ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –- When John Elway was asked in recent weeks what he believed the most important part of his job was as the Denver Broncos’ chief football decision-maker, he said it was the salary cap.
And the draft. And the team’s depth chart. And free agency.
Basically he lumped it all together, filed it all under one heading when he said, "I think it’s about trying to stay two steps ahead to see what we need to do now and how it affects us down the road. To be prepared to do what it takes to keep the Denver Broncos competitive and operated the way [owner] Mr. [Pat] Bowlen wants the team to operate."
Which is exactly why the Broncos have at least started the wheels in motion on new contracts for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas. Both are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after whatever becomes of the 2014 season, which makes them two of the most important steps the team will try to take on the contract front.
That certainly isn’t a surprise given it’s exactly what Elway said in the days that followed the Broncos’ loss in Super Bowl XLVIII that the team planned to do and what he reaffirmed at the league meetings in March. But since the start of their offseason program, they have begun to start talking at least in general parameters for Julius Thomas and have advanced at least far enough in talks with representatives for Demaryius Thomas that an initial five-year offer has been placed on the table.
The Broncos, as well as the players, are likely looking at roughly a six-week window to finish any deals. Neither side is looking to do anything once training camp starts the clock on what all involved hope is another Super Bowl season. The Broncos' players will report on July 23, and the team will have its first practice on July 24.
To sign either Thomas now, however, the Broncos would have to put enough on the table to entice each to skip a potentially lucrative trip into the open market. But these two are high-priority players on the Broncos’ docket, so much so that the team, at least in part, didn’t make an offer to its own free agents earlier this year, including guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Eric Decker, simply to be in a position to work toward deals for the two Thomases.
There is no reason to believe the Broncos won’t have to make Demaryius Thomas one of the highest-paid receivers in the league to keep him off the open market. That neighborhood is just north of $12 million per year, given the deals Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin and Mike Wallace have signed.
And there is the fact Thomas is the only wide receiver in the league to have finished this past season with at least 1,400 yards, 90 catches and a 15 yards per catch average. He’s physical enough to run through tackles, makes catches in a crowd and is fast enough to, as defensive coordinators say, take the lid off a defense deep.
Thomas also led all NFL receivers last season with almost 700 yards' worth of yardage after the catch. At the moment, Thomas carries the eighth-highest salary-cap figure on the team for ’14 at $4.7 million; Wes Welker has the biggest cap figure at receiver for the upcoming season at $8 million. A new deal certainly would move Thomas up the ladder, possibly past everybody else except quarterback Peyton Manning.
The Broncos, who are still under the cap with their top 51 salaries, would have to adjust some to squeeze a new deal for Demaryius Thomas under the $133 million bar. Their top 51 salaries -- teams don’t have to be under with all 53 contracts until final roster cuts just before the start of the regular season -- come in at just over $132 million at the moment.
So, to do deals for Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas would require some legitimate salary-cap work to get it all done.
The Broncos do have the option -- one that certainly has been discussed extensively internally -- to sign one of the players before the 2014 season and then use the franchise player tag on the other one just before free agency begins next offseason.
The franchise tag for a wide receiver for 2014 was $12.312 million, and at tight end it was $7.035 million -- those deals would be for one year and are guaranteed from the moment the player signs them. But given as much as Julius Thomas is lined up in the slot and out wide, it’s likely he would take the same stance New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has taken, that he should be considered as a wide receiver when it comes to salary and not a tight end.
In the end, though, when it comes to the players the Broncos want to keep or sign from elsewhere, Elway and the Broncos' salary-cap guru, Mike Sullivan, have set players’ values and stuck to those numbers, whether it was by handing those players a deal or letting them move on to try to get more elsewhere. But to this point in his tenure, Elway has routinely closed the deals he wants to close.
And he said he wants to close these two, but it just might have to be one offseason at a time to get them both.