The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl little more than three weeks ago, barely enough time to pick the confetti from their hair and get the Champagne smell out of their clothes. Perhaps there will be time later for John Elway to enjoy that. But even after the exclusive franchise tag was placed on Super Bowl MVP Von Miller on Tuesday, few teams have as many franchise-shaping decisions ahead as the Broncos.
This is usually the terrain for the rebuilding, not the potentially repeating. The decision to tag Miller -- a no-brainer, as there was no way the Broncos could risk letting the linebacker hit the open market, or even giving him the non-exclusive tag -- essentially pushes the pause button on what had been characterized as very positive negotiations toward a long-term deal for the pass rusher. There is now no risk Miller (the first non-quarterback to get the exclusive tag since 2007) will be poached by another team this offseason. Given Elway's track record with franchised players -- Demaryius Thomas, Ryan Clady and Matt Prater all reached long-term deals after being franchised -- there is little reason to worry right now that Miller will even have to play under the tag rather than a new, lucrative deal. Said new deal is likely to be north of the six-year, $101 million deal Kansas City's Justin Houston signed last summer.
"Designating Von as our franchise player gives us the time to continue working toward a long-term agreement," Elway said in a statement Tuesday. "We've had productive talks with Von's representation, and we'll continue those discussions with the goal of making sure Von remains a Bronco well into the future."
But what tagging Miller really accomplishes is clearing Elway's desk and time for a series of critical maneuvers ahead in the next few days, with two of Denver's top offseason priorities now more likely to hit free agency. While Peyton Manning's contemplation about whether to play on or retire will garner the biggest headlines, his future is actually of the least consequence to the Broncos right now, which is why they are able to exhibit patience with him. It is clear that the Broncos are done with Manning -- the pay cut they demanded last offseason signaled that, and even Archie Manning acknowledged as much in the days before the Super Bowl -- and if Manning chooses not to retire by the time free agency starts next week, the Broncos will almost certainly release him before they have to pay the $19 million his contract calls for, setting Manning loose to try to find one last suitor.
"Everything's still real fluid," Elway said at the NFL Scouting Combine last week. "We know where Brock is. Brock knows what we have to offer. We still have a great deal of interest in Brock. We'd like to do something with Brock. That road, we'll start down those tracks and we'll start talking to Brock about a new contract and see what we can do there, but with that in mind, also affording Peyton the time that he deserves. But we're not in any rush."
The market for teams seeking quarterbacks is perilously thin this year, almost assuredly complicating the Broncos' calculus. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins was one of eight players to receive the non-exclusive franchise tag this week, essentially removing him from the open market. The Philadelphia Eagles signed Sam Bradford to a two-year deal Tuesday afternoon that includes $26 million guaranteed.
And this draft class has no sure things at the position. That means teams like the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams, and possibly the San Francisco 49ers, will be picking from a small pile, of which Osweiler would be the top choice if he is available. If nothing else, then, Osweiler can drive up his asking price by hitting the open market. The middle-class deal the Broncos probably hoped to give Osweiler to keep him may have to move up to a higher-rent district.
But if Osweiler is available, the Broncos, too, would be looking for a starter, and that's an odd situation for the defending champions to be in. It would be a strange -- and for the Broncos, probably uncomfortable -- turn of events if Osweiler were to depart and the Broncos had to at least reconsider bringing Manning back for one more year or going in search of another quarterback before they even receive their championship rings.
That is a considerable risk and step into the unknown for the Broncos. According to NFL Media research, the only time a Super Bowl champion went into the next season without either of its top two quarterbacks was in 2001, when the Baltimore Ravens played without Trent Dilfer or Tony Banks, both of whom signed elsewhere. The Ravens, possessed of an all-world defense to which the Broncos have frequently been compared, made it to the next season's playoffs as a wild-card team and lost in the Divisional Round. The only other time a Super Bowl champion went into the next season without the same starting quarterback was in 1999, when the Denver Broncos moved on after John Elway retired.
"Changing the quarterback on a Super Bowl-winning team -- no, I wouldn't advise it," said Brian Billick, the coach of that Ravens team and now an NFL Media analyst. "We actually felt we had one more year in our window. We made the conscious decision, we think we can repeat, but we made the determination we would probably have to be better at that position. We would have to have more productivity at the quarterback position."
Osweiler might give them better productivity over the entire season than the Broncos got from their mix of Osweiler and Manning in 2015. And Osweiler's price is almost certain to be less than the $19 million Manning would earn.
"I would think they would make signing their own a priority," Billick said. "I think he is probably the best available choice for them. Denver is going to have to step up. They'll have to give him a good solid starting quarterback deal. But it will be a much more attractive deal financially than they would have to give to Peyton."
Keeping that defense intact, no matter who the quarterback turns out to be, will be a priority beyond keeping Miller in the fold. The Broncos will spend the next week trying to re-sign defensive end Malik Jackson, who would have been the Super Bowl MVP if Miller was not. He, too, would be highly sought after by pass rush-desperate teams when free agency opens. (The Dolphinsused the transition tag on pass rusher Olivier Vernon on Tuesday, meaning other teams can make an offer that the Dolphins have the right to match; Vernon is likely to draw interest.)
Elway is not unfamiliar with radical remakings of the Broncos. After they went to Super Bowl XLVIII two years ago and were blown out by the Seahawks, Elway engaged in a free-agent spree designed to shore up the defense and make the team tougher. The fruits of that frenzy -- Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware were signed within hours of each other -- are part of the defensive nucleus that won Super Bowl 50.
Now Elway is charged with a different task: keeping as many of his own top free agents as he can while also possibly managing the delicate job of ushering Manning out and tinkering around the edges of a roster that could also use a more productive running game to enhance the chance to repeat.
"It can also be energizing," Billick said. "When Bill Walsh left the 49ers, they were on a mission to prove it wasn't just Bill Walsh. Nobody is going to say it was the quarterback play that won the Super Bowl this year, but they'll want to prove they can do it again. With a little improvement in Brock Osweiler and a much better running game, they could be even better than they were this year."