ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The thing about the football business is there is the football and there is the business.
And in terms of football, the Denver Broncos believe they are a team worthy of being in Super Bowl conversations. But in the business of their business, they face the prospect of it being the Year of the Contract on defense, as six players who have started games for the team are poised for unrestricted free agency at season's end, including Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller.
When all is said and done in 2015, decisions will be made about who stays and who goes, but as the Broncos closed out their offseason program in recent weeks, it was clear all involved want, and need, it to be a win-win situation, as in the Broncos win and the contracts follow.
Or as defensive end Derek Wolfe put it: “My main goal is winning a Super Bowl. That’s all I care about right now. If we win a Super Bowl, everybody gets paid. That’s our goal right now as a team."
Money matters will always matter in the league, and this season will present some challenges in that regard for the Broncos on defense, even as they spent much of the offseason trying to hammer out a deal with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who currently carries the franchise-player tag.
But when John Elway took over as the team’s chief football decision-maker in 2011, the Broncos needed plenty of help across the depth chart. In particular, the team needed, in Elway’s eyes, a makeover on defense. And with 16 picks combined in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, the Broncos selected 10 defensive players.
Two of those picks – safety Rahim Moore and Nate Irving – already moved on and signed elsewhere in free agency this past March. And this year Miller, Wolfe, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan will be projected starters when the Broncos open training camp. All four are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at season’s end.
Also scheduled to be unrestricted free agents are linebacker Steven Johnson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012, and safety David Bruton Jr., who is the team’s only remaining draft pick on the roster from the 2009 class. Both players have started games for the Broncos in their careers and consistently have been among the team’s best special-teams players.
That rather stout list would include cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as well, but Harris signed a five-year contract last December, in part, he said, because he wanted to stay and get something done before free agency opened.
“I remember last year after I got my deal, I was able to just play more freely and just really play my game,’’ Harris said. “ … I don’t think it affected my play. I think I played at a high level while talks were going, but as a player you want that security. Especially since I wasn’t drafted, it was really my first chance at that kind of thing, I wanted to get it right, and doing it before the season was best for me."
Of this year’s group, Miller certainly tops the list. He was Elway’s first selection on the job – second overall in the 2011 draft – and returned to the Pro Bowl following the 2014 season after a 2013 season that included a five-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and a torn ACL.
Thomas has the franchise-player tag at the moment, but if the Broncos work out a long-term deal with Thomas before July 15, that franchise player tag could conceivably be used on Miller next offseason. If no deal is worked out with Thomas, the Broncos will have two of their elite players with expiring contracts and one franchise-player tag to use.
For his part, Miller said he has altered his eating habits this offseason. He has shunned drinks with sugar in them and is poised “for big things because I feel great, better than I ever have."
“But I just want to play the best I can,’’ Miller said. “Everything takes care of itself if we do good things and I play like I want to for this team … I think guys here worry about winning. The time for all that other stuff is after the season.’’
Harris, too, said he doesn’t believe any of the Broncos have let off-the-field issues affect how things go on the field on the way to four consecutive AFC West titles.
“Champ [Bailey] used to say, 'Your play has to speak for you on that, so don’t let that slip,'’’ Harris said. "They ain't going to sign you if you're out there messing up."
Or, as Jackson, who is poised to be a breakout player in the team’s new 3-4 defense, put it earlier this offseason: “I’m just worried about – seriously -- just going out there and doing my part, and making them give me as much as I feel like I deserve. Right now it’s not about the money -- which would be nice, I’m not going to lie. But right now it’s about going out here and just trying to earn it … so for me and to sit there and be worried about a contract right now would be silly. … The way I see it, I’m just waiting for the end of the year. That’s when I see it coming."