Broncos beware: Free-agent hit rate has been poor of late

Last offseason John Elway gave offensive tackle Ju'Wuan James a four-year, $51 million deal in free agency. James played in just three games. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are poised for an offseason flush with salary-cap space and draft picks.

More flush -- as in more than $60 million in salary cap space before they've made any roster moves and a projected 12 draft picks -- than they've been during John Elway's tenure as the team's top football executive.

The Broncos appear to have fixed their struggles in the draft with their past two classes after stumbling in in 2016 and 2017. But since their free agency class of 2014 (Emmanuel Sanders, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib), the Broncos' work in the open market has been a decidedly frustrating mixed bag. Injuries, short tenures and not nearly enough bang for the buck have derailed several free-agent classes.

This offseason, the Broncos must not just spend, but spend wisely.

"We're going to do all the homework we can and hope that we don't have the luck that we had this year with the injuries we had," Elway said just after the season. "We think that there are some quality football players out there that can help us."

The Broncos will dive into their work in free agency without their longtime lead contract negotiator -- director of team administration Mike Sullivan. Sullivan, who was hired shortly after Elway returned to the team in 2011, will not have his contract renewed. In the short term that will put even more emphasis on how Elway himself manages the team's checkbook.

This past offseason, just one player among the top four contracts the Broncos awarded to outside free agents -- safety Kareem Jackson (three years, $33 million) -- played more than 63 snaps. Two other players -- cornerback Bryce Callahan (three years, $21 million) and running back Theo Riddick (1 year, $2.5 million) -- didn't appear in a game, spending the season on injured reserve with foot and shoulder injuries, respectively. Tackle Ja'Wuan James, who was signed for four years and $51 million, played in three games (63 snaps in all) because of a knee injury he suffered 10 plays into the season opener.

James and the Broncos seemed at odds at times over the injury. James said on Christmas Eve he had actually dealt with torn ligaments in his knee and that the knee kept "giving out" in practice as well as in the half he played Dec. 8 against the Houston Texans. Broncos coach Vic Fangio often said over the season's last month that James had been cleared to practice, but was not "mentally" ready to play or "comfortable."

After the season Elway said he was optimistic James would be ready for a bounce back in 2020 and that the Broncos and James were on the same page on the injury, offering: "[Players] are in charge of their bodies. The one thing I don't want to do is I don't want to question it. It's ultimately up to Ja'Wuan, and I think the trust factor is there. For us, we have to trust the player and what the player says that he can and can't do. No matter what the doctor says, it's still up to the player."

James is an example of the risk a team takes when it signs a player with some injury history. In his five seasons in Miami, James did not play more than eight games in back-to-back seasons. Including the three games he played for the Broncos in 2019, James has played 16, 7, 16, 8, 15 and 3 games over his six seasons.

Injuries are indeed fact of NFL life, but the Broncos have had more than their share among their big-ticket signings.

In 2018, punter Marquette King got the second-biggest contract of any new Bronco -- three years, $6 million -- but was released after an injury settlement in October. He appeared in just four games.

Among the team's 2017 free agents, injury-prone tackle Menelik Watson (three years, $18.375 million) got the second-biggest contract, but played just seven games and was released before his second season.

The Broncos struggled with their choices in 2016 along both lines. Tackle Russell Okung got a five-year, $53 million deal, but played just one season for the Broncos because the team declined to pick up a contract option. Tackle Donald Stephenson got a three-year, $14 million deal before the 2016 season, when he started 12 games due to injuries. In 2017 he made just four starts. Defensive end Jared Crick signed a two-year, $14 million deal and started all but one game in 2016 before he injured his back in 2017's training camp.

Crick, Stephenson, Watson and King did not play in another NFL game after their shortened tenures ended with the Broncos.

"I think we still do as much homework as we can and get as much information as we can," Elway said. " ... The base that we have, the young talent that we have, the picks that we have and the staff that we have, things are trending up. Now, that's not to say they're going to continue to go that way. We have a lot of work to do. We have to get better in a lot of spots."