Broncos need big value from short deals

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is at the intersection of the lure a Super Bowl hopeful and salary cap reality.

But when three players take up 33.2 percent of your salary cap space, as quarterback Peyton Manning, left tackle Ryan Clady and cornerback Champ Bailey do for the Broncos, a team is going to need some one-year wonders to make it all work.

Last season, on the way to a 13-3 mark that included an 11-game win streak, the Broncos signed safety Jim Leonhard, defensive tackle Justin Bannan, linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Brandon Stokley to one-year deals.

Of those players only Leonhard got a signing bonus ($65,000).

And when all was said and done Brooking, Bannan and Koppen were starters while Leonhard and Stokley were key backups. Brooking started 14 games in the regular season and finished with 54 tackles, Bannan started 15 with 42 tackles while Koppen started 12 games. Toss in Stokley’s 45 receptions and five touchdowns to go with Leonhard’s two interceptions as he played 24.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, that’s a lot of high-end value on short-term deals.

“It’s all part of how you put your team together,’’ said Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway. “We always want to stack those drafts, but if we think there is a veteran out there who can help us, we’re always going to take a look.’’

And take a look at this year’s Broncos roster and it’s clear the team will need that scenario to play out once again. When they did their work in free agency the Broncos signed wide receiver Wes Welker and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton to two-year deals after they had signed guard Louis Vasquez to the longest deal this time around -- four years.

But Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips signed one-year contracts, and while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed what is a two-year deal on paper, the second year voids five days after the Super Bowl.

“When you’re out there, you want a spot where you fit, but where you can win,’’ Rodgers-Cromartie said. “Here it was both to me. I knew this was the spot for me. Do what you’re supposed to do on a team that wins and the rest takes care of itself. That was my thinking.’’

Bradley signed a one-year contract with a $200,000 signing bonus while Phillips signed for one-year with no signing bonus, but with some incentives for sacks. Rodgers-Cromartie’s deal was almost universally reported as a one-year deal because that's how it was framed by folks on both sides of the negotiations, but a look at the Broncos contract figures after all the paperwork was filed shows the deal actually has a second year written into it, with a $5 million base salary for 2014.

But the second year won’t kick in since the deal voids five days after the league’s title game.

A title game the Broncos have a far better chance of playing in if those one-year players come through for them once again. Because when they line up against the Ravens in the regular-season opener, Bradley figures to be the starting middle linebacker, Rodgers-Cromartie the starter at right cornerback and Phillips could be the defensive end in the team’s pass-rush packages in place of Von Miller if Miller doesn’t win his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

If Miller does win his appeal, Phillips is still slotted to be a key part of the situational rotation defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wants to use.

“It’s all about fit,’’ Phillips said. “I know it was a no-brainer for me. I want to win at this point in my career, they want what I can bring to the table and when I came on my visit I knew right away that was the case. One year, two years, whatever, it's all about the fit. I was looking for what they have.’’