Winning the Super Bowl is a marvelous accomplishment, but it’s also a fleeting one. The Scouting Combine is next week in Indianapolis and NFL free agency opens soon after on March 9. Translation: the Broncos don’t have much time to celebrate.
Now that all the champagne has been sipped and the confetti has settled, GM John Elway has some important decisions to make. Denver’s top priority will be keeping Von Miller. The four-time Pro Bowler improved his stock tremendously by dominating three of the game’s best quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton) during the Broncos’ postseason run. Miller saved his best for last, sacking Cam Newton 2.5 times and forcing a pair of fumbles while becoming the fourth linebacker to earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
Miller would easily be the biggest name in this year’s free agent crop, though it’s unlikely he’ll ever reach that point. If the two sides can’t iron out a deal before March 1, Miller would likely receive the franchise tag. That would lock Miller up for 2016 while buying Denver more time to work on an extension. The Broncos applied the same strategy last offseason with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. He settled for a five-year, $70 million deal just before the July 15 deadline.
The projected salary number for linebackers under the franchise tag is $14.1 million. That would be a big raise from the $9.754 million Miller earned in 2015. Miller, who has been a nomad since the Super Bowl (he’s appeared on The Today Show, SNL, The Grammys and Ellen while sitting courtside with Odell Beckham at the NBA All-Star Game), doesn’t seem too stressed about his contract negotiations. "It's gonna’ be a peaceful thing,” said Miller. “I'm not worried about it.”
While Miller’s return to Denver looks like a near certainty, the Broncos’ quarterback situation couldn’t be much cloudier. Denver seems to be dragging its feet out of respect for Peyton Manning, which is silly given his declining skillset and sky-high salary. All signs are pointing to Manning’s inevitable retirement but even if Peyton does return for another season, he shouldn’t be in Denver’s plans.
The Broncos didn’t win Super Bowl 50 because of Manning—they won in spite of him. Manning only attempted seven passes in the second half against Carolina, a clear indicator that Denver had no intention of putting the most important game of the season in Peyton’s hands. $19 million is far too steep a price for a game-manager, which is all Manning is at this point.
But, as all big names do, Peyton’s name still carries weight. Ben Volin of the Boston Globe reports the Rams have shown interest (Manning might actually be an upgrade over D-list quarterbacks Nick Foles and Case Keenum) while Houston remains an intriguing destination. Like Denver, Houston earned a postseason berth by leaning heavily on its star-studded defense. The Texans have pursued Manning in the past, but that was back when he was still relatively healthy.
Tempting as another season may be, retirement is still Manning’s best option. By leaving the game now, Peyton can end his career on a high note. Enduring an early playoff exit with Houston might spoil that narrative. With Manning under investigation for PEDs and more details emerging from an incident at the University of Tennessee in 1996, this might be a good time for him to step out of the spotlight.
Meanwhile, the Broncos seem to be leaving it up to chance with Brock Osweiler. The 25-year-old wasn’t overly impressive in his brief stint as Denver’s signal caller but he certainly showed enough to warrant consideration as a legitimate NFL starter. Osweiler picked a good year to hit the market. Kirk Cousins highlights an underwhelming free agent class while none of the quarterbacks in the draft this year are sure things. If the Broncos tag Miller and prioritize defensive tackle Malik Jackson over Osweiler, the defending champs could be without a quarterback.
Forte a Fit for New England?
While the wide receiver and quarterback positions are bone dry, this year’s free agent market for running backs is actually quite robust. Though it was already assumed, the Bears announced Friday that Matt Forte will not be back with the team next season.
For the rebuilding Bears, it makes sense to pull the plug on Forte. There’s no reason for Chicago to overpay for a 30-year-old running back, especially with promising rookie Jeremy Langford ready to take on a bigger role. Langford dominated while Forte was out with a sprained MCL, torching the Chargers for 142 yards (72 rushing, 70 receiving) and a touchdown in Week 9 before flattening the Rams a week later with 182 yards (73 rushing, 109 receiving) and two more touchdowns. By season’s end, Forte and Langford were splitting carries.
But as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Forte might not be a good fit for the Bears anymore but there will be plenty of teams blowing up his phone when he reaches free agency. One of them will be the Patriots. Running the ball was New England’s Achilles’ heel late in the season and Forte might be the most complete back on the market. The Patriots have used a running back committee for the better part of a decade but they wouldn’t have to with Forte. He’s a true three-down back with good receiving instincts and a nose for the end zone. With aging power back LeGarrette Blount headed for free agency and passing-down specialist Dion Lewis coming off a torn ACL, pursuing Forte seems like a no-brainer for the Pats. Forte shouldn’t cost New England more than $4 million a year.
Chris Ivory, who probably won’t be back with the Jets because of cap space, presents another exciting option for the Patriots. Pairing Ivory, a bruising power runner, with Lewis, one of the game’s most talented receiving backs, could make New England’s offense unstoppable. Coming off his best season, Ivory should have plenty of suitors this offseason.
Money will be tight for New England, but the Pats can and probably will clear a bit of cap room by releasing Jerod Mayo. The veteran linebacker has ended his last three seasons on injured reserve and was really just a role player this year behind Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jonathan Freeny. Speaking of Collins and Hightower, both players are in the last year of their rookie deals and could be extension candidates. The same goes for defensive end Chandler Jones, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2015. If the Patriots want to compete with teams like Denver and Pittsburgh over the next several years, they’ll need to keep their talented front seven in tact.
Quick Hits: DeAndre Hopkins said he wants to spend the rest of his career in Houston. Nuk also said he’s looking to improve his yards after catch. Hopkins finished third in receiving yards (1,521 yards) but only 118th in YAC this past season (201 yards) … The Texans are expected to move on from Rahim Moore. The free safety signed a three-year deal with Houston last offseason but lost his starting job to Dre Hal in November … Aaron Rodgers played 18 holes at last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The two-time MVP said his knee feels “great” after getting it scoped last month … Green Bay re-signed DT Letroy Guion to a three-year, $11.25 million contract on Friday. That complicates things for impending free agent B.J. Raji, who admits his future with the Packers is “uncertain at this point” … If Jared Allen decides to keep playing, it probably won’t be with Carolina. Cutting Allen would free up $8.5 million in cap space … The Charlotte Observer expects Kawann Short to sign a contract extension this offseason. Short was a second-team All-Pro in 2015 … Aqib Talib will not be suspended for his illegal hit on Panthers receiver Corey Brown during last week’s Super Bowl. Instead, he’s been fined $26,044 … While Owen Daniels admitted retirement is “definitely an option,” the tight end said he’d like to finish out his three-year contract. Daniels led Broncos tight ends with 517 receiving yards in 2015 … Giants DT Jay Bromley was accused of attempted sexual assault last month following an incident at a New York City hotel. Police have closed the investigation and he will not be charged. According to the New York Post, Bromley’s accuser had “significant credibility issues” … According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the Redskins are “nowhere close” in negotiations with Kirk Cousins. The projected cap number for quarterbacks under the franchise tag is $19.75 million … Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz believes Connor Barwin “fits real well” at defensive end in his 4-3 scheme. Barwin played outside linebacker last season but started his career as a defensive end in Houston … Colts owner Jim Irsay expects Andrew Luck’s contract extension to be a “shocking number,” adding that the deal will be “nine figures and probably a $20 million starting point per year." Considering Joe Flacco’s deal was for six years and $120 million, $20 million a year for Luck wouldn’t exactly be “shocking” … According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Alshon Jeffery’s next contract should be in the “same neighborhood” as the one signed by Dez Bryant last offseason. Bryant’s deal was for five years, $70 million with $45 million guaranteed … Backup QB Tarvaris Jackson is expected to test the open market. Jackson attempted just six passes for the Seahawks in 2015 … The Raiders cut Nate Allen last week, only to re-sign him two days later. Knee issues limited Allen to just five games this past season … According to the New Yorker, TMZ paid $105,000 for surveillance tapes of Ray Rice attacking his then fiancée (now wife) at an Atlantic City casino in 2014. Rice has been out of the league for the last two years.