Broncos' QB hunt, salary-cap structure could force out some familiar names

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For many who wore a Denver Broncos uniform in a disappointing 5-11 season, the proverbial other shoe has not yet dropped, and it won’t for weeks.

Among all the choices to be made, the Broncos have three high-profile veteran players who have each played in at least one Pro Bowl in their time with the team -- and who likely don’t know their fate for 2018.

“It’s uncertain for everybody," is how running back C.J. Anderson has put it. “... You have a season like we had and you know they’re going to change things all over. Me? I don’t know, that’s not my decision -- that’s upstairs. We’ll see."

Scan the Broncos’ salary-cap table for the 2018 season, talk to players in the locker room and look at how things have gone in previous seasons when they have faced roster decisions, and Anderson, cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders are all in the same contractual boat.

All three are starters, all three have at least two years left on their deals and all three are high-priced veteran players at positions where the Broncos may be looking for a bit of a makeover. As this past season drew to a close, coach Vance Joseph summed up what the weeks and months to come will bring with this: “I don’t know who will be back."

Part of the reason for this is the Broncos' salary-cap structure. Because they’ve spent the past two seasons with most of the quarterbacks still on their rookie contracts, their salary-cap charges at the position were far lower than those of their NFL peers.

So among the Broncos’ six biggest contracts against the salary cap in 2018, there are two wide receivers and two cornerbacks. And if the Broncos are going to use the No. 5 pick of the draft -- or any pick in the top 10 -- on a quarterback or sign one in free agency, or do both, that structure simply may not work any longer.

Talib is scheduled to count $12 million against the cap in the 2018 season, Sanders $10.94 million. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas ($12.03 million) has the second-highest cap hit for ’18, behind linebacker Von Miller, and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. ($10.37 million) is sixth.

Anderson has the 12th-highest cap figure ($4.5 million), but the Broncos have used a pick on a running back in each of the past two drafts and Anderson’s contract is structured in such a way he could be released with no “dead money" charges.

Talib’s deal gives the Broncos an out as well, given he can be released with a “dead money" charge of $1 million, far less than is usually the case for a contract with as many years remaining (two) and for as much as Talib signed ($57 million) in 2014. Talib recently pointed out that with Harris, at No. 6, and Bradley Roby, with the No. 8 cap figure ($8.526 million), at cornerback, the Broncos may simply not want to have three players at the same position among their eight biggest cap charges.

In a recent appearance on Altitude 950-AM, Talib said, “[There are] three corners making big money, so it’s kind of up the air."

Talib, who was just named to his fourth Pro Bowl in his four seasons with the Broncos, also was asked if he believed he would return for next season after meeting with Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods on New Year’s Day, when the players went through their exit physicals. “It’s a chance I will be [back]," Talib said. "And if I wasn’t, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world. ... Put it like this ... I had good conversations with Vance and Joe Woods. I mean, things change. There’s a chance I will be [back]."

For his part, Sanders was limited after a Week 6 ankle injury and missed four games in all, including the last two of the season. He didn’t have a touchdown catch after Week 2.

Some around the Broncos have pointed to Sanders’ Instagram post last month that included, along with the advice to “stay humble" and “trust your instincts," a closing line that read, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it," as an early sign he was unsure of his status. Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway has made quarterback the team’s top offseason priority, and with the offseason having just gotten underway, he has lumped many of the other decisions to be made under “part of the discussions we’ll have."

“But you know changes are coming," Anderson said. “How can they not? But as players, it’s out of our hands. All you can do is get back to work and wait and see."