Less than two months ago, a significant contract impasse cratered the relationship between cornerback Josh Norman and the Carolina Panthers. Now it's starting to look like Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and the Denver Broncos are stepping into a similar hole.
The contract impasse between Miller and the Broncos took a seemingly personal wrong turn in the past 48 hours, so much so that the two sides can't seem to agree on who triggered it. Miller rejected a six-year, $114.5 million deal at some point between Monday night and Wednesday morning, according to the Broncos. Sources close to Miller, however, told Yahoo Sports that the player actually accepted two significant parts of Denver's offer on Monday night: specifically, the length of the contract (six years) and the overall money ($114.5 million).
Along with that acceptance, Miller's representatives requested a continuation of negotiations on the overall structure of the deal, including how much money would be guaranteed. Within that acceptance appears to be a concession of sorts, too. Miller was believed to be seeking more than $22 million per season. The overall money that he accepted from Denver is slightly over $19 million per season.
The structure of Miller's deal is paramount. And now it has ballooned into an undermining factor. The guaranteed money is apparently where everything fell apart between the two sides. And it appears to have gotten much worse since, to the point that there is now a possibility that Miller could sit out the 2016 season entirely.
How did it get this dire? Go straight to the numbers. The six-year, $114.5 million deal is far less committed than it sounds. In reality, the contract can be dumped after only two seasons, meaning the Broncos have offered Miller what amounts to be a two-year deal worth $38.5 million guaranteed. Another $1.3 million in unguaranteed money is earnable between those two seasons via a workout bonus. After that, the rest of the deal can be shed at any point.
The contract sounds like it exceeds the one that the Miami Dolphins' Ndamukong Suh signed, but it actually doesn't. Suh's deal contained a shade under $60 million in guaranteed money ($21.5 million more than what is being offered to Miller). The Miller guarantee also falls well short of the contract signed this offseason by New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, who received $52.5 million in guaranteed money. It's worth noting that Vernon has averaged just over seven sacks a season in his four NFL seasons and has never been an All Pro. Miller has averaged 12 sacks a season, been named an All Pro four times in five seasons, and dominated the Super Bowl in February en route to MVP honors.
One sticking point remains in the eyes of the Broncos: Miller isn't on the free-agent market. He is being held under the franchise tag. And for that reason, Denver has chosen to use that leverage to get Miller to sign what amounts to a discounted deal.
That approach seems to mirror what has guided Denver for much of this offseason. With an eye on the bottom line, Denver let go of three key free agents: quarterback Brock Osweiler, defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan. The Broncos also traded offensive tackle Ryan Clady, shut down a trade for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and signed offensive tackle Russell Okung and defensive end Derek Wolfe to remarkably team-friendly deals.
It was thought that a large part of that aggressive fiscal approach was to position the Broncos to pay Miller a deal commensurate with Suh … or at the very least, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston. But the offer to Miller even lags significantly behind Houston, too. Like Vernon, Houston received $52.5 million in guaranteed money.
Perhaps most interesting, Denver felt compelled to shut down negotiations with Miller in early June. That's a departure from some past deals. The Broncos had negotiated all the way to mid-July to get major extensions completed with stars. That's how they handled Demaryius Thomas and Ryan Clady in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Rather than take that approach with Miller, Denver apparently extended the most recent offer with an "all-or-nothing" posture. That led the Broncos to interpret Miller's response of partial acceptance as nothing less than a total rejection of terms.
Wednesday's developments can be interpreted as some mud-slinging from Denver. Miller has said nothing but positive things publicly about the franchise and his hopefulness in negotiations. But the Broncos leaking the terms of an offer, and then framing Miller's response as a rejection, seem to be an effort to put Miller in less-than-flattering light. Particularly when the guaranteed money contained in the deal lags so far behind other players who have had less of an impact on their franchises.
Miller could report and play (likely unhappily) under the franchise tag, facing as many as three straight seasons of tags before forcing his way to free agency. Or he could take the current impasse as something that can't be overcome and ask for the tag to be rescinded, resolving the situation in a fashion similar to Norman and the Panthers. He could also sit out the upcoming season, forcing the Broncos to apply a non-exclusive franchise tag next offseason. In that latter route, Miller could then negotiate and sign with other NFL teams, with the Broncos being awarded a first- and third-round pick if they choose not to match the offer.
All of those avenues are possibilities at this point. Nobody would have believed it only a week ago. But then again, nobody expected Josh Norman to be playing for the Washington Redskins next season, either.