It was a loss as bitter as it was cold on Saturday in Denver when the Broncos dropped 38-35 to the Baltimore Ravens in the second overtime period. It was a painful end to what had been one heck of a fun ride for Broncos fans. The players, coaches and fans would all say that it was an extremely disappointing final game.
What became perfectly clear during and in the aftermath of the loss was that the Broncos still need work. John Elway has only had two seasons to put his stamp on the roster and rebuilding projects typically take three years for a full turnaround. Changes need to be made so the Broncos can maintain their place and get another shot in 2013.
Winning the sweepstakes and signing Peyton Manning was obviously a huge lift for the Broncos and made them a legitimate contender. Having Manning work for another year with his receivers could send Denver’s offense to new heights. Despite this fact, the status quo is not going to be adequate because the Broncos fell short of their goals while also being relatively healthy.
What's next for the Broncos?
Coaching Staff Changes
Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is getting interviews with just about every team in need of a head coach. It seems like a foregone conclusion that McCoy will end up getting a top job elsewhere in 2013. That leaves John Fox in the position of trying to find a new offensive coordinator late in the season for coaching changes.
Like Fox did when he hired Jack Del Rio last season, he might dip into the pool of recently fired head coaches to fill the vacancy. Norv Turner would be one option, although he might also land in Cleveland. Ken Whisenhunt would be another option if he doesn’t find a job as a head coach himself.
If the Broncos decided to promote from within, they could turn things over to quarterbacks coach Adam Gase. Since Manning basically runs the offense it actually might be the easiest possible transition for the young coach. The team will obviously want to get Manning’s approval on the next offensive coordinator, so a lot might have to do with who he is most comfortable working with.
Prioritizing and Signing Free Agents
The Broncos have 12 unrestricted free agents and each one will fall into one of three categories. There will be players like Ryan Clady, Tony Carter, Brandon Stokley and Justin Bannan who the Broncos will place a priority in re-signing.
There is a category of players that probably will not return like Tracy Porter. Ty Warren is another player that may not return as he has played one game in the last two years and will be 32 next season. Jason Hunter will be 30 and the Broncos already have his replacement on the roster.
There’s also a third category which is players who the Broncos will wait to sign as they look for better players in the draft and on the open market. The team can always bring them back later to compete for a roster spot. Players like wide receiver Matt Willis would fit into this category as well as veterans like Jim Leonhard and Keith Brooking.
Cutting Dead Weight
There is a salary cap in the NFL, which means underperforming or overpaid players will need to be released. There are several players on the roster that the Broncos will need to consider releasing before next season.
Linebacker D.J. Williams has a $6 million in base salary owed to him on the final year of his deal according to spotrac.com. Since Williams has already been suspended twice, the Broncos could look to move on and find younger linebackers to backup Wesley Woodyard.
The Broncos also will need to decide what they want to do at running back. Willis McGahee will be another year older and had ball security issues in 2012, plus he will make $2.5 million in base salary and the team has club option on Knowshon Moreno for $1.31 million according to spotrac.com.
The team also invested a high third-round draft pick on Ronnie Hillman. It’s only reasonable to assume that the team will go with Moreno and Hillman while looking for a more dynamic alternative. The Broncos will remain a passing team, so they will have to be careful how many resources they commit to the ground game.
Filling Roster Holes
With the coaching staff ready to go and knowing what free agents will definitely be back, the Broncos will turn their attention to to draft. Good teams build through the draft and Elway's first two drafts haven't yielded much outside Miller, Wolfe and Moore. There's still time for other players to develop, but additional players that can push for jobs earlier is never a bad thing.
The Broncos are in desperate need of a middle linebacker. Joe Mays and Keith Brooking helped the Broncos bridge the gap for a while, but they need an impact guy in the middle. Manti Te’o could become an option in the first round and the Broncos will draft higher now that they were eliminated earlier. There are plenty of other options in the draft at the linebacker position.
With Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil on opposite ends playing with a lead probably made the secondary look better than they were. Champ Bailey, Rahim Moore, Tony Carter and Mike Adams were all exploited in coverage against the Ravens to some extent. Coverage lapses weren’t restricted to the playoff game and the Broncos could also look to address the cornerback or safety position in the draft.
What position does Denver most need to address in the offseason?
Since protecting Manning is vital, the Broncos should look to improve their depth on the offensive line. The Broncos lost J.D. Walton and Philip Blake to injury. Thankfully the team had Dan Koppen, but he’ll be a free agent and could get starter money after his 2012 season. Chris Kuper was the other starter that got injured and the Broncos struggled without him at times.
The Broncos could also add depth on the defensive line where players often get hurt. Most of the Broncos’ injuries in 2012 came along the defensive line. At some point the Broncos may consider moving Derek Wolfe inside, which could leave them looking for a defensive end. It’s never a bad idea to have another big body to rotate into the game.
The Broncos have the luxury of not having a lot of holes, which means they can focus on finding good fits and tweaking the roster to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy again next season. Elway has done a great job constructing a team in Denver and another strong offseason could make 2012 simply seem like a stepping stone to greater things.