Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Desirability of the NFL Coaching Vacancies

UPDATE, 1/2/15: Since I wrote this blog post, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract with the Buffalo Bills. I have now added Buffalo to this list.


Six NFL teams will be looking for head coaches this offseason, and there will be plenty of people interviewed for those jobs. But how desirable are the available openings?

When you look at certain NFL teams, you find those franchises that have had plenty of success and those that have had struggled to put together winning seasons on a regular basis. The ones in the latter category tend to be those franchises which aren't run well, and much of that falls on ownership. The best owners are those that will allow their coaches and general managers to run operations as they see fit, and then evaluate them regularly. The least desirable owners are those who meddle too much in the day-to-day operations and get too worried about a coach who isn't afraid to express his opinion.

Additionally, what makes a coaching job desirable can also depend on the players already on the roster, how many of those players are expected to stay on the roster, and what the general manager situation is like. These factors can have an impact on how well the coach is able to do his job.
With that in mind, I've ranked the five head coaching vacancies in order of desirability:

Atlanta: Arthur Blank is not without his faults, but he has generally been an owner who will allow those he hires to run the team, be allowed to do so without intervening in the day-to-day operations. In his press conference, it was pretty clear he liked Mike Smith, the man who was removed as head coach, but felt there was no choice in the matter but to let Smith go.

Additionally, there are some good players on the roster, such as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant, so it's not a complete rebuilding project. It's not exactly a "reloading" situation, though, as the defense does need much overhauling and there are some positions on the offense to address.

The general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, has had a fairly good track record with his drafts, but his ventures into free agency have been hit or miss. And, while Blank isn't considered the impatient type, there might be some concern as to how much longer Blank will give Dimitroff to turn things around in terms of personnel decisions.

Still, the Falcons have the most desirable head coaching position. It's the one position I would accept if I were Rex Ryan, as he would be in a more stable situation than he was with his previous employer.

Buffalo: The Bills are now under the ownership of Terry Pegula, and while it remains to be seen how he will fare as the owner, it does appear that he will follow a similar path to Ralph Wilson, in that he will allow those who run the day-to-day operations to do so. A new coach will know he will get to start fresh with a new owner in building a good franchise.

And in Buffalo, there isn't that much building that needs to be done. The defense was very good and the majority of the players will return. There are some quality receivers and offensive linemen as well. The Bills do need a quarterback, and will have to determine what to do at running back, though, and this must be accomplished without a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.

That brings us to the general manager, Doug Whaley, who took over late last year. While it isn't clear how much influence he had on all of the Bills' recent draft picks, it does appear fair to credit him with the decisions made in the 2014 draft. Considering that he gave up a lot to move up in the draft to select Sammy Watkins, it's not quite a good reflection on his draft acumen. A new coach might wonder if Whaley might not be with the franchise for much longer, particularly if Watkins doesn't pay greater dividends next season.

That aside, there is plenty to like about the Bills' situation, so while it's not as desirable as the Falcons, it's still a good landing spot. As the Bills have a good defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz, it's an ideal place for a offensive-minded coach who can help the offense improve, particularly at the QB position.

Chicago: The Bears ownership is not without its weaknesses, but again, this is a team in which the owners aren't constantly meddling in the day-to-day operations. So whoever is hired as a coach should feel comfortable that he will be allowed to do his job as he sees fit.

Additionally, whoever is the new coach will get to start with a new general manager, so there won't be any immediate concerns about a general manager who may be on a short leash. The new coach could work with the new GM to construct a roster that would fit a common vision.

There are some pieces in place on the offense, but the one issue is whether or not the Bears wish to keep Jay Cutler, given how undesirable his contract is, relative to his on-field performance. Would the new coach be willing to give Cutler a chance to redeem himself, or would he prefer to move on, and if the latter, could he do so without raising a huge fuss about it? Additionally, the defense must be rebuilt almost entirely, all while trying to deal with a few underachieving players who weren't signed to team-friendly contracts.

I don't believe Chicago is as desirable a landing spot as Atlanta, but it's not a bad situation overall. It just requires a coach who, along with the new GM, can clearly communicate with the fanbase about their vision and can delicately handle the quarterback situation.

Oakland: It's hard to figure out exactly what direction Mark Davis wants the Raiders to go, but at the very least, he's nowhere near as hands-on with team affairs as his father was. There are questions, though, as to whether or not he truly allows the men in charge to do their jobs. One only needs to look back at the Rodger Saffold situation and wonder what role Davis played in that.

Speaking of which, that brings us to Reggie McKenzie, who has been hit or miss with his personnel decisions. He's been solid from a drafting standpoint, but not as good in free agency. While he did get the cap situation back under control, his signings last season seemed more about showing he was willing to spend money, rather than improve the team overall. And there is the question about how long McKenize may last in his position.

With that said, some of the players he has drafted could pay dividends down the road. Khalil Mack looks like a very good find, Derek Carr improved throughout the season, and D.J. Hayden showed some promise when he was able to take the field.

The Raiders do have a few good selling points, but the questions surrounding ownership and the GM make this one not as desirable. It will certainly require a coach who is willing to show a lot of patience and can do a good job selling his vision.

New York Jets: We now come to one of the two teams with an owner who tends to meddle too much into team affairs. Woody Johnson is most frequently cited as the person who wanted Tim Tebow when the Broncos put him on the trading block several years ago, and reportedly had a hand in bringing Brett Favre on board. One has to wonder if he is going to be content to back away and let those who run the day-to-day operations, to do their jobs as they see fit.

Still, there are some desirable points to the job. The Jets will be looking for a new general manager, so as with Chicago, the coach and GM can be linked together for a common vision. The Jets do have a few quality players on both sides of the ball, although they do have plenty of positions that remain a question mark. 

Finally, there is the media presence to consider. The Jets come under far more scrutiny than the Giants do, in large part because the franchise has been so inconsistent over the years. It adds up to a position in which a coach might be able to find some success, but will need to clearly communicate that the team is rebuilding and that there is no quick fix. That's something he'll have to especially communicate to Johnson, who strikes me as an owner who wants to win now.

San Francisco: One would think the 49ers job would be a desirable one -- after all, look at all the talent they have, and they aren't that far removed from three playoff trips! Except a closer look reveals that the Niners are projected to be above the salary cap next season, they will likely cut loose several veterans, some of the younger players now carry question marks, and they could lose a few key free agents. In other words, the Niners might be closer to a team in need of rebuilding than one that needs to reload.

And then there's general manager Trent Baalke, who seems to have the trust of Jed York, but who knows how long that will last. Baalke's draft record has been spotty, and given the team's cap situation, the draft is where the team really needs to get it right. How can a new coach trust that Baalke will get it right, and that he will stick around for more than a season if things don't go so well in 2015?

Finally, there is Jed York, who has given me the impression of an owner who is more interested in having a coach who never expresses an opinion, regardless of what results he gets on the field. Jim Harbaugh can be a pain to deal with, but he gets results more often than not. Owners who aren't interested in meddling in the day-to-day operations of a team would happily keep Harbaugh around -- they might not always agree with what he says, but it wouldn't matter to them if their teams kept making playoff appearances and were a Super Bowl favorite.

York's response to those questioning what happened with Harbaugh is the reason I don't find the Niners' job to be very desirable. I suspect any coach who goes there will have a hard time finding success, particularly a coach who isn't afraid to express his opinion on the direction he thinks the team should take. The fact ownership in San Francisco seems more interested in having a "yes man" for a coach makes this a job I would not have interest in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oh Where, Oh Where, Will Our Little Jay Cutler Go?

It was just a few years ago that people were wondering why the Denver Broncos would want to trade a franchise quarterback.

Fast forward to today, and that franchise quarterback has been benched for Jimmy Clausen and may be on the move again.

The decision to replace Chicago Bears starting quarterback with Clausen would appear to signal the end of Cutler's tenure with the Bears. Cutler's story has been that of a quarterback who has plenty of talent, but has never been able to reach his potential.

Still, this was a player whom the Bears rewarded with a contract that gave him $38 million in fully guaranteed money for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. If he remains with the Bears by the third day of the 2015 league year, he gets an additional $10 million in full guarantees for 2016. It remains a head-scratching deal for a quarterback who has been inconsistent throughout his career and, while he and the Bears did reach the NFC championship game in the 2010 season, he has no other playoff trips.

One might argue, at the time Cutler signed his new contract, that there weren't any better options available. Still, the Bears could have protected themselves with a contract that fully guaranteed his 2014 salary, then made his 2015 and 2016 salaries guaranteed for injury only.

But that aside, given that the Bears would take too great a cap hit by releasing Cutler after this season, and would still have to pay him $15.5 million, it means that their only option is to trade him. A trade would likely mean the Bears would have to agree to pay a portion of his 2015 salary. The Bears would also have to accept that they would, at the most, get a 2015 second-round pick and a quarterback in return, and might get a conditional pick in 2016 (said pick would be on the condition that the team who acquires Cutler makes the playoffs in 2015).

But who would be the suitors? There are a few teams who could be in the market for a quarterback next season, so let's go over them, from least likely to most likely.

Miami: There is some talk that the Dolphins might want to upgrade at quarterback in hopes of making that final push to the playoffs. And Ryan Tannehill would certainly be an attractive option for the Bears. However, the Dolphins are projected to be slightly over the cap next season (about $2.6 million) and would have to make a lot of moves to fit Cutler's deal under the cap. Since that would mean cutting some players who could help the Dolphins with a playoff push, trading for Cutler would be counterproductive. I think you can safely scratch the Dolphins from the list of suitors.

Philadelphia: The Eagles are a playoff contender that has some question marks at the quarterback position. Nick Foles regressed from last season, prior to his injury, and Mark Sanchez continues to be inconsistent. Philly would be an attractive landing spot for Cutler, as he would join a playoff contender with some good talent in place. And if the Bears get Foles, they would have a solid, young QB. The issue for the Eagles is their cap space is tight, projected at slightly less than $4 million. Philly might be able to free up some space by restructuring contracts, but failing that, they'd have to release some players. The question is whether or not Philly would feel comfortable doing that, and if they truly believe that Chip Kelly can correct Cutler's issues at quarterback enough to compensate for any players they part ways with. Call the Eagles a remote possibility.

St. Louis: The Rams make sense on the surface, given that Jeff Fisher supposedly liked Cutler in the 2006 NFL draft, before being pushed toward Vince Young. There is also a good amount of talent on the Rams, and they most certainly need a better QB, unless they really believe Sam Bradford should get one more season to prove himself. Again, though, the Rams are tight on projected cap space (about $5.3 million), although parting ways with Bradford would free up a lot of space -- but maybe not enough for them to accommodate Cutler's contract and still allow space for draft picks and low-cost free agents. The Rams may be more likely to pursue lower-cost options at QB. As with the Eagles, the Rams are a remote possibility.

Houston: The Texans certainly have the talent in place and a good quarterback could boost their chances of reaching the playoffs next year. Houston is projected to have $10 million in cap space, but could get some wiggle room by either cutting Ryan Fitzpatrick or including him in a trade with the Bears (Fitzpatrick would at least give Chicago a short-term solution). It's possible Andre Johnson could agree to restructure his deal if he believes Cutler could get the Texans back into the playoffs, and Houston could also cut underachieving cornerback Jonathan Joseph. Questions to answer, though, may be whether or not Bill O'Brien believes he can get the most out of Cutler, and if the Bears would be OK with Fitzpatrick in 2015. Call it a 50-50 chance.

Buffalo: The Bills have a lot of pieces in place except for one: A quarterback who can put them over the top. The irony of such a trade is that Kyle Orton would enter the picture again... if you recall, the Broncos acquired Orton as part of their Cutler trade. That doesn't mean Orton would be sent to Chicago, although it's not out of the question. It might also be the chance for the Bills to unload EJ Manuel and allow the former first-round pick a fresh start. The Bills, though, would have to do some maneuvering with the cap (they are projected to be $16 million under), and they might prefer to use that cap space to re-signing pending free agents, most notably defensive end Jerry Hughes. As with the Texans, it looks like a 50-50 chance that Cutler goes to Buffalo.

Washington: We have all heard the stories about Dan Snyder and his love for making splashy moves. And as we all remember, Washington was close to acquiring Cutler back in 2008, when the Bears entered the picture and things unfolded differently. Washington's cap space is projected at $16 million, but Snyder has never been too worried about fitting name players under the cap. As for the Bears, they could get Robert Griffin III as part of the deal and choose not to pick up his 2016 option, while finding out if RG3 can resurrect his career. The only question, though, is whether or not Washington's past flirtations with Cutler were rooted in the idea that Mike Shanahan would coach the team, and we all know that's not happening again. A good, but not great, chance that Cutler ends up in Washington.

Cleveland: It's pretty clear that Brian Hoyer isn't the answer at quarterback, and now some doubts are creeping in about whether or not Johnny Manziel is the long-term solution, even though Manziel has just one NFL start under his belt. Some in Cleveland might think that acquiring Cutler would push the Browns into the playoff hunt, especially because the Browns will have two first-round picks in 2015 to address immediate  needs. Combine that with some players who will return from injury (most notable, center Alex Mack), and an offensive coordinator who might know what to do with Cutler (Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son), and it would appear to be a good fit. The wild card in this situation is obviously Manziel, who would likely become part of the trade package. But would the Browns be that quick to declare the Manziel experiment is already over? And would the Bears be welcoming of Johnny Football into their environment? Another good, but not great, chance of this happening. 

Tennessee: We have heard stories about how Ken Whisenhunt is good at working with quarterbacks, although he hasn't gotten much out of the passers he has in Tennessee. For all of Cutler's faults, he's certainly a better quarterback than any of the passers the Titans currently have. Tennessee is in position to finish with the second overall pick in the draft, meaning they may be forced to decide whichever QB that doesn't go first overall (whether that's Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston) is worth selecting. That could make them consider trading for Cutler, and they will have the cap space to accommodate his deal. With Tennessee, though, there really isn't a QB that would be worth it for Chicago to acquire in a trade, so the Titans might have to throw in a late-round pick in 2015. That alone shouldn't keep the Titans from being one of the more likely landing spots for Cutler, though.

Tampa Bay: Cutler played under head coach Lovie Smith for several years -- and, hey, the Bears could bring back Josh McCown! Seriously, the Buccaneers are definitely in the  market for a quarterback, and if they do get the No. 1 overall pick, who knows if they would be sold on Mariota or Winston. If the Bucs finish with the No. 1 overall pick, and were to acquire Cutler, they could then offer the top pick to the highest bidder. The Bucs do have the cap space to acquire Cutler, and while it's not a given that they would send McCown to the Bears, they could offer Mike Glennon, a very low-cost option. On top of that, the NFC South was a weak division this year and acquiring the right quarterback could thrust Tampa Bay to the top. Finally, Tampa Bay did inquire about Cutler back in 2008. The only question is whether the Bucs will prefer to build around a younger QB. But the chances of Cutler going to Tampa Bay are very good.

New York Jets: And here we go... we all know about how Woody Johnson wants the Jets to be the center of attention and to get back to the playoffs again. And look at all that cap space the Jets have. And consider that their chances of finishing with one of the top two picks are slim, and a couple of teams who may finish ahead of them in the 2015 draft, happen to need quarterbacks. What better way for Woody Johnson to make headlines and fill a pressing need than to acquire Jay Cutler? Of course, you have to remember that John Izdik is the general manager and would probably not want to bite the bullet on such a trade. But if Izdik is fired, Johnson could instead choose to bring in a GM who wants to spend that cap space. The Jets could offer Geno Smith in return as part of the deal, with the idea that Smith could benefit from a fresh start in Chicago. Even if Izdik sticks around, he could be under pressure to make a bold move, and acquiring Cutler would be just that. It's not a lock that Cutler would go to the Jets this offseason, but given the circumstances surrounding this team, the Jets would be the least surprising team to acquire him.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How The Broncos Could Possibly Approach the 2015 Offseason

Denver Broncos fans have been used to John Elway making headlines with his moves in free agency. In past seasons, he has brought in the likes of Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, all high-profile names.

The chances that it happens again this offseason are slim, not because cap space is tight or because the Broncos spent so much money in past years, but because the priority will be to get pending free agents re-signed.

There is concern among some fans that the Broncos might lose a lot of players in free agency, especially because teams such as the Jets, the Raiders and the Jaguars will enter the 2015 offseason with a lot of cap space. Per estimates from Over the Cap, with a projected cap of about $140 million for 2015, the Raiders will have $54.8 million in space, the Jags will have $44 million and the Jets $41.1 million.

The Broncos are not in a tight cap situation, though, as Over the Cap estimates the team's space to be $32 million. That's actually plenty of space to get a few players re-signed, while still allowing the Broncos to add a low-cost free agent or two, then sign their draft players and a few rookie free agents.

To get an idea about what the Broncos can do to retain their top free agents, you can visit Over the Cap's salary cap calculator and play around with it. Keep in mind that in order to keep the players you want to retain, you must consider the following:

* Which players to cut to free up cap space.
* Which players to restructure deals, converting base salary and roster bonuses into signing bonuses, giving you more cap room to work with now, while pushing some of the hit down the road.
* Which players are the priority to re-sign and how to structure their deals.
* Which player, if any, you should place the franchise tag on, with the possibility of signing that player to an extension.

I put together a list of moves that the Broncos can make to gain additional cap space, then determined which players were the priority to extend and which player to franchise, then went from there to determine what needs are to be filled in free agency elsewhere or in the draft. For players who are given extensions, I provided the breakdowns of their contracts, to give everyone the idea about how to structure a contract to make it cap friendly.

Start with the Broncos having $32 million in cap space.

Cut Britton Colquitt to save $2.25 million in cap space.
This is an obvious move to make. Colquitt would be due a $3 million base salary, which is way too much considering how much he has underachieved the past two seasons. He will turn 30 next year, so it's not likely the Broncos would re-sign him for less money, even if he is willing to take it.
The cap space rises from $32 million to $34.2 million.

Cut Andre Caldwell, saving $1.35 million in cap space.
It should be safe to cut Caldwell, even though the Broncos have two wide receivers who will be free agents. They drafted Cody Latimer and will get Jordan Norwood back, and Norwood comes at a lower salary. Plus the Broncos could find a wide receiver who can play special teams through free agency and likely get him for less money than Caldwell would cost.
The cap space rises from $34.2 million to $35.6 million.

Cut Manny Ramirez to save $2.3 million in cap space.
Ramirez turns 32 next year, has regressed this season and is not worth a $2.4 million cap hit at this point. The Broncos could find better options in free agency, or perhaps Ben Garland will be ready to take over as a starter.
The cap space rises from $35.6 million to $37.9 million.

Restructure Ryan Clady's contract, by converting his $1.5 million roster bonus and $5 million of his base salary into a $6.5 million signing bonus. Clady would still receive a $3.5 million base salary, fully guaranteed.
When you restructure a contract, you are not cutting the player's salary, but converting base salary and any roster bonuses into a signing bonus, which you can then spread out over the remaining years of the contract. The player benefits because he is given a lump sum of fully guaranteed money, and the team benefits by gaining cap space.
Clady would still get his money in full for 2015, with the only difference being how much is in the form of a signing bonus, so there should not be any issues with getting him to agree to restructure. If Clady doesn't agree to this restructure, he is very likely to be cut, so it would make more sense for Clady to agree to restructure, ensuring he gets the $10 million in money he is set to make. If he were cut, it's highly unlikely another team will give him $10 million for the 2015 season.
The cap space rises from $37.9 million to $42.2 million.

Restructure/extend Louis Vasquez's contract, by converting $4 million of his $5 million base salary into a signing bonus, and giving him an additional year on his contract into 2017 for $5.5 million (not guaranteed).
A restructure with a one-year extension would benefit Vasquez, because the $5 million in base salary is not fully guaranteed, but converting much of that into a signing bonus gives him fully guaranteed money for the 2015 season. Because he has been one of Denver's better linemen, and will still be in the prime of his career, it makes sense to add a year to his deal, at the same amount he is set to make in 2016. The Broncos, meanwhile, benefit from additional cap relief.
The cap space rises from $42.2 million to $44.9 million.

No tenders will be extended to Tony Carter or John Youboty.
It's clear that Carter is not going to be with the Broncos next season. As for Youboty, the Broncos are in good shape at defensive end, so they don't absolutely need to keep Youboty. They can always find undrafted rookies they could sign to provide competition for training camp.

Original round RFA tenders and/or ERFA tenders to Ben Garland, Paul Cornick, Brandon Marshall, Steven Johnson and Aaron Brewer.
First of all, I am hearing different stories regarding LB Brandon Marshall, with some saying that he is a restricted free agent, while others say he is an exclusive rights free agent. Regardless, it's clear the Broncos need to tender him. Assuming he is an RFA, an original round tender is $1.33 million.
As for the others, Garland and Cornick are ERFAs, while Johnson and Brewer are RFAs. I think the Broncos will want to keep Garland and Cornick because of their familiarity with what the Broncos do. Johnson is a quality depth and special teams player who is worth an original round tender, and Brewer has been a good long snapper. I doubt either player will be highly coveted by other teams, so an original round tender for both makes sense.
The tenders reduce the cap space from $44.9 million to $39.9 million.

Here I will focus on the  players who the Broncos should re-sign. These are the players in which the Broncos will need to do a good job of structuring contracts and signing bonuses to make them cap friendly, while still rewarding each player with a pay increase worthy of their overall play.

Re-sign Chris Harris to a five-year, $65 million contract. The contract would include an $11 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1.5 million. He would have 2016 and 2017 salaries of $11 million and $12 million, guaranteed for injury only, becoming fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on a certain date.
I examined the contracts for Joe Haden, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson to get an idea about how the Broncos can structure Harris' contract. Here's what the structure would look like.

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1.5M                   $2.2M                   $3.7M   $12.5M                 ($8.8M)
2016       $11M                     $2.2M                   $13.2M $8.8M                   $4.4M
2017       $12M                     $2.2M                   $14.2M $6.6M                   $7.6M
2018       $14.5M                 $2.2M                   $16.7M $4.4M                   $12.3M
2019       $15M                     $2.2M                   $17.2M $2.2M                   $15M

As you can see, the years in which Harris' contract would take the greatest hit are pushed down the road when the cap is expected to rise further. Harris benefits by getting $12.5 million in fully guaranteed money, and in the next two seasons, he can ensure himself that money by continuing to perform at the high level he has shown. In 2018, the Broncos can decide whether or not to restructure/extend his deal to get cap relief and reward him again with fully guaranteed money.
This contact reduces the cap space from $39.9 million to $36.2 million.

Re-sign Demaryius Thomas to a five-year, $70 million contract. The contract would include a $14 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1 million. He would have 2016 and 2017 salaries of $13 million each year, guaranteed for injury only, becoming fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on a certain date.
I used the contracts that Mike Wallace and Percy Harvin recently signed as baselines, but took into account that Thomas is deserving of more money than either of those receivers. I figure that an average salary per year of $14 million is what he will command, as that would put him among the top five salaries for wide receivers. Here is the contract structure.

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1M                       $2.8M                   $3.8M   $15M                     ($11.2M)
2016       $13M                     $2.8M                   $15.8M $11.2M                 $4.6M
2017       $13M                     $2.8M                   $15.8M $8.4M                   $7.4M
2018       $14M                     $2.8M                   $16.8M $5.6M                   $11.2M
2019       $15M                     $2.8M                   $17.8M $2.8M                   $15M

Again, the largest figures in the contract are pushed down to the final two years, plus Thomas can ensure himself a large portion of the contract by continuing to perform at a high level. As with Harris, the Broncos can decide what to do with Thomas in 2018.
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $36.2 million to $32.4 million.

Re-sign Orlando Franklin to a four-year, $21 million contract. The contract would include a $4 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1 million. His 2016 salary of $5 million is guaranteed for injury only, becoming fully guaranteed if he's on the roster on a certain date.
I looked at Louis Vasquez, who got a similar deal, only with slightly more total money ($23 million). Franklin might have to take less money, but such a contract would still reward him well, especially because he has never made more than $1 million in a single season. Here is the structure for this contract. 

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1M                       $1M                       $2M       $5M                       ($3M)
2016       $5M                       $1M                       $6M       $3M                       $3M
2017       $5M                       $1M                       $6M       $2M                       $4M
2018       $6M                       $1M                       $7M       $1M                       $6M
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $32.4 million to $30.4 million.

Re-sign Terrance Knighton to a three-year, $18 million contract. The contract would include a $5 million signing bonus (fully guaranteed) and a fully guaranteed base salary of $1 million. In 2016, he would receive a $1.5 million roster bonus, along with a $3.5 million base salary, if he is on the roster on a certain date.
Certainly the Broncos will want to reward Knighton for his play, but he's not likely to get as much as some may think, because his quality of play has been tied so much to the presence of Jack Del Rio. Additionally, he will turn 29 next season, so you have to be careful how much money you commit to him.
I believe a three-year deal that will guarantee Knighton $6 million for 2015, and the incentive to earn an additional $5 million in 2016, will be worth it to Knighton, given that he was paid just $4 million in the past two seasons. Here is the contract structure.

Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $1M                       $1.66M                 $2.66M $6M                       ($3.33M)
2016       $3.5M ($1.5M B) $1.66M               $6.66M $3.33M                 $3.33M
2017       $7M                       $1.66M                 $8.66M $1.66M                 $7M
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $30.4 million to $27.7 million.

Re-sign Virgil Green to a three-year, $4.5 million contract. The contract would include a $1.2 million signing bonus.
Green has been invaluable as a blocking tight end and special teams player. I used David Bruton's contract as the guideline, because Bruton has also been a quality special teams player and has similar value to Green. Here is the contract structure.
Year       Base Salary         Prorated              Cap Hit  Dead Money      Cap Savings
2015       $800K                    $400K                    $1.2M   $1.2M                   $0
2016       $1.25M                 $400K                    $1.65M $800K                    $850K
2017       $1.25M                 $400K                    $1.65M $400K                    $1.25M
This contract extension reduces the cap space from $27.7 million to $26.5 million.

Place the franchise tag on Julius Thomas, which is roughly $8 million. Given that Thomas is not a good blocking tight end, it doesn't make sense to extend him right away. Players such as Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are not only top pass-catching tight ends, but they are very good at blocking. Better to put the tag on Thomas for the 2015 season and then re-evaluate. Using the tag on Julius Thomas reduces the cap space to $18.5 million.

As for what to do with the remainder of free agents and other areas of focus, here is what I would do.

* Possibly re-sign: Will Montgomery could be brought back to be the center if a better option cannot be found. Nate Irving and Rahim Moore might be worth retaining, but both would have to take low-cost deals for not more than two years and I would not give them a lot of guaranteed money.

* Don't re-sign: Wes Welker is aging and declining, so he is not worth keeping. Quinton Carter is good in coverage but a poor tackler and the Broncos should consider other options. Mitch Unrein and Jacob Tamme have been good for depth and special teams, but the Broncos should be able to fill those spots with younger players through other means.

* Priorities elsewhere in free agency: A center if one can be found (or bring back Montgomery), a wide receiver who can play special teams, a free safety if Moore is not brought back.

* Priorities in the draft: The offensive line, with particular attention to guard and left tackle, plus linebacker, safety and tight end.

As far as what would need to be done in 2016, it is true the moves this season would reduce the Broncos' available cap space for that season to $19 million. But the Broncos might get space freed up if Peyton Manning decides to retire after the 2015 season, which would free up $19 million in cap space by itself. Even if he doesn't, the Broncos would likely release Aqib Talib, especially if Bradley Roby continues improving, which would free up $7 million in cap space. DeMarcus Ware would likely be released as well, given that the Broncos could be ready to put Quanterrus Smith into the starting lineup, along with re-signing Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. Cutting Ware frees $10 million in cap space. Finally, if Ryan Clady doesn't improve in 2015, he could be cut after that season, freeing up $6.7 million in space.

Releasing Talib, Ware and Clady would increase the Broncos' cap space in 2016 from $19 million to $43.3 million, even if Peyton Manning decides to return for 2016. That cap space is more than enough to re-sign Von Miller, Danny Trevathan, Wolfe and Jackson to new deals, and would allow the Broncos a chance to pursue other free agents.

So it really isn't that difficult for the Broncos to get their top free agents re-signed. It just requires a wise usage of signing bonuses and contract restructures, all which can give players a lot of money up front, while giving the Broncos cap flexibility.