expensive replacements for Thomas and Knighton?

These are the choices that every team must face at this time of year. There’s only so much cap space and the Broncos have to decide where that money would do the most good.

Thomas is likely to command 9+ million a year on the open market and while the Broncos could afford that, it doesn’t fit the puzzle. This is what does fit the puzzle; sign a tight-end like Owen Daniels and two offensive lineman in free agency.

Daniels is not Thomas but in a Gary Kubiak offense, he can be extremely effective and he can do so at a fraction of the cost. That savings would allow the Broncos to go after a Mike Lupati and a Derek Newton for example. The trade of Thomas for Daniels is not a good one in anyone’s mind but the trade of Thomas for three players who will all start is a good one. That’s salary cap football, getting the most out of the money a team has to spend.

Knighton has earned the money he is likely to make on the open market but the Broncos can probably find a player similar to him for less money. The name that continues to come up is Dan Williams from the Arizona Cardinals. Williams is not the player that Knighton is but he can do some of the same things as Knighton, and he will cost a lot less.

This is also where young players come into play. It’s possible that the Broncos could let Knighton walk and go with third year player, Sylvester Williams. That thought probably scares some Broncos’ fans but it’s also a part of salary cap football. S. Williams is making nowhere near the money that it would take to bring Knighton back, and that’s money that can be spent on other positions.

Free agency is fun for the fans and the Broncos will be active again but at some point, the draft picks have to play more than a role. They have to be the key players.

So as free agency gets set to begin, remember this. It’s not always about signing the best players who are available. It’s about signing guys who fit into the Broncos scheme and a player who meets their needs. Sometimes that means signing the second or third best player at a position of need because that allows you to sign another player to meet another need.

For years now the Washington Redskins have spent money in free agency like they are playing fantasy football, and where has it gotten them? They have been one of the worst teams in football over the past 15 seasons, and they are just now recovering from some major cap issues.

The good teams, like the Broncos, manage the cap in a way that will benefit them now and in the future. John Elway has done a good job with free agency in the past, but now it’s time to put together that puzzle again.