ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Russell Okung bet on himself and lost. Or did he?
The former first-round pick signed what basically was a one-year tryout last year with Denver.
Serving as his own agent, Okung structured his contract so that only his $8 million salary in 2016 was guaranteed. He needed to have a big year to trigger the final four years and $48 million.
He didn’t, and on Thursday the Broncos informed the former first-round pick they wouldn’t be picking up his $1 million option bonus next month that would have guaranteed him another $21 million.
Okung, 29, could make up for all that lost money in free agency, where he can tout his starting 16 games as proof that he’s recovered from shoulder surgery a year ago.
Teams, however, will also look at his 11 flags, two of which were declined, which tied for the team lead.
He also was the object of All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib’s ire following a 16-3 loss to New England in December. Talib objected when Okung rose to speak after then-coach Gary Kubiak asked if anyone wanted to address the team after the game. That started a shouting match between defensive players who had held Tom Brady in check and the O-linemen, who had taken the brunt of the blame for Denver’s dive.
Still, it’s a shallow pool of veteran tackles that includes Ryan Clady, Kelvin Beacham and Ricky Wagner.
Andrew Whitworth would be the top tackle available in free agency if the Cincinnati Bengals don’t keep the 35-year-old off the market.
Beyond potential early picks Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin and Utah’s Garett Bolles, the draft in two months isn’t deep in offensive tackles, either.
Fixing an offensive line is one of Broncos general manager John Elway’s top priorities for the second straight year.
The Broncos started four new linemen last season but their ground game sputtered and young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch were sacked a total of 40 times as the Broncos missed the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl.
Siemian recently underwent surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder to repair an injury he suffered in September that will sideline him until OTAs. That might help Lynch get a jumpstart on winning the starting job under new coach Vance Joseph and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy after serving as Siemian’s backup as a rookie last season.
Elway’s decision not to exercise Okung’s option saves Denver nearly $11 million against the cap this season, giving the Broncos north of $40 million in cap space.
Elway, who expects to have as many as 10 draft picks once compensatory selections are awarded, might also say goodbye to right tackle Donald Stephenson, whom he also signed in free agency last year.
Stephenson’s $4 million salary for the upcoming season becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster March 13. Releasing him would save $3 million in cap space.
Last year, the Broncos had four new starters with guards Max Garcia and Michael Schofield playing alongside the only holdover, center Matt Paradis, who played through pain before undergoing surgeries on both hips this offseason.
Paradis hopes to be back by training camp, where he could be lining up with two new tackles yet again.
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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