In March of 2014, the Kansas City Chiefs believed they had a deal with Emmanuel Sanders. However, Sanders ultimately decided to sign with the Denver Broncos.
John Elway’s decision to authorize a $5 million-per-year contract for a then-auxiliary Steeler wide receiver turned out to be vital. The Broncos probably would not have won Super Bowl 50 if they hadn’t decided Sanders was capable of more than he showed in Pittsburgh.
While Demaryius Thomas is more talented and has been the nominal No. 1 receiver during this duo’s time together in Denver, Sanders was arguably the more dependable player in 2015 and ’16. In the 2015 playoffs, Sanders was Peyton Manning’s security blanket on an offense that possessed little depth.
The 2017 Broncos improved markedly in rushing defense and rushing offense, and their pass defense — while still one of the game’s best — took a slight step back. But with Sanders hurt for much of the season and the Broncos’ quarterback situation at its worst point in decades, these upgrades didn’t amount to much of consequence.
Now that the Broncos are set to pursue a franchise-changing quarterback, they do not need to get cute. Their wide receiver duo is the offense’s only facet that has consistently moved chains over the past three seasons.
If Kirk Cousins is doing a deep dive about suitors’ situations, he’ll probably need to know he’ll have both Thomas and Sanders to target if he is really going to consider taking slightly less money to play in Denver.
A Sanders cut would make sense for a team with a quarterback need on a rebuilding track. The Broncos are far from that. The point of their Cousins push will be to prevent a rebuild.
Were the Broncos rebuilding, it would make little sense to have two 30-year-old receivers making eight figures per year. Sanders is set to count $10.9 million on the Broncos’ 2018 payroll. It’s not ideal to have two wide receivers comprising more than $22M of a team’s cap, but every effort the Broncos have made to augment their pass-catching situation since Sanders’ signing has failed.
Their 2014 second-round pick of Cody Latimer looked like a plan for Denver’s post-Wes Welker future at the time, but he couldn’t earn snaps for most of his four-year run. A 2017 third-round investment in Carlos Henderson has yielded nothing yet, with the Louisiana Tech statistical wonder missing his entire rookie season. Bennie Fowler, Jordan Taylor, Jordan Norwood and Andre Caldwell did not move the needle either, despite an occasional clutch play.
The Broncos have seen next to nothing from their tight end spot over the past two seasons, further helping defenses fixate on Thomas and Sanders.
So, it might not be a good idea to ditch one of those wideouts at this crucial point considering the franchise’s recent track record. Without Sanders — and given the lack of confidence the team can replace him — Denver’s passing offense would be rather easy to defend.
Sanders’ ankle injury and Denver’s quarterback mess limited him to 555 yards on 47 receptions. However, Bleacher Report’s scouts still ranked him as the league’s No. 12 outside receiver. The versatile and elusive performer surpassed 1,100 yards in 2015 when Manning was on his last legs and eclipsed 1,000 in 2016 with Trevor Siemian at the controls. His 16 catches for 230 yards during the 2015 postseason more than tripled Thomas’s work (7-60 in those three games).
If Sanders ventured to free agency on this year’s market, he would fare well. This year’s group features a host of inconsistent players, with station-to-station operator Jarvis Landry serving as the prize.
If the Broncos traded Sanders, they would at most receive a high-Day 3 draft pick, considering the ninth-year receiver’s age and contract situation. That is a bad return for a player who could help a franchise land Cousins… and a poor choice for one gunning to return to the playoffs next season.
He is more valuable to the Broncos as a producer than as a trade chip.
A Sanders cut would also tag Denver with $5.38M in dead money, and the Elway regime has not been keen on absorbing cap hits.
The Jets and Browns have more cap space than the Broncos. That won’t change regardless of the cuts Elway makes.
If one of those teams submits an outlandish offer — say $30M per year with guarantees that dwarf the Lions’ Matthew Stafford deal — the Broncos would likely (politely) tell Cousins to agree to theirs or sign with a team that has less of a chance to contend immediately. Cousins has repeatedly said he wants to win now, and while that pledge won’t make up for a $5M-per-year offer gap, it might give the Broncos a bit of leeway when constructing their proposal.
Aqib Talib will be cut or traded, creating $11M in cap room. The Broncos are going to need another cornerback soon but still have Chris Harris and Bradley Roby. Denver’s 2018 team being worse at corner won’t affect Cousins’ choice — not to the same extent as being significantly weakened at wide receiver.
This offseason will be about the Broncos doing everything they can to install a quarterback around the talent left over from Super Bowl 50. Jettisoning the now-32-year-old Talib will be the one logical sacrifice that creates cap space to chase one or two spare free agents to help a Cousins-led team in the ideal scenario.
Since both Thomas and Sanders are now 30, with Sanders turning 31 in March, the Broncos should consider using their second-round pick on a wideout. This situation’s lack of depth has reached a crisis point, and the team needs to begin preparing for a future without these players.
But Sanders has shown enough to ensure he’ll still be a high-end WR2 in 2018 and probably 2019, the final year of his second Bronco contract.
Those are the years the Broncos are trying to capitalize on with a Cousins pursuit. Creating a massive need with a bizarre roster move would be a poor way to do that.