Not long after he was hired to be the Denver Broncos chief football executive, John Elway made Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller the first draft pick of his administration. Elway had a defensive smorgasbord to choose from in 2011, with guys like Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson, Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt on the board.
Miller was the right choice for the Broncos. He went on to not only be named the A.P. Defensive Rookie of the Year, but also earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors. In four seasons in Denver, Miller has accumulated 49 sacks, which is the sixth most in the NFL since 1982 for a player in his first four seasons.
He ranks third in NFL history (since 1982) with an average of .88 sacks per game. 2013 was a disappointment, as it saw him miss the first six games, due to a suspension for violating the league’s drug abuse policy. To add injury to insult, he tore his ACL in Week 16 and missed the Broncos playoff run. It was the only season he didn't earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
Since that rocky season, Miller is back on the right track. His personal life is reportedly in order and it showed last season out on the grass, as he accumulated 14 sacks, 12 QB hits and 47 hurries. This earned him a +54.0 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus—the third-highest grade among all NFL defenders.
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Having his adolescent idol, DeMarcus Ware, in the locker room in 2014 certainly helped Miller turn the ship around. Ware is not only one of the NFL’s most dominant defenders, but his off-the-field record and his character exemplify what it means to be a pro.
Together, the Broncos pass rushing duo notched 24 sacks and became arguably the most feared sack tandem in the NFL. With Wade Phillips now in Denver, Miller and Ware stand to have a productive 2015 season doing what they do best—getting after the quarterback.
For Miller, it will be a contract year. He missed the opportunity to get a lucrative long-term extension last year, because of his off-the-field drama. Instead, the Broncos chose to take the wait-and-see approach and exercised their fifth-year option on his rookie contract, which will pay him $9.75M.
Following 2015, however, the Broncos will have to decide between the franchise tag and a long-term extension. And it won’t be an easy process because Miller figures to command an enormous deal as one of the league’s most dominant defenders.
If Peyton Manning decides to hang up his cleats, following the 2015 season, it will free up $19M in salary cap space to extend Miller. If Manning has a productive season and stays healthy, we could very well see him return for the fifth and final year on his Broncos contract. That could complicate matters for Miller.
Factoring in all players currently under contract for 2016, the Broncos will have a projected $23M in salary cap space, according to OverTheCap. If Manning’s contract falls off the books, that figure almost doubles. But that doesn’t factor in Demaryius Thomas, whom the Broncos are currently negotiating with on a contract extension.
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Thomas wants $16M per year. The Broncos want to pay about $3M per year less than that. If it works out the way Denver wants, Thomas could account for about $13M of the team’s 2016 cap space, depending on how a potential new deal is structured.
The Broncos could choose to pay out a significant portion of Thomas’ contract via an upfront bonus, which would be prorated over the life of the deal. For example, the Broncos signed cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. to a five-year, $42.5M deal, which included a whopping $10M signing bonus. His cap number for 2015? Just $3M.
Eventually those cap chickens come home to roost, but there are various ways to structure a mega contract in a way that has a somewhat limited short-term impact. Such would likely be the case with a Thomas extension.
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And it could fall the same way for Von Miller. If Manning fades off into the sunset, it will change everything for the Broncos. Not having to pay one’s quarterback almost $20M per season means that the team can invest that money into other foundational players on the roster, as the Seattle Seahawks have done over the last three years.
Brock Osweiler is also playing in a contract year and if the Broncos truly see him as the answer post-Manning, they’ll have to soon pony up a relatively modest contract extension, but it won’t come close to the cap impact Manning’s contract has had on the team.
Miller is likely worth $14-16M per season on the open market. You can believe he’ll be wanting something very close to market value from the Broncos in a new deal. At the same time, the Broncos did show patience and faith in Miller when he went off the rails in 2013, so he could choose to take a similar path that Harris did and agree to a more team-friendly deal. But even so, it wouldn’t be too far off market value.
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As it stands, Miller is focused on performing. According to a recent ESPN.com report, he knows that if he plays well on the grid-iron, the dominoes will fall his way and he can cash in.
“But I just want to play the best I can,’’ Miller said. “Everything takes care of itself if we do good things and I play like I want to for this team … I think guys here worry about winning. The time for all that other stuff is after the season.’’
Miller is about to get paid. His most productive season came in 2012, when he accumulated 18.5 sacks and finished as the Defensive Player of the Year runner up. In a contract year, with a new system that will play to his strengths, we could see Von Miller rise to heights heretofore unseen in 2015.
In the video below, a young Von Miller talks about his professional aspirations following the 2011 Senior Bowl, where he was named the game MVP.