ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The consequence of success under a salary cap hit the Broncos as the league year began when tight end Julius Thomas jumped to the Jaguars and Orlando Franklin agreed to terms with the San Diego Chargers.
From the beginning, it appeared the Broncos would not be able to keep both -- not after they had to use the franchise tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and not even after quarterback Peyton Manning restructured his contract in advance of the new league year.
Franklin's deal was for a reported $36.5 million over five years -- $7.3 million a year, and $16.5 million guaranteed. NFL.com reported that Thomas' contract was for $9.2 million a year over five years, with a whopping $24 million guaranteed.
The contract given to Franklin is even more striking when compared with the deal that the Broncos gave Louis Vasquez two years ago: $23.5 million over four years -- $5.75 million per year -- including $13 million guaranteed. And Vasquez was far more consistent over his first four years than Franklin, who settled in and delivered the best play of his career in the second half of the 2014 season.
Given the constraints of the salary cap and the need to put enough cash in escrow to cover already-existing guaranteed money on the Broncos roster, the team was not in position to keep both, not at the types of terms both players expected -- and received.
Their departures reveal the quality of the Broncos' 2011 rookie class, headlined by the selection of Von Miller with the No. 2 overall pick and the addition of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as an unrestricted free agent.
The Broncos picked up the fifth-year option on Miller, which pushed his 2015 cap number over $9 million, signed Harris to a five-year extension for $8.5 million a year in December, and gave 2010 first-rounder Demaryius Thomas the franchise tag at a $12.83 million charge under the salary cap.
Under a salary cap, good teams get picked over. This is an inevitability. Just as the Broncos developed Thomas, Franklin, Harris and many others from within and outside of the first round, they will look to the next generation of players and in-house reserves to help fill the holes that this year's free-agency period creates.
That's the cycle the Broncos want to establish: to keep developing young players. If the team keeps winning, they won't be able to retain them all, but if they can continue to cultivate crops of young contributors, they can withstand these losses -- and the ones yet to come.