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Super Bowl Swan Song

Emotional attachments aside, the NFL is still a business and there are a few players who will be leaving town after Sunday

The common fallacy after winning a championship is to try to bring back just about everyone you had on the title-winning roster the following year. You can see the logic — you did just achieve everything you set out to achieve with those players — but it ignores the concept of despite. Namely, everyone on your roster doesn’t equally contribute to a championship; you can win a title despite some of the players in your organization, too.

In other cases, there are players who want to leave, guys who emerge as key contributors during a title run and then leave for bigger roles or more money elsewhere. Anecdotally, that move seems to rarely work out, with the classic example coming from the hapless Al Davis Raiders, who gave a big contract to Super Bowl XXX MVP Larry Brown after the Cowboys cornerback picked off Neil O’Donnell twice. Brown started one game in two years before being released by Oakland. That Davis made a similar move — with similar success — in signing Colts running back Dominic Rhodes years later speaks to how well he learned from his mistakes.

Regardless of who wins this Sunday’s Super Bowl, we’re going to see examples of both these personnel scenarios play out after the season. The winner (and probably the loser) will likely hold on to a piece or two too many, because that’s what happens when you make it this far. A player who had a big postseason will get a hefty contract elsewhere. There are players on each side who will be suiting up for the final time with their respective teams this Sunday, even if they don’t yet know it. So let’s run through both these teams and figure out what their immediate offseason after the Super Bowl is going to look like. That’ll tell us what to expect from each of these teams this spring, but even more so, it tells us who might profit most from having a dominant performance in New Jersey.

Note that all the contract data and terms in this piece come from the publicly available data at Spotrac.

Denver Broncos

Free Agents: Amazingly, Denver could be starting as many as nine players in the Super Bowl who are due to become free agents after the season, with a number of players who provide depth also hitting the market. The injured Chris Harris, starting safety Duke Ihenacho, and return man Trindon Holliday are each restricted free agents, leaving them likely to return to Denver. The others? It wouldn’t be a surprise if many of the players booked to leave chose to sign elsewhere.

The biggest free agent coming out of Denver is cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has had an impressive rebuilding season after signing a short-term “prove it” deal with the Broncos. The free-agent market for cornerbacks is relatively deep this offseason, but DRC proved he should be near the top of the class in terms of performance and salary. His two-year deal should void next week, and Rodgers-Cromartie has already made his intentions clear by suggesting he would consider retirement if he didn’t get a long-term deal from somebody. The Broncos could certainly use a top cornerback, but their strategy in recent years has been to cast veteran reclamation projects and young players with upside across from Champ Bailey. That might change this year, but more on that later.

Speaking of veteran reclamation projects, Shaun Phillips did a nice job in rebuilding his value with a 10-sack season, his third double-digit campaign as a pro, as Denver’s primary pass-rusher. Phillips is on a one-year deal for $1 million (he earned an additional $800,000 in sack incentives), and while last year’s market for veteran pass-rushers suggests he’s unlikely to get a massive deal for his age-33 season and beyond, Phillips will almost surely receive a salary in the $4 million-plus range on a short-term deal. Again, Denver might look to move on to the next veteran pass-rusher and cast him across from Von Miller. The team will also have to make decisions on linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon, as well as safety Mike Adams. Woodyard has faded badly as the season’s gone along, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see somebody snatch him up as an upside play after he recovers from a stinger this offseason.

Denver’s offense could lose several quietly valuable components, too. The most notable name would be wideout Eric Decker, generally considered to be Denver’s second wideout behind Demaryius Thomas. Decker put up two virtually identical seasons with Peyton Manning under center, with an 85-1,064-13 line in 2012 followed up by an 87-1,288-11 line in 2013. Since moving into the starting lineup in 2011, Decker has scored 32 receiving touchdowns, the fourth-highest total in football, behind some guys who are going to get paid a lot more money than he will: Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant, and Calvin Johnson. I always caution against giving big contracts to second bananas in elite passing offenses, but with Decker about to hit 27, somebody’s going to give him a pretty substantial long-term deal. The five-year, $43 million deal (albeit with $15.6 million guaranteed) signed by Victor Cruz looms as a logical comp. I would imagine that Decker ends up staying in Denver, even if he takes a little bit off the top of that contract. It’s certainly hard to imagine where he might end up were he to leave Denver. The Jets could certainly use a wideout …

A more likely departure is Knowshon Moreno. The Broncos drafted Montee Ball in the second round a year ago to serve as their long-term starter at halfback, and while Moreno’s been a valuable, versatile starter for Denver this season, it wasn’t so long ago that this same administration had no need for Moreno. He will likely join the epic game of running back musical chairs that’s about to begin this offseason, and with his recent success and young age (27 in 2014) balanced against a rocky injury history, it seems like he could get a two-year deal for less than $10 million from somebody like the Titans or Giants. Denver could also lose starting left guard Zane Beadles, the lesser half of one of the league’s more underrated guard tandems with Louis Vasquez. It seems most likely that Beadles will hit the market, see that there’s no Andy Levitre–size contract waiting for him, and re-sign with the Broncos on a long-term deal.

New Deals: Denver has to clear out space for a number of new contracts. It seems likely the organization would want to re-sign the likes of Decker, Beadles, and possibly Rodgers-Cromartie, but there are players with contracts coming due in 2015 and 2016 who will receive massive raises. That starts with Von Miller, whose four-year, $21 million rookie contract expires next season. The Broncos retain a fifth-year option on Miller’s rookie contract and could either use it to push the inevitable Miller extension into the future or as leverage to bring his asking price down. Given that Miller’s 2013 season included a six-game suspension and a torn ACL, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Denver waited another year before working on what will be a massive new deal for Miller.

Don’t worry: There are plenty of other contracts the Broncos can work on. The most obvious deal would be that of Demaryius Thomas, who has one of the old-CBA rookie contracts by virtue of his selection in the first round of the 2010 draft. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after the 2015 season, and the Broncos will likely sign him to a new contract this offseason, especially if they don’t sign Miller to a new deal. Thomas is going to get paid either way, but a big Super Bowl performance — especially if it comes against Richard Sherman — could be worth a few extra million dollars in guaranteed money.

The Broncos will also likely want to find new deals for tight end Julius Thomas, right tackle Orlando Franklin, and safety Rahim Moore, each of whom become free agents after the 2015 campaign. They also have defensive tackle Terrance Knighton signed to a bargain-basement deal for next season, but they could again use the cheap contract as leverage to sign Knighton to a (relatively) cheaper long-term deal if so inclined.

Possible Cap Casualties: The ultimate cap casualty, of course, would be Peyton Manning. A Manning retirement would throw this entire organization into flux, but Manning himself has said he has no intention of retiring after the season. Let’s proceed accordingly.

While Denver’s in relatively good cap shape, there are a number of deals it will likely expect to renegotiate or remove from its cap this offseason. The most obvious renegotiation belongs to legendary cornerback Champ Bailey, who was injured for virtually the entire season with a recurring foot problem. Bailey’s four-year, $42.5 million contract was structured without a signing bonus, which allows the Broncos to release him without causing much stress to their cap. Both the 35-year-old Bailey and the team know he wouldn’t come close to matching the $10.75 million due in his contract on the free market were the organization to release Bailey, so it seems likely the team will either release the future Hall of Famer this offseason or convince him to return on a much smaller contract. Releasing Bailey would save Denver $9.5 million on its 2014 cap.

The team will almost surely cut bait on its two backup tight ends. Jacob Tamme became an afterthought after the emergence of Julius Thomas, and while Tamme is friends with Manning, the Broncos are unlikely to pay their backup tight end $3.5 million next year for companionship’s sake. They will also surely let Joel Dreessen, now the team’s fourth-string tight end, hit the market one year early. Releasing Tamme and Dreessen would save a combined $5.5 million, and if the team let deposed guard Chris Kuper follow them into free agency, the savings would hit $9.5 million.

Offseason Plan: If they follow their previous course of action, the Broncos under John Elway will target young players with considerable raw talent in free agency, guys Denver thinks they can coach up into more useful assets. Given their perpetual need for bodies up front, that could lead them to a former 3-4 lineman like Ziggy Hood or Tyson Jackson, both first-round picks who failed to develop as planned in their first stops. If Shaun Phillips leaves, I wonder if the Broncos would target Jared Allen on a one-year deal to serve as their primary pass-rusher while Miller recovers from his ACL tear. And with question marks at cornerback, if they don’t sign Rodgers-Cromartie and they release Bailey, the Broncos could target one of the top cornerbacks on the market, like Aqib Talib or Sam Shields. DeAngelo Hall would even make sense on a lesser contract.

Seattle Seahawks

Free Agents: The Seahawks will run the risk of losing a number of notable contributors this offseason, but they’ll still have plenty of cap space to work with, given that several of their best players (Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, and Earl Thomas) are still on their rookie deals. That will change starting in 2015. Until then, the Seahawks still have one more year in cap heaven.

Their most notable free agent this offseason will be Michael Bennett, who provided a hefty return on the one-year deal Seattle gave him this past spring. In fact, Bennett might very well have been too good; the Seahawks would surely love to have him back on another one-year deal, but Bennett did enough this year to earn a long-term contract from somebody, with the natural landing point seeming to be a reunion with brother Martellus in Chicago. Seattle will likely search for a short-term deal with another 4-3 end who can kick inside on passing downs.

The only other notable free agents Seattle has on defense are cornerback Walter Thurmond, who lost his job to Byron Maxwell after being suspended in midseason, and useful defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who should re-sign for a moderate amount of money. Suspended cornerback Brandon Browner is also as good as gone. Otherwise, virtually all the big questions come on offense. While wideout Doug Baldwin is a restricted free agent who will almost surely return, fellow receiver Golden Tate is an unrestricted free agent. Tate had his best season in 2014, but it was only a 64-898-5 line. It certainly feels like he has some untapped potential, and he won’t turn 26 until August, but it also seems likely the Seahawks would have given him an extension by now if they were intending to keep him around.

The Seahawks will also have to make decisions on starting right tackle Breno Giacomini and utility lineman Paul McQuistan. Given the injury woes suffered by Seattle up front this season, you can imagine they would want to hold on to both of their linemen, but Giacomini will likely seek a raise on the two-year, $6.5 million deal he’s currently playing out. The Seahawks could also choose to install rookie seventh-rounder Michael Bowie at right tackle or use him as McQuistan’s replacement in the swing role.

New Deals: Oh dear. It’s a good thing to have a lot of talented players who deserve big-money contracts, but man, Paul Allen has a ton of money to hand out over the next few years.

2014 will mark the final year before unrestricted free agency for, among others, Baldwin, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons, Malcolm Smith, Sherman, Thomas, and K.J. Wright. Yikes. The Seahawks have no option years available to them on those deals, either, like the Broncos have with Miller.

All those players are relative bargains (Clemons aside, perhaps) in 2014, but the Seahawks need to give them new deals so they can push a bunch of their guaranteed money onto next year’s cap and clear out space for the next set of extensions they’ll have to give out. That’s because Bruce Irvin (who will have a fifth-year option), Marshawn Lynch, Brandon Mebane, Russell Okung, Wilson, and Wagner will all become free agents after the 2015 season, and that doesn’t include a number of key veterans I suspect won’t be on the roster by then. (More on them in a second.) Holy hell. How are the Seahawks going to fit all these guys under the cap?

Giving the players long contracts with big signing bonuses is only part of the solution. General manager John Schneider is going to have to stagger the base salaries in these contracts to ensure that the likes of Sherman and Thomas collect big guarantees before the likes of Wilson and Wagner do the same. The Seahawks will also have to start stockpiling draft picks, because a top-heavy roster like the one they’re about to have in 2015 and beyond is going to need plenty of cheap depth behind it.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Seahawks extend Thomas and Sherman this offseason. They currently have a combined cap hold of just more than $7.5 million for 2014; new deals would probably see that figure approach a combined $30 million, especially if the Seahawks weight the deals in favor of a bigger first-year payout.

Possible Cap Casualties: The long line of impending extensions will force the Seahawks to make some tough decisions, and that starts this year. The third-highest paid player on the roster next year will be wideout Sidney Rice, who has failed to live up to expectations and struggled to stay healthy since coming over in free agency from Minnesota. He’s owed $9.7 million and then $10.2 million over the next two seasons, salaries that don’t remotely match his production. The Seahawks will likely need to cut him this offseason, a move that will save them $7.3 million this year and the full $10.2 million in 2015.

Their highest-paid player in 2013 was, surprisingly, tight end Zach Miller. The former Raiders star had an $11 million cap hit in 2013, a figure that falls to $7 million and then $6 million over the final two years of his contract. Miller’s a useful blocker, but he hasn’t been quite as effective a receiver as the Seahawks might have expected when they gave him a five-year, $34 million deal. Releasing Miller would save them $5 million in 2014 and $6 million in 2015, but it seems more likely the Seahawks will ask Miller to restructure. They aren’t particularly deep at tight end. The same is true at guard, but the struggles of former first-round pick James Carpenter could lead the Seahawks to cut him and save $1.3 million over the final year of his deal.

Those are the two obvious places to make changes. Seattle could also try to restructure the deals of Clemons (who has a $9.7 million cap hit in the final year of his deal) and Red Bryant ($8.5 million next year). They can’t do much about the biggest escalator on their cap; Percy Harvin’s new contract extension really kicks in next year, as his cap hit rises from $4.9 million to $13.4 million and stays above $11 million for each of the next four seasons.

Offseason Plans: The Seahawks will begin the process of coming to terms on long extensions with their young stars. They’ll need to clear out some space at the top of the cap to do so while maintaining the flexibility they want to bring in a veteran to help the pass rush. If they don’t sign Giacomini, their need for a zone-blocking right tackle could bring them to Eric Winston, who enjoyed success in that role for the Texans. Any additions they make will need to be on a one- or two-year deal, because the cap space just isn’t going to be there in 2016 and beyond. Of course, with the talent Seattle has, it won’t miss the cap space all that much.

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Barnwell, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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