John Elway and his brain trust, which now includes new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, are looking to the offseason with a hope that this team can continue to grow off their tremendous 2011 season.
Denver has a lot of interesting decisions to make in terms of free agency and the NFL draft in April. This tracker will aim to follow, update and analyze every move that the Broncos make during this frenzied time.
We'll begin by reviewing the team's salary cap situation, then we'll analyze Denver's most glaring roster holes. From there, we'll list the team's current free agents, determine their average annual dollar value and project whether or not the Broncos will offer them new deals or let them walk.
Of course, the Broncos still need to consider free agents beyond their own organization, so we'll also take a look at the Broncos' potential cap situation after re-signings, which free agents are available that best fit the Broncos' roster and what contracts the Broncos could offer to these free-agent targets.
Finally, we'll take a look at holes the Broncos will still need to fill through the draft, and analyze the best 2012 NFL draft prospect fits for Denver's roster.
March 15, 2012: According to Jason LaCanfora and NFL.com, the Broncos have agreed to terms with free agent safety, Mike Adams.
The details of the contract are not out yet, but early reports say that the former Brown has signed for two years with Denver. This signing of Adams most likely means two things: 1. Denver believes in their young talent and feels like Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore will develop sooner than later and, 2. The door may not be completely closed on Brian Dawkins. Adams is a solid tackler and player that is consistent, if unspectacular, that will either start or add nice depth in the Denver secondary. His cost could be what allows Denver to still look for more safety help.
March 5, 2012: The Denver Post is reporting that Matt Prater has received the Broncos franchise tag.
This was not a surprise coming out of Dove Valley as Denver had long planned to protect themselves from being outbid for the best kicker potentially on the market in Prater. His services are vital, and both Prater and the Broncos know that the best place for him to ply his trade is Denver. Expect Denver to work out a long term deal for Prater, but with so much work to do this offseason it was necessary to use the tag and buy more time to take care of Prater.
The third-year man out of the University of Pittsburgh will compete for a reserve spot on the offensive line in training camp and could mean the end of Russ Hochstein's time in Denver, and maybe in the NFL.
Hill is a sixth-year man who had his most productive season last year with the Jaguars, posting 367 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.
This move seems to make it clear that either Eddie Royal or Matt Willis are not returning next year. However, WR is an area of concern for Denver, and there could potentially be room for all of them if Denver decides to pay for both Royal and Willis to stay.
Feb. 8, 2012: The Denver Broncos made Austin Sylvester the only FB under contract for the team next season.
It's an interesting move, considering Denver has a decision to make on incumbent starter Spencer Larsen as to whether to bring him back. Sylvester saw no action for the Broncos but was likely a value to bring back as insurance based on his experience with the team's running attack already.
Denver may look to develop a FB from this year's draft or sign a bigger name to replace Larsen, but Sylvester would have to shine to make the roster.
If you figure an arbitrary, calculated-for-inflation $5 million bump to project the 2012 NFL salary cap number at $125 million (from last year's $120 million), that leaves the Broncos roughly $34 million under the cap.
This isn't a terrible number for the Broncos, considering the team does not have a large number of stars hitting free agency that would require big money to tie up.
Add into that the fact that Denver is picking near the bottom of the first round, and if last year is any indication, that will only cost Denver $7 million dollars over the life of the four-year contract.
Problematic Cap Hits
The Broncos are in relatively good shape here since their two biggest cap hits in 2012, Elvis Dumervil ($14 million) and Champ Bailey ($ 7.5 million), are extremely valuable members of the defense. Provided Dumervil continues to stay healthy, these numbers are not overly troubling unless either one were to go down for a prolonged period of time.
Andre' Goodman, while still the No. 2 cornerback for Denver, could be a problem because it is clear that Denver wants to upgrade at that position.
His nearly $4-million cap hit next year could be taking up valuable cash that could be used for a more reliable CB in free agency. That could be a reason why Denver looks to the draft to help shore up that position for a much more cap-friendly solution.
Having the benefit of knowing how Von Miller's rookie season played out, it is easy to see that his $1.3 million dollar cap hit is an absolute steal for the moment. Assuming he continues to grow into the dominant force that it seems likely he will be, Denver will be restructuring his contract sooner than later, but for now it's a dream.
The same can be said for the meager $1 million that Denver is paying to Willis McGahee, who more than proved his worth last season. He is the centerpiece of the Denver rushing attack and will be motivated to make 2012 just as good.
Other Major Cap Questions
If the Denver Broncos are not careful, they could see a team come in and grossly overpay Matt Prater and coax him out of Denver. Make no mistake that Prater is a huge weapon for Denver and has done everything possible from his position to earn a long-term contract.
March 5, 2012: The Denver Post is reporting that Matt Prater has received the Broncos franchise tag.
Still, Denver may need to use the franchise tag on their star kicker to avoid having him stolen. Using the franchise tag on Prater would cost the team approximately $2.6 million.
That could buy Denver some time to work with Prater on a contract that keeps in mind the mutually beneficial scenario created by Prater staying, which is: A) Denver needs him and B) It's great kicking at altitude.
Despite being one of the final eight teams left playing in the NFL, there are quite a few places where Denver is looking to improve their roster.
In some cases it may be a position where Denver would love to have a new starter in place by 2012.
Other positions are simply in sore need of depth and talent to continue to be developed for Denver to realize prolonged success.
Denver may still be a team in search of a true identity on offense, even though they would love to convince everyone that they can run the ball every down and be successful.
From the marquee position of quarterback all the way to the outside of the field at wide receiver, there are needs for the Broncos to address.
The starting five for Denver actually seemed to come together down the stretch and embrace the new-look offensive style of running first. However, the injury to Chris Kuper, along with the temporary ineffectiveness of Orland Franklin early in the season, shed light on a lack of depth in the trenches.
Russ Hochstein should be let go in favor of younger options, but beyond Manny Ramirez and potentially Chris Clark, the Broncos have no other answers.
Denver has their man in Willis McGahee, but beyond that the backfield is far from set. Knowshon Moreno is not earning points in Denver off the field, and his injuries keep him off the field more often than not.
Denver sorely needs to find a complement to McGahee either through the draft or in free agency, but maybe both is the correct answer.
Tim Tebow will always be a firestorm in terms of debating his worthiness of being a starting NFL quarterback. Who the Broncos choose to sign or draft will go a long way to determining if Tebow will remain the starter in 2012, but the simple fact is that Denver needs to sign someone.
The odds are good that Brady Quinn is out, but the next quarterback to wear blue and orange is anyone's guess.
Most teams in the NFL are always interested in adding depth or new starters at the wide receiver position, and Denver is no different. It was a tale of two seasons in terms of wide receiver production for Denver, with Eric Decker producing early in the year and Demaryius Thomas closing the season on a hot streak.
Denver can't wait to see both of those players producing at the same time, but with Eddie Royal likely to test the market and Brandon Lloyd traded away early in the season, Denver needs more help.
Interior Defensive Line
Denver has a huge task ahead of them trying to assess the right contract offer for Brodrick Bunkley, but losing him makes the situation at defensive tackle a little more needy.
Veterans Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson will be healthy and ready to go this year, but the New York Giants showed again how important it is to be able to roll multiple quality defensive tackles and ends into the game. Denver is still missing the beef in the middle to help solidify their defense.
Joe Mays gave it a great try, and in some games looked like he had the potential to be the man, but the fact of the matter is that he isn't. 2011 draftees Nate Irving and Mike Mohamed still have a long way to go and that means that Denver needs to look elsewhere to fill this spot immediately.
Having a solid run stuffer in the middle of the defense would do wonders for the rest of the defense.
One side of the field is good and always will be with a healthy Champ Bailey, but the man can only cover so much and Denver needs a complement on the other side. Andre' Goodman will add nice depth to the team if they are able to sign a solid No. 2 and perhaps the draft will yield some more young talent for Denver to cultivate.
The Denver Post lists the following Broncos players as unrestricted free agents (UFAs), meaning unless the Broncos negotiate a deal in advance of free agency's start date, any NFL team has the ability to offer these players a contract.
DT Brodrick Bunkley
DT Marcus Thomas
DE Jason Hunter
DE Derrick Harvey
LB Joe Mays
LB Mario Haggan
LB Wesley Woodyard
WR Eddie Royal
SS Brian Dawkins
FB Spencer Larsen
QB Brady Quinn
TE Daniel Fells
TE Dante Rosario
OL Russ Hochstein
OL Manny Ramirez
CB Jonathan Wilhite
The following players are listed as restricted free agents (RFAs) according to Pro Football Focus, meaning that the Broncos can offer them a one-year tender which any other team must match with draft picks.
DT Ryan McBean
WR Matt Willis
An approximate $2.61 million tender equates to first-round compensation, similarly a $1.84 million tender qualifies for second-round consideration and the lowest base tender of $1.26 million requires matching the RFA's original draft pick (i.e. if the player was selected in the third round, the interested team must give up a third-round pick in exchange).
Any team matching or holding on to the qualifying offer must pay that number as the player's base salary for that season.
The list of free agents for Denver does not read like a "who's who of Broncos stars," but there are players on the list who made significant contributions to the team's success.
In fact, there is even a future Hall of Fame member on the list, so to discount the impact that these players could have would be ill-advised.
Predicting contracts is not a perfect science by any means, and ultimately being right more often than wrong is how men like John Elway keep their jobs.
Still, looking at previous deals and assessing how well the player performed in their contract year of 2011 can give a pretty good indication of what it might take to acquire their services (values calculated as annual amounts).
DT Brodrick Bunkley: $1.75 Million (estimated)
"Bunk" turned out to be a nice deal for the Broncos, and when the injuries to Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson happened, he became even more important to the stability of the defense.
He is not a player on the level of Vince Wilfork, so it is unlikey that teams are going to come into Denver and pay the man huge dollars. In terms of what Denver needs, which is depth at the defensive line, the price would be right at $1.75, which is a raise but not a gross overpayment.
DT Marcus Thomas: $1 Million (estimated)
Thomas counted for $1 million last year, and that is probably exactly what he is worth again next year. He wasn't the worst player on the inside for Denver, but he is also not a star, and it is likely that most teams in the NFL agree with that sentiment. Denver may even be the only team that would think about paying that price tag.
DE Jason Hunter: $715,000 (estimated)
Hunter showed glimpses of great play with some timely sacks and quarterback pressures in his limited time on the field playing behind Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers.
The Broncos could want to see more, but they likely won't offer the DE any more money to do so. Along that same line the other GM's around the league didn't see enough of Hunter to be willing to offer any more.
DE Derrick Harvey: $600,000 (estimated)
Teams really don't like to pay much more than that price on experiments, and after failed stops in Jacksonville and Denver, he will be lucky to get another chance to do that. His production is low, and he hasn't shown the pass-rushing ability to fit into any scheme.
LB Joe Mays: $750,000 (estimated)
Joe Mays has shown in his time in Denver that he can be a decent spot-filler at middle linebacker, and with continued coaching and growth, he might be more than that.
Putting a price tag on a player who may have played his way out of a starting spot in one city is tough, but he isn't a total failure and has proven that he is worth slightly more than what his rookie contract provided him.
LB Mario Haggan: $1.5 Million (estimated)
Mario Haggan has been nothing but a consummate professional while in Denver, and his original contract was made with the hopes that he could be a starter for many years.
Changes in scheme and the addition of Von Miller has simply made Haggan's role on this team a subdued one. However, on the open market, Haggan may still get a chance to be a starter and could be bought for a decent value depending on how he is used.
LB Wesley Woodyard: $775,000 (estimated)
Woodyard is a great depth player on the Broncos' roster, and his flexibility allows him to move through the linebacker positions as the need arises. Teams around the NFL have seen Woodyard in and out of the starting lineup and could be willing to almost double his current salary to see more of him.
WR Eddie Royal: $1.25 Million (estimated)
Teams looking for help at wide receiver might give Eddie Royal a call, but which Eddie Royal will they be getting?
His rookie season made it look like he was destined for a multi-million-dollar extension with Denver or a lucrative free-agent contract, but right now the future seems more murky for the former Hokie. Surely his price tag has gone up from his rookie contract, but the question is how much.
SS Brian Dawkins: $ 3 Million (estimated)
This number is tough because a healthy Dawkins playing at a Pro Bowl level for 16 games is worth the full $6 million that he originally signed for with Denver. His neck injury is incredibly scary and could be the thing that puts his potentially HOF worthy career to an end.
If he can play, though, at least in Denver's eyes, he is almost as valuable off the field as he is on it. Dawkins has already restructured his deal once with Denver, and if he stays in the league it will be a similar situation with Denver again.
FB Spencer Larsen: $650,000 (estimated)
Unfortunately, fullback is not a big dollar position and Larsen isn't going to see big bucks on the open market. He has been the Broncos' starter at fullback for some time now, but his statistics are not blinding.
His blocking has improved, but he is not a dynamic threat out of the backfield (perhaps because of a lack of use) and therefore not high dollar investment many teams will be willing to make.
QB Brady Quinn: $800,000 (estimated)
Brady Quinn hasn't done much to earn anything more than a raise based on inflation. His experience in the league might make him more valuable than other potential backup options, plus the outside chance that he still has something left in the tank that he hasn't shown which could make a full-time starter.
TE Daniel Fells: $1.5 Million (estimated)
Fells proved to be a nice addition for Denver, chipping in some big-time catches along with being a valuable blocking tight end.
As teams continue to try to fortify their running games, tight ends like Fells have value, but not as much as game-breaking tight ends who create matchup problems in the passing game.
TE Dante Rosario: $700,000 (estimated)
Rosario is an above-average pass-catching tight end and route runner but doesn't shine in the running game quite as much with his blocking. He started the season with Denver last year, got cut, then signed by Miami, cut again and finally re-signed by Denver to fill a need for injury.
Not the career path of an impact tight end, but certainly a player that has some value and adds depth.
OL Russ Hochstein: $865,000 (estimated)
Hochstein is a savvy veteran who has been around winning quite a bit in his career. He no longer possesses the ability to start every game, but he can be valuable in spot duty because of his experience.
The question teams need to ask is how sturdy he is, and whether it makes sense to bring him in for one year or try to draft a player and tie them down into a longer contract while they work toward becoming a starter.
OL Manny Ramirez: $700,000 (estimated)
Manny Ramirez looked good in training camp playing both guard and center, much like his more experienced counterpart, Russ Hochstein.
Ramirez offers the same kind of ability as a player like Hochstein but less wear and tear in terms of years spent in the league. This is the classic definition of what kind of dollar value should be put on experience when comparing Hochstein and Ramirez.
CB Jonathan Wilhite: $700,000 (estimated)
Wilhite is another player with both a New England and Denver pedigree, but despite a hot start to the season with Denver, he faded down the stretch. His athleticism allowed him to be a decent pass-rusher, but that skill didn't always translate to coverage. Wilhite is not an every-down cornerback, but he can come in on nickel situations and have some value.
DE Ryan McBean: $927,000
As an RFA this offseason, there is little to no chance that a team will pay McBean any higher than the lowest tender amount. In fact, were a team to sign McBean away from Denver, they would be forced to give a draft pick in the same round that McBean was drafted, which was the fourth round.
Denver needs bodies on the defensive line, and McBean has some familiarity with the team, but who knows how he fits into Jack Del Rio's new plan?
WR Matt Willis: $927,000
Another RFA who hasn't shown enough to necessitate a huge tender amount. He has good speed and can make the catch when the ball is delivered cleanly, but he isn't a dynamic route runner yet in the NFL. Denver may want to see more of him in camp, but considering he was undrafted, there would be no compensation due to the Broncos for another team to want to see the same thing.
The Denver Broncos are not in jeopardy of alienating fans with any major decisions that need to be made here.
In terms of fan favorites, the feeling toward many of the players is either lukewarm or faded from its original fervor.
The biggest task for Denver is to make sure that they are not overpaying players to stay because there is a comfort level with them, or even deciding to keep them altogether simply because they are weary of the alternatives that are affordable.
John Elway and company need to start evaluating this team with an eye that is equally trained on value as well as impact.
For the Broncos to take the AFC West again next year, they will need to upgrade and not simply hope that the players they have can continue to reach above their potential in some cases.
DT Brodrick Bunkley: Re-Signed
Bunkley got increasingly more comfortable with the defense, and it showed in his performance down the stretch.
Leave Bunkley on the roster and combine him with players like Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson, who are due to return will be a boon for the Broncos defensive line. Bunkley is the right value for Denver in free agency and leaves room for Denver to pick up lineman in the draft as well.
Estimated Contract: 2 Years, $ 3.5 Million
DT Marcus Thomas: Released
If Denver decides to bring back Bunkley—which they should—the depth chart will be a little too full for Thomas.
Assuming the health of the other defensive lineman stays on the up and up, Thomas will move on like he may have been slotted to last year in favor of Ty Warren. Not to mention Denver will be looking to add lineman through the draft all of which make the departure of Thomas the right plan.
DE Jason Hunter: Re-Signed
Jason Hunter was impressive in his limited action and proved to an above average pass rusher from the defensive end position. Everyone knows that Elvis Dumervil has had trouble with injury, and nobody expects to see it happen again, but if Dumervil does wind up off the field than Hunter is a nice option have on the bench.
He is one player that Denver gambled on and gave a chance to that paid off and could continue to pay off, provided that another team doesn't want to pay him more to give him a chance.
Estimated Contract: 1 Year, $715,000
DE Derrick Harvey: Released
The opportunity for Harvey to resurrect his career in Denver should come to an end. There is no room on the roster for Harvey, who has failed to meet expectations in both stops he has made in the NFL. Making the decision to re-sign Harvey would essentially be dead money.
LB Joe Mays: Released
I hate to make it sound like there is a grudge against Joe Mays, because there is not, but Broncos fans should have the image of Isaac Redman rumbling over Mays on several 3rd-and-short situations in the playoffs burned into their mind.
Mays can deliver the boom, but only in perfectly developed situations where Mays was lucky to find himself in the right slot. Denver needs to move on from Mays and decide if they have a player in Nate Irving, or via the draft.
LB Mario Haggan: Released
Haggan is not being released because he underperformed, was a bad teammate or rubbed the organization the wrong way. In fact, it's the opposite of all of those things.
Mario showed something great in his relief of Von Miller when the Defensive Rookie of the Year was out with injury, and since Miller is not coming out of the lineup for the next decade, Haggan might search for a chance to start somewhere.
Denver likely won't match an offer that takes Haggan elsewhere because they simply can't afford to have him on the bench for a high price knowing that the plan is for him to never see the field as long as Miller is healthy.
LB Wesley Woodyard: Re-Signed
Woodyard is the perfect depth linebacker for the Broncos, who can also fill in for spot-starting duty on occasion. He is strong and athletic and sometimes harkens back to the days when Mobley, Gold and Williams were the most athletic linebacking crew in the NFL.
His price tag is right, and hopefully he knows that Denver is as good a place for him to ply his trade as anywhere.
Estimated Contract: 2 Years, $1.5 Million
WR Eddie Royal: Released
The love affair between Denver and Eddie Royal is most likely over. Whether through fault of his own or the team's misuse, his production has dropped since his rookie season, and the offense is not projecting to be a high-volume passing game next year.
Royal is a great player and might do well to try and recapture his magic in an offense that is better developed to allow him to work in the slot. Denver is going to have trouble signing wide receivers, and even if they offered a contract to Eddie, he may not take it.
It's time for both sides to part amicably and wish each other well.
SS Brian Dawkins: Re-Signed
This is assuming that the venerable Pro Bowl safety gets the medical clearance to come back and wants to play another season in Denver. It seems likely, though, that the excitement caused by last season and the bonds built in the locker room with Dawkins might influence he and Denver to give it one more season.
When "Dawk" was healthy, he was a difference-maker in the secondary, and even off the field his impact could be seen in the flashes of brilliance from youngsters Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore early in the year.
It's not every day that a future Hall of Famer only wants to play for your team, and the Broncos should take this one up on his offer. His presence will allow them to make a one-year commitment and buy more time for Moore and Carter to become the firmly entrenched starters that Denver hopes they will.
Estimated Contract: 1 Year, $3 Million
FB Spencer Larsen: Released
Spencer Larsen worked extremely hard to find a home on the Denver Broncos roster after being drafted as a linebacker. He has a tremendous work ethic and should find a home somewhere, but for Denver's offense to really take off they need a more traditional fullback on the roster.
There are a few options available in free agency and considering Denver already re-signed Austin Sylvester, they might be looking to bring in a surefire starter and maybe another fullback late in the draft to compete with Sylvester for the honor of making the roster.
QB Brady Quinn: Released
Quinn's days in Denver are over, and it had nothing to do with his comments about Tim Tebow. The fact is that Denver made an ill-advised trade for Quinn in the first place that only served to further deepen the quarterback controversy in Denver.
Quinn may have one final chance to find glory in the NFL, but it will not be with the Denver Broncos.
TE Daniel Fells: Re-Signed
What's a game-saving catch and resulting win against the San Diego Chargers worth? A contract extension with the Denver Broncos for Daniel Fells.
Fells easily earned his keep in Denver by showing he's not a liability in the passing game and is very reliable as a blocker. If Denver is looking at the tight end position as one of need, it is only because they are unsure whether or not Julius Thomas will pan out as the receiving threat they hope he will be to compliment Fells.
Looking at the free-agent market, now minus Jermichael Finley, there isn't a lot of potential there, and Fells will be a value to come back next year.
Estimated Contract: 2 Years, $3 Million
TE Dante Rosario: Released
Rosario did an admirable job filling in for Denver when rookie Julius Thomas wen down with injury.
However, in 2012 the team will look for sophomores Virgil Green and Julius Thomas to grow into their roles even more and push Rosario off the roster for Denver. Rosario is an athletic receiver though, and will definitely get another chance somewhere in the NFL next season.
OL Russ Hochstein: Released
The clock has struck midnight on Hochstein in Denver. Despite being a McDaniels era holdover, the veteran lineman was a valuable member of the Broncos and served his team well.
However, the time for having a 35-plus-year-old lineman on the roster is over in Denver. Hochstein may hang on for another season in the NFL, but Denver needs younger, stronger lineman on their bench to help keep their rushing attack on schedule in case of injury.
OL Manny Ramirez: Re-Signed
The reason that Hochstein is moving on has a lot to do with the wise decision to keep Manny Ramirez (if the Broncos choose to do so). Ramirez offers the same center/guard versatility that Hochstein does and comes with less risk of injury and a cheaper price tag.
Estimated Contract: 1 Year, $700,000
CB Jonathan Wilhite: Released
Denver has money to spend on impact players in the secondary and using up some of it on a player whose shown their ceiling doesn't make sense.
Denver can get the same kind of contribution from other players as undrafted free agents after April, or maybe even in the same situation that brought Wilhite to Denver in the first place; signing them after another team cut them in training camp.
The Denver Broncos are approximately $34 million dollars below the projected cap of $125 million for 2012 heading into free agency.
If the team were to make all the projected re-signings from the previous slide, then their new number would be approximately $25 million under the cap (if you assume that the cap hits could vary based on the terms of the contracts).
Denver is in an enviable position heading into the free agency period and NFL draft with their dollars available to spend.
Elway most likely has the green light to improve the team significantly if he can, but Pat Bowlen also knows how quickly things can change, so he won't want to go spending-crazy.
Denver likely won't spend to the cap, so just because the money is there doesn't mean that it all has to be spent prior to the season beginning.
The Denver Broncos will have plenty of money to dangle in front of players they like in free agency and still have some left over to take care of the draft picks.
It is unclear exactly how big of a splash Denver will make in free agency, but definitely expect them to be active, trying to upgrade and add depth all over the field.
The Denver Broncos are not going to rely on a 2012 draft pick to be their backup for the upcoming season, nor will they expect that player to challenge for a starting role potentially.
Denver will absolutely look to bring in a proven veteran to either compete for the No. 1 spot or be a solid backup to Tim Tebow.
With only Austin Sylvester on the roster and the anticipated departure of Spencer Larsen, the team needs a starting fullback in a bad way.
The good news is that there are options on the market that won't break the bank and can add some serious potential to the running game in Denver.
A wide receiver is on the wish list of a lot of NFL teams this offseason, and Denver may have a tougher time than others trying to lure potential pass catchers into Denver. The questions at quarterback and their inability to shine on a regular basis in the passing attack might scare away potential targets.
Regardless, the Broncos will need to continue to add players to the stable of WRs.
Interior Defensive Line
The beat marches on in the search for big bodies to help Denver fill gaps in the rushing defense. Elway and his draft associates will most certainly look to the draft for young talent in the middle, but they are also likely to bring in some veteran players to audition for a role in the starting rotation on the defensive line.
Stopping the run starts on the defensive line, but it ends with a strong middle linebacker calling the plays on the field for the defense and stuffing the gaps left open by the lineman.
Denver has been in need of a dominant man in the middle since Al Wilson's injury cut short his career. I still think the answer lies in the draft, but there are some options in the free-agent market that can help fill out the roster in 2012.
Denver wants a player to stand on the opposite side of Champ Bailey and be almost as effective as the shutdown corner who anchors the defense.
Having a player with excellent coverage ability to complement Bailey will help the pass-rush get home even more often than it did in 2012. An extra half-second of coverage could be the difference between Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil making the sack and the opposing quarterback getting the ball out of his hands.
In general, Denver needs to look for speed on their special teams to help fill out their roster holes. A severe lack of speed was one of the kisses of death down the stretch for Denver and was painfully apparent in the game against Buffalo where Denver was torched on multiple returns.
There are no names that make fans swoon on the free-agent market besides Matt Flynn, and it seems unlikely that Denver will invest that heavily in a quarterback this year.
Chad Henne is an interesting name on the list, because he seems to be the anti-Tebow, in that he is a much more prolific passer and prefers not to break the pocket.
However, Henne might still be looking to command big bucks and be a sure starter wherever he lands.
Jason Campbell is potentially a better fit for what Denver needs right now in terms of cost and experience. Campbell has had tough luck at a few different destinations, but if he were a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, he wouldn't have been replaced twice.
He offers enough skill to push Tebow in camp and can be a proficient starter if the need arises. He also knows that he is likely due for a cut in pay.
The big name that should be on the minds of Denver's brass is LeRon McClain. Not only is he a great mix of rushing, blocking and receiving ability but they would be taking him away from the Kansas City Chiefs which is a benefit.
If Denver is not looking to make a big splash and wants to go for a more cost-friendly battering ram out of the backfield, Owen Schmitt has been blocking extremely well since his days at West Virginia and continued that trend while in Philadelphia leading the way for LeSean McCoy.
Either option makes sense for Denver and is an upgrade from last season.
There is mass speculation as to who Denver may bring into the backfield to work with Willis McGahee and Tim Tebow, but looking for a big name may not be in the cards.
Denver will most likely part ways with Knowshon Moreno after next season (if not sooner), and many expect Denver to try to draft a RB to develop this year.
Assuming all of those things to be true, there is a player available in Khalil Bell out of Chicago that would fit in very well in Denver. He offers a great combo of size and speed and can slash in the middle just like Willis McGahee.
Denver is looking to fill a gap that will be left by Eddie Royal's likely departure, and they have enough money to bring in good talent, but with questions remaining in their passing attack names like Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston are not interested in signing up no matter the price tag.
The players that Denver should target are players with talent that have been overshadowed elsewhere and are looking to shine. Names like Danny Amendola, Early Doucet and Harry Douglas all fit the bill very nicely and would be great additions to Denver's offense.
They all possess a certain level athleticism to make yards after the catch and can operate in tight quarters and short distances which is what they will face with Tim Tebow at quarterback.
The names are on the market that Denver needs at this position, and they are Antonio Garay or Sione Pouha. Both players are more nose-tackle types, but their dominance on the inside can help any defense stop the rush.
Either player will be looking to get a raise, but depending on where Denver takes a DT in the draft, they can afford to make a larger investment here to fill a big need.
There are instant starters on the market that could come in and make an impact on Denver at the middle linebacker position. Curtis Lofton may be an impact player that the Atlanta Falcons are going to let walk because they think they have the right player waiting to take over for a better price.
Larry Grant from the San Francisco 49ers is another linebacker who could depart from his former playoff team and seek a starting role outside of the shadow of Patrick Willis. Lofton is the more proven of the two, but that kind of experience will cost more than trying to lure Grant to Denver to be the anchor of the defense.
A similar factor is at play for cornerbacks as is for every position that Denver is shopping for, and that is how much do they want to spend?
If they are willing to dip into the wallet then names like Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr are options, but maybe a more valuable alternative is the Texans Jason Allen who had a resurgent year after being waived by the Dolphins.
Any of those players would be great complements to Champ Bailey and great cover corners to help Denver's overall pass defense.
There are many names on the market who could make sense for Denver, not only in terms of talent but also strategy and scheme fits as well.
Here is a list of many of the players who Denver could be taking a look at.
QB Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins)
QB Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders)
QB Matt Flynn (Green Bay Packers)
QB Vince Young (Philadelphia Eagles)
RB Marshawn Lynch (Seattle Seahawks)
RB Khalil Bell (Chicago Bears)
RB Tim Hightower (Washington Redskins)
RB Peyton Hillis (Cleveland Browns)
FB LeRon McClain (Kansas City Chiefs)
FB Owen Schmitt (Philadelphia Eagles)
FB Ahmad Hall (Tennessee Titans)
WR Danny Amendola (St. Louis Rams)
WR Early Doucet (Arizona Cardinals)
WR Harry Douglas (Atlanta Falcons)
WR Laurent Robinson (Dallas Cowboys)
WR Patrick Crayton (San Diego Chargers)
DL Antonio Garay (San Diego Chargers)
DL Sione Pouha (New York Jets)
DL Amobi Okoye (Chicago Bears)
DL Paul Soliai (Miami Dolphins)
MLB Curtis Lofton (Atlanta Falcons)
MLB Larry Grant (San Francisco 49ers)
MLB Stephen Tulloch (Detroit Lions)
CB Cortland Finnegan (Tennessee Titans)
CB Brandon Carr (Kansas City Chiefs)
CB Jason Allen (Houston Texans)
CB Rashean Mathis (Jacksonville Jaguars)
CB Tracy Porter (New Orleans Saints)
Obviously, this list is neither exhaustive of every player Denver will evaluate nor realistic that they can pursue all of them depending on who actually hits the market in March.
Some players may be locked up by their current teams and others could see the franchise tag slapped on them in an effort to buy more time to negotiate throughout the year.
If Denver were to select a player from each position to offer a contract to, here is what the numbers might look like for them.
QB Jason Campbell: 1 Year, $2 Million
This deal is similar to the one that Denver offered to Chris Simms years ago to be their backup quarterback, and its no surprise that Campbell and Simms share similar circumstances.
Each player had their chance to secure starting spots in multiple cities but were unable to do so and now are resigned to hoping for a great training camp and possibly a chance to get into games on a regular basis.
Campbell is just middle of the road enough to push Tebow and help him grow as a passer, but also be solid backup in case the teams needs to turn to him.
RB Khalil Bell: 2 Years, $1.75 Million
Khalil Bell is due for a raise, but nobody around the league is ready to pony up serious money for a still somewhat unproven commodity.
Denver needs to hope that Bell sees the opportunity to come in and play in a running backs dream offense, and study under starter Willis McGahee, who will not play forever and hope that he can firmly entrench himself as the man when it is time for McGahee to move on.
FB LeRon McClain: 4 Years, $10 Million
The Broncos need to continue to invest in pieces that make sense for the direction of the offense, which seems to be more of a focus on rushing.
One good thing about McClain is that he can do a little bit of everything and that translate to any kind of offense. No matter who ends up being the quarterback for Denver during the life of McClain's contract he will always have a positive impact on the offense, and can even be a fill on at tail back if injury calls for it.
WR Harry Douglas: 2 Years, $ 2.5 Million
Douglas has been operating in the shadows of Atlanta's star-packed offense his whole career. Despite the crowded offense in Atlanta, Douglas has shown signs of promise and could be a great addition to Denver.
Not only that, but he isn't a big enough name to command big dollars in high-octane passing offenses and could be convinced to come in and be on the ground level of whatever Denver decides to do through the air in 2012.
DL Antonio Garay: 4 Years, $16 Million
The Broncos need look no further than their own division to find some help at the defensive line. Garay is an outlandish character (as evidenced by his hair choices) but he is serious on the field and can be the "block eater" that Denver needs to help their linebackers operate how Jack Del Rio will likely want them to.
If Denver needs more cap space this year, they can possibly extend the contract another year and back-load it. A similar contract may be the right amount to land Sione Pouha as well.
MLB Larry Grant: 2 Years, $2.4 Million
Doubling Larry Grant's salary and offering him a chance to start in the middle of an up and coming defense should be enough to get the linebacker out of San Francisco.
He could be a real steal for the Broncos seeing as how there are only a few teams that he would be a backup on, and it just so happens that with the Niners he will never supplant Patrick WIllis. Grant is a perfect player to take a chance on and still give time for younger players to develop.
CB Jason Allen: 4 Years, $16 Million
There are flashier names on the market in the way of Brandon Carr, but one of the reasons that Kansas City decided to let Carr walk was because he felt that he was entitled to something potentially close to the franchise tag for a corner which is over $10 million.
Allen is a much more sensible pick, who only gives up a tiny bit in athleticism and can still be an upgrade over what the team currently has in Andre' Goodman.
Side Note: Adding up a projected cap hit for all of the above mentioned contracts would only total slightly over $13 million and would still give Denver a large amount of cap flexibility entering the NFL draft. This gives rise to the idea that Denver will be active this offseason.
The Denver Broncos, and most notably John Elway, are coming off of an impressive first effort in the draft.
2011 netted Denver the Defensive Rookie of the Year in Von Miller as well as starting-caliber players in Orlando Franklin, Quinton Carter and promising young talents in Julius Thomas, Rahim Moore and Virgil Green.
If the Broncos want to continue to grow into a legitimate contender, the team needs to find the right talent to match their needs.
They cannot always look to take the best talent available if it doesn't fit a need, but that's sometimes a dangerous road to tread. Obviously, bucking conventional wisdom landed the Broncos Von Miller instead of Marcel Dareus, but the team cannot expect lightning to strike every time they choose to do that.
Denver is in a tough place picking 25th, because there are large number of avenues that they can go down, but the smart money says that defense will be the pick at the end of the first round.
The Broncos are perpetually in need of depth on the inside of their defensive line, and this draft could offer help in that regard.
Also, on defense the Broncos can still use depth at the linebacker position and at cornerback. All of these positions may be addressed in free agency but there are definitely options coming from college that Denver must evaluate.
On offense, the Broncos are looking to potentially draft a quarterback, but who knows when and where they might strike with one. It doesn't appear that they are prepared to take one early enough to legitimately threaten Tim Tebow right away, but who knows? Maybe they are.
A running back and potentially a wide receiver could be on the menu for Denver as well depending on what falls to them as early as potentially the second round.
I have been extolling the virtues of Dont'a Hightower (Alabama) as the new middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos in every mock I have developed and will not stop now.
In fact, it is the belief in Hightower as a first-round pick that makes him the only middle linebacker that I believe Denver will target.
Names like Vontaze Burfict (Arizona St.) and Luke Kuechly (Boston College) could be thrown into the mix, but it Denver goes linebacker it should be Hightower.
The Broncos would be looking to take a defensive lineman in either the second or third round most likely, and some names that pop up there are Kendall Reyes (Connecticut) and Mike Martin (Michigan).
Each player looks the part and has great upside in terms of becoming rocks in the middle of the Denver defensive line.
There's a chance that names like Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) and Alfonzo Dennard (Nebraska) could be first round surprise but it seems more likely that Denver will wait to acquire the services of a player like Jayron Hosley (Virginia Tech).
Hosley has great coverage skills and being a product of Virginia Tech also makes him a valuable contributor on special teams as well.
There has been discussion of Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) as an option for the Broncos, but despite his obvious talents in the passing game, it seems hard to want to offer a five-year contract to a player who will be 33 at the conclusion of his rookie deal.
Other names that intrigue are Nick Foles (Arizona) and Ryan Lindley (San Diego St.), who are both players that could catch John Elway's eye and wind up on Denver's roster after the draft.
If Denver does in fact look at a running back in the second round it could be Virginia Tech standout David Wilson or Boise States Doug Martin who are both fantastic prospects.
Later in the draft, Denver could see names from big-time schools such as Ohio State's Dan Herron or even the speedster from Oregon LaMichael James.
Chad Diehl (Clemson) is really the only late-round name that Denver might want to take a look at in the draft. He played a true fullback position and would be ready to accept that role in the backfield with Denver right off the bat.
Other names listed at fullback, like Alabama's Brad Smelley were tight ends in college and are just trying to find a way to get themselves drafted which is not what Denver should be looking for to fill a serious need.
Denver doesn't seem to be looking for a wide receiver too early in the draft but former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket and current Denver Broncos' receiver could be lobbying very hard to Denver to add Stephen Hill (Ga. Tech).
Later in the draft, Denver could target a player like Marvin McNutt (Iowa) or fellow Big 10 receiver Nick Toon (Wisconsin).