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Broncos tag Demaryius Thomas, but pressure to sign him remains

3/2/2015
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Broncos To Use Franchise Tag On WR Demaryius Thomas

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discusses the Broncos' plan to use the franchise tag on WR Demaryius Thomas and how that will affect their plans in free agency.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever a name from the Denver Broncos' hefty list of prospective free agents has been tossed toward John Elway, the team’s executive vice president of football operations/general manager has almost always answered the same way.

Something on the order of, "Sure, we want (insert free agent’s name here) back," but then Elway added -- every time -- something about how the open market would set the price tag for the player.

He would then add something about how difficult it is to sign a player before the market value for the player has been established, and how difficult it is for a player to sign before he knows how much he can get. In short, he has characterized it as: How much you want? I don’t know, how much you got? I don’t know.

He has said that about every prospective Broncos' free agent except one -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas isn't going anywhere, and the franchise player tag is proof. The Broncos know what they have in Thomas, they know what he means in their offense, and they want him to stay.

Now, they have to close the deal. The franchise player tag essentially keeps Thomas on the roster.

It’s a one-year deal for $12.797 million guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it. And there is the rub.

A player, especially an elite player like Thomas, would always prefer a long-term deal with guaranteed money.

A franchise player tender is a hefty bag of change, but it’s not a long-term deal. And long-term deals for a player like Thomas look like the seven-year, $113 million deal Calvin Johnson signed in 2012 that is significantly back-loaded and includes $48.8 million in guaranteed money.

Or the seven-year, $67.8 million deal that Andre Johnson signed in 2010, or Mike Wallace's five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) signed in 2013.

Elway has said he could easily see a scenario where the Broncos used the franchise player tag, then the sides agree to a long-term deal after free agency opens.

After free agency opens the market will dictate what the likes of Randall Cobb. Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree receive, and those would only be handy reference points for where the Broncos will have to go on Thomas.

For Thomas, the team has tinkered with a five-year deal. So, start at the $12.787 million of the tag (UPDATE: the actual amount based on the confirmed 2015 salary cap is $12.823 million) -- the Broncos have already shown they believe Thomas is worth that -- and multiply by the years on any prospective deal, and bump it a bit.

So, the Broncos are likely looking at a deal averaging more per year than the recent deals for elite wide receivers, save for Calvin Johnson's $16 million per-year average.

Despite the temporary relief the Broncos get from the franchise player tag, at least in terms of keeping Thomas off the open market, it’s still eats a little less than half their current available salary-cap space, and it's still best for all involved to get a long-term deal done.

They have spent the past few weeks outlining to quarterback Peyton Manning how a new offense, with a new playbook and at least some new terminology, would be of benefit to him. And they have also likely outlined what they could do if they were to get some salary-cap relief by tweaking his contract.

Thomas is Manning’s No. 1 receiver, and as a quarterback who has long extolled the virtues of repetition in developing the on-field chemistry, Manning wants to throw to that No. 1 receiver -- a lot.

Thomas doesn’t have to sign the franchise tender any time soon, until Week 10 of the regular season in the most extreme of cases. The Broncos have until July 15, roughly two weeks before training camp opens, to sign Thomas to a long-term deal. If that deadline passes, they'd have to wait until they’ve played their last regular-season game in ’15 to try again.

Most players who receive the franchise tag don’t sign the tender early because they want time to work on a long-term deal. And those players usually, at minimum, take a pass on the team’s offseason work if no new deal is done.

That’s not something Manning would be excited about; that’s not something a team trying to put in a new offense should be excited about; and it’s not something that would help anyone on any side of the equation. The Broncos have had success in this position before, having used the franchise tag on tackle Ryan Clady and kicker Matt Prater in previous years before signing each to long-term deals before the start of training camp.

So, it means when free agency opens, the Broncos will really need to get down to the business of signing the guy they’ve already shown is their top priority.