CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Age and depth at his position create an uncertain future for Aqib Talib.
The Broncos cornerback turns 32 in February, and will make $11 million in the fifth season of his six-year contract. The NFL mocks sentimental decisions with a Dead Sea Scrolls list of older stars who wrinkled quickly. Denver possesses a replacement in the promising Bradley Roby, who has shown he's ready to start.
So the answer is simple: Keep Talib.
Yes, you read that correctly.
This has nothing to do with loyalty, Hallmark cards or doing right by a proven veteran. Don't let good players walk out the door remains a solid organizational philosophy. Talib is one of the top performers at his position. He creates unique mismatches, alters outcomes and sets the tempo with his work during the week.
Of course, there are other wrinkles. He has twice been suspended during his Denver run, once for poking the eye of Colts tight end Dwayne Allen and this season for snatching the chain and fighting with Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree. He was also involved in an off-field incident that caused him to miss the Broncos' White House visit following their Super Bowl 50 title, though it did not result in league discipline.
During Talib's four seasons he has made the Pro Bowl every year, and netted first-team All-Pro honors in 2016. A light practice schedule alleviated back issues this season, leaving him healthy. Talib is too smart not to realize that multiple needs at other positions, his salary and Roby's growth could spell the end of his career in Denver. He did not sound Wednesday like he was in a hurry to leave.
"I am not even worried about it. I have been in the league 10 years. I have seen it all. I have seen everything you can possibly see. You finish strong, and make all decisions difficult," said Talib before elaborating on his time in Denver. "It's been good. I won’t complain. I might change the last two years as far as not going to the playoffs. But as far as a professional, man, guys would pay for the four years I have had with the Broncos. Guys would pay for that. I definitely enjoyed it. I hope we can continue it. I just want to put out the good tape and see what the future brings."
I understand the danger of sticking with a graying cornerback. Even Champ Bailey, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, dissolved uncomfortably at the end of his career. This is not about keeping Talib on a longterm deal. This is about next season. If the Broncos remain committed to rebounding in 2018 and not rebuilding, Talib should stay.
Now if Talib is ready to move on, and makes those overtures, the plan changes. Given his salary over the next two seasons -- $11 million in 2018 with $1 million in dead cap money, $8 million in 2019 with no dead cap money, per Spotrac -- he's underpaid, thus would be coveted in a trade. Again, I only explore this option if it is determined by both parties that a fresh start is needed.
Talib remains an elite corner in a league where many masquerade as such. He reads quarterbacks' eyes, and baits them into mistakes. He turns interceptions into touchdowns at a Hall of Fame rate. Unfortunately, Talib, a team captain, and Chris Harris Jr. became casualties of their success with teams reluctant to target them. The Broncos trailing 97 percent of the time during their eight-game losing streak limited their opportunities to make plays. It's no wonder Harris admitted Wednesday he no longer wants to play slot corner next season, believing he can make a greater impact outside.
As for Talib, he continues to excel. Teammates' respect for him is obvious at practice and in meetings.
"Hell yeah it's going to hurt," said safety Darian Stewart about the prospect of Talib not returning. "That's the guy, man. Him, Chris and (Bradley) Roby make my job easier. I would hate to see that guy leave this locker room. I definitely hope he stays."
When a team finishes in last place in the division and fails to win an AFC West road game for the second consecutive season, it demands change. There will be roster turnover. But unless Talib wants to exit, it should not include a rangy, shutdown corner.