Since taking over the Denver Broncos in 2011, Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway has brought in a number of big names, starting with Peyton Manning—joined by the likes of Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware. Elway is also responsible for drafting a superstar in Von Miller and unearthing a couple of undrafted gems in Chris Harris, Jr. and C.J. Anderson.
But as the years pass and Peyton Manning ages, Elway's job has become more difficult— something that is bound to continue with max contracts coming up for Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller, among others.
Denver is set to have around $9 million in remaining cap space this season and $30 million next season (before factoring in Shane Ray's contract). In addition to Miller and Thomas, the Broncos will have to make decisions on Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Brock Osweiler, David Bruton, Ronnie Hillman, Marvin Austin, Omar Bolden, Gino Gradkowski and Danny Trevathan—all of whom are expected to be key contributors this season.
The Broncos also have a handful of guys who will likely stick with the team, who are set to become RFAs (restricted free agents) and ERFAs (exclusive rights free agents), whom the team will be able to retain at bargain rates.
In addition to the remaining cap space, the Broncos may gain up to an additional $5.75 million in cap space if they cut Britton Colquitt, Chris Clark and Andre Caldwell. Of the three, Caldwell is the least likely to make the team, followed by Colquitt and Clark.
Denver went out of their way to bring in 28-year-old YouTube sensation Karl Schmitz to compete with Colquitt, who is set to count $3.75 million against the cap—a ridiculously a high number for a player who has been among the worst punters in the league, since his breakout 2012 season. Colquitt is well-liked and steady, but he is the ninth-highest paid player on the roster this season, a stat that quite frankly is reprehensive.
Clark, on the other hand, becomes the greatest beneficiary of Ryan Clady's unfortunate ACL injury, as he has been playing with the ones at right tackle. Ty Sambrailo is set to take over the vacant left tackle job, with newly acquired tackle Ryan Harris set to compete with Michael Schofield for the backup swing tackle spot. If Schofield loses this battle, he will likely still make the team, due to his potential and versatility, but if Clark struggles at RT, he may end up cut as a veteran with little upside, because Harris is experienced in the zone blocking scheme.
Looking ahead to the 2016 offseason, cutting Colquitt will save the Broncos another $3.25 million. Denver also drafted Shane Ray in the first round to be the future starter across from Miller, which could render Ware expendable. If the team were to move on from Ware, the cap savings would be a staggering $10 million.
The next player that may find himself looking for work is Clady. Moving on from Clady will be dependent on a couple of factors—Sambrailo's development at LT and Manning's future with the team. If Sambrailo can't progress at LT adequately, he may end up back at RT next season, with Clady returning from injury. If Manning retires, Sambrailo may stay at LT with a more mobile quarterback, whether that be Osweiler, or someone else, and the team may move on from Clady as an aging player with injury issues.
If Manning returns, look for the team to approach Clady about taking a pay-cut. If not, the team can save $9.5 million in 2016 by cutting the four-time Pro Bowler. On a side note, between 2013 and this upcoming season, the Broncos will have paid Clady $21.625 million in games he hasn't played for the team. Don’t think for a second that Elway isn’t acutely aware of that dubious fact.
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Lastly, we move to five-time league MVP, Peyton Manning. If he wants to return for the final season of his contract, the Broncos will more than likely have him, but it all depends on Manning. Does 2015 end with another disappointing playoff exit, or does it end with Peyton hoisting the Lombardi trophy? Whatever his decision is, the Broncos will have a very health cap situation to look forward to, but if he does decide to retire, an additional $19 million will be added to the Broncos cap space.
One other potential move involves Aqib Talib. If Talib has any more off-the-field issues, or his on-field production dips, the team can save an additional $9 million, especially if Bradley Roby turns the corner in his development.
In total, if everything mentioned above were to take place, the Broncos would have an additional $47.5 million, not including cutting Talib—a staggering figure. That’s on top of the expected $30 million they will already have. Even after the team works out contracts with Thomas and Miller, they will likely have $40 million plus in cap space left over, with a number of attractive potential free agent options, including Eric Weddle, Haloti Ngata, Trent Williams, Russell Okung, Marshal Yanda and Marcell Dareus.
This much is clear, John Elway has the Denver Broncos heading towards a bright future, with continued success on the horizon. But the team will face some tough decisions, if Manning continues to decline in 2015.