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One of the reasons the NFL Draft is so important is because of the instant value you can get on a relatively small investment. Hit on a draft pick, and you have a chance to get high-level production for low-level salary, the dream for a general manager.
The Broncos and John Elway aced this draft in that regard, and they’re getting a ton of value on guys from Courtland Sutton to Royce Freeman to Josey Jewell and from the undrafted circuit, Phillip Lindsay.
Lindsay, who ranks 11th in the NFL in rushing, ranks 115th in cap hit among running backs at just $485,000.
Along the same lines, though, free agency, and the money spent there is equally as important, because if you can mix your high-value players with high-salary players performing at a high level, you might be on to something special. And that’s where the Broncos are going wrong.
In too many of the places where they are investing big money, the Denver Broncos just aren’t getting the return they were hoping for, and that’s one fo the reasons this team is struggling right now.
Let’s take a look.
Case Keenum: $15,000,000 cap hit, 19th among quarterbacks
Cap-Hit Comps: Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan
The Broncos gave Case Keenum $25 million guaranteed over two seasons in an effort to steady the ship that is their quarterback position and so far, they’ve got nothing to show for it.
What’s interesting is that the $15 million cap hit attached to his contract this season isn’t all that high—relatively—but Denver is still getting significantly less than they’re paying for.
Based on passer rating, Keenum ranks 30th in the league. In passer rating in the red zone, he ranks last among all starters. In ESPN’s Total QBR, he ranks 30th. No matter how you slice it, it’s bad.
Keenum’s free agent counterpart, Kirk Cousins, has a $24 million cap hit this year, seventh among quarterbacks, but the Vikings are getting exactly what they paid for as he ranks seventh in both passer rating and QBR. While the Broncos may have saved a few bucks by going the Keenum route, the return on their investment has been non-existent.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the Broncos’ struggles, but the lack of ROI on their quarterback has to be front and center.
Bradley Roby: $8,526,000 cap hit, 16th among cornerbacks
Cap-Hit Comp: Jason Verrett
It’s clear where the Broncos went wrong at the cornerback position. It came last year, May 1, 2017, to be exact, the day they decided to pick up the fifth-year option on Bradley Roby’s contract.
On that day, it was probably pretty clear to the decision makers within the organization that they would not be bringing back Aqib Talib for 2018 and investing $30 million in their cornerback position.
On the surface, the $11 million the Broncos saved by cutting Talib seems like a lot, but when you look at the $8.5 million they could have saved by simply not picking up the option on Roby’s contract instead, the Talib move hurts a bit more.
Per PFF, Roby ranks 100th among cornerbacks in the NFL, 84 spots below where his cap hit says he should be.
Demaryius Thomas: $13,033,333 cap hit, 9th among wide receivers
Cap-Hit Comp: Julio Jones
It should be noted that when the Broncos signed this deal, they had to not that he was going to be getting overpaid by the end of it, but the numbers aren’t pretty.
Thomas, who carries a top-10 cap hit at his position, currently ranks 43rd in the NFL in receiving yards, just behind running back Saquon Barkley, and 36th in receptions, just behind another running back, Chris Thompson.
For comparison, Julio Jones, whose cap hit is barely higher than Thomas’, ranks third in yards and 11th in receptions. This one was expected, and if it wasn’t happening in so many other areas, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but now it’s just another name on a long list.
Brandon Marshall: $7,000,000 cap hit, 9th among inside linebackers
Cap-Hit Comp: Luke Keuchley
If there’s one thing John Elway has been able to do consistently, it’s been finding gems at the linebacker position.
Unfortunately, it looks like the team deciding to pony up and pay to keep Marshall around was the wrong decision. Since getting paid and losing Danny Trevathan as his inside mate, Marshall has been average at best.
This season, with a top-10 cap hit, Marshall is 55th among linebackers in tackles with just 22. With a 58.5 rating, he ranks as the 47th-best linebacker in the league per PFF.
Darian Stewart: $5,900,000 cap hit, 5th among strong safeties
Cap-Hit Comp: Jamal Adams
Safety is not a big money position in the NFL, but when you invest in one, you expect them to be an impact player.
Over the last two seasons, Stewart has failed to have his fingerprints on many, if any, games. This season, the veteran safety simply looks to have lost a step as he’s been caught taking bad angles on multiple occasions.
In the same conversation as guys like Jamal Adams in terms of cap hit, you would expect much more. Per PFF, Stewart is ranked as the 55th-best safety in the NFL this season.
Marquette King: $1,666,666 cap hit, 15th among punters
Cap-Hit Comp: Dustin Colquitt
After Riley Dixon didn’t exactly get it done last year, the Broncos decided to invest a bit in the punter position in an effort to play into their formula of playing great defense, protecting the ball and flipping the field, something they did extremely well on their way to Super Bowl 50 with punter Britton Colquitt.
Despite the investment, King was mediocre at best, ranking 24th in the league in average yards per punt. His cap-hit comp, Dustin Colquitt, ranks fifth in the league in the same area. Riley Dixon, who the team pushed out for King ranks seventh in the league in yards per punt.
Obviously, King’s struggles led to the team moving on from him and the early returns on his replacement, Colby Wadman, aren’t great, as his 32.3-yard average, last week is good enough for last in the league.
If Denver is going to turn this season around, they’re going to need to start getting a lot more out of the guys they’ve invested big money in.