Perhaps the most difficult of several crucial decisions confronting John Elway this offseason: Does he keep Demaryius Thomas for $12.5 million or Emmanuel Sanders for $8.25 million?
One possible answer: If he wants to recruit Kirk Cousins to play quarterback for the Broncos, Elway may have to pay $20.75 million for both receivers.
What a conundrum. The Broncos must get better and younger at the receiver position and both Thomas and Sanders have seen their production slip each of the past two years as they crossed 30 years of age.
In fairness to Thomas and Sanders, the Broncos’ ever-alternating quarterback position has been a significant factor in the receiver duo’s production slip. They played with three quarterbacks in 2017 alone – Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch – and with the exception of a quality game here and there by each, none approached the greatness of Peyton Manning through the first nine games of 2014, never mind Manning’s stellar play in 2012 and ‘13.
As Elway, the Broncos’ general manager, puts together his offseason blueprint to rebuild his roster that finished 5-11 in 2017, the receiver position may bring in the most fervent discussion with his personnel lieutenants Matt Russell and Gary Kubiak, head coach Vance Joseph and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
As of this day, Thomas and Sanders are still the Broncos’ two-best offensive players. Luring the quarterback likes of Cousins or possibly Case Keenum would figure to be easier with Thomas and Sanders on the Broncos' roster than without them. Then again, because of the unholy trinity of relatively high salaries, advanced age for their position and diminished production, it wouldn't be a surprise if Elway moved one of his two top receivers.
It would be a surprise if he let go of both receivers as it would be all but impossible to replace two elite talents.
At that point, Elway would have to decide which receiver would likely give him the most bang for his buck in 2018.
A case can be made for, and against, each receiver.
Thomas has been more consistently productive than Sanders, in part because he has stayed healthy.
Thomas combined for 173 catches, 2,032 yards and 10 touchdowns the past two years; Sanders had 126 catches, 1,587 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Thomas also has deeper roots with the Broncos. In fact, he is the longest-tenured player, having been the team’s first-round draft pick in 2010 – the year before Elway took charge of football operations.
But Thomas is also considerably more expensive than Sanders. To keep Thomas, the Broncos must first pick up his $4 million option between February 10 and the first day of the league year, which is March 14.
If the Broncos do pick up that option, Thomas’ $8.5 million salary would not be officially guaranteed, although it would be as a practical matter. To wit: A team does not pay him $4 million with the idea of cutting him to save another $8.5 million.
It would not be a surprise if the Broncos try to rework Thomas’ contract – which includes a $14 million non-guaranteed salary in 2019 – to bring him back on a reduced rate.
Trying to get a star player to accept a pay cut, though, does not mean that star player would accept it. Especially when that star is a receiver on a team with an uncertain quarterback situation.
There are also reasons to make Sanders the choice to stay. Although he is nearly 3 months older than Thomas and his production has been less, Sanders may have more juice left in his legs. The downside to Thomas' tremendous production -- an average of 96 catches and 1,145 yards the past six seasons -- is it's come with considerable punishment to his body.
During the Broncos’ two Sunday night, primetime games on NBC last season, Sanders had five catches for 76 yards before he got hurt against the New York Giants and six catches for 137 yards versus the New England Patriots. (Thomas had 10 catches for 133 yards against the Giants; five catches for 44 yards with a touchdown against the Pats).
Sanders is also $4.25 million cheaper than Thomas.
Although Thomas has the strength to outduel a cornerback on a deep ball, and Sanders has tremendous quickness and savvy, the Broncos may look for greater speed at the receiver position this offseason.
The free-agent class includes the younger likes of Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee and former Colorado Buffalo Paul Richardson.
There is a two-day "soft opening" to NFL free agency that runs from March 12-14. Negotiations between clubs and free agents can occur. It’s possible the fates of Thomas and Sanders will be juggled with the Broncos’ recruitment of a quarterback, and another free-agent receiver during this two-day soft opening.
Decisions, decisions. Some are more difficult than others.