The Denver Broncos Face Easy Decisions on Their Free Agents
The Denver Broncos have 12 unrestricted free agents. Some of those players will be re-signed in March, but many more will be allowed to explore other opportunities. As good as the Broncos were in 2012, not many of their free agents were major contributors—that’s a good thing.
It’s unlikely the Broncos will be overly active in free agency when it comes to signing free agents from other teams, but they have the cap space to explore their options. John Elway will focus most of his attention on adding depth through the draft, and those draft picks will likely replace many of Denver’s free agents.
Free agency comes in three waves. It’s the first wave of free agency, where all the best players are signed, where the Broncos are likely to be quiet. The Broncos only have a couple of their own players to address in the first wave.
The second wave of free agency comes after the draft and includes veterans who still have a gas left in the tank, good scheme fits and special-teams contributors. The Broncos might consider re-signing a few or their veterans if they don’t add a quality player at those positions through the draft in the second wave.
The final wave of free agency comes just before the season when teams cut down to 53 players. Bad teams are most active during this period, so the Broncos need not apply.
By this point, the Broncos will have made decisions on all of their free agents. Many of the veterans who have been re-signed might actually be released here to make room for a younger players.
Tracy Porter was supposed to solidify Denver’s cornerback position, but that didn’t happen. Porter’s play was disappointing and then he had to sit out a few games because of vertigo.
The coaches got to see Chris Harris Jr. and Tony Carter step up in a big way for the defense while Porter was out, so Porter became nothing more than a guy for depth. Since Porter signed a “show me” one-year contract, he will be a free agent and neither side wants to continue the marriage.
Jason Hunter will be 30 years old in 2013 and he missed 14 games in 2012 with an injury. Even when Hunter is healthy, he’s not a great defensive end. Rookie Derek Wolfe took over for Hunter in 2013 and played well.
If Hunter is re-signed, it’s because the Broncos didn’t address defensive end in free agency or the draft. Considering that defensive line should be one of the major focuses for the Broncos this offseason, it seems unlikely that Hunter will return.
Hunter’s best chance is to stick is as a backup, but the Broncos will put a very low priority on re-signing him. The draft is full of defensive linemen, so it seems like the right time for the Broncos to find help at the position.
Jim Leonhard failed to crack the 300-snaps marker in 2012, which means he only played in sub packages. Leonhard actually played less than Tracy Porter; his play was just more spread out throughout the season.
Considering that Quinton Carter should be able to return in 2013 from injury, there’s not really going to be a spot to put Leonhard. He’s a good veteran to have around and he plays special teams, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Broncos bring him back later in the offseason to compete for a spot.
Matt Willis will be 29 years old for the entirety of the 2013 season. Coincidentally, Willis has caught exactly 29 passes since coming to the Broncos in 2009. That’s not a lot of production that needs replacing and it shouldn’t be hard for the Broncos to find a younger receiver to take Willis’ place on the roster.
There’s always a chance Willis returns for depth, but it certainly will not be during the first wave of free agency. It seems likely that the Broncos will bring in younger players to compete for a roster spot as a special-teams guy and depth receiver.
Willis did manage to stay active for 31 games over the past two seasons, which could mean the Broncos believe he’s one of the best 45 players on game day. Willis has turned into a very good player on special teams and he deserves a chance to win a job in 2013 on a minimum deal.
David Bruton is an excellent special-teams player, but that’s all he really does. Bruton is a superb guy in punt coverage, and that alone is enough for the Broncos to re-sign him. There will be no rush to get a deal done, because every team has a guy like Bruton.
Since Bruton only plays special teams, his priority level is low even if there’s a good chance that he stays with the team. If another team were to nab Bruton, the Broncos wouldn’t bat an eye at the loss.
There’s not much added value in a guy that only plays special teams, so it’s unlikely that any teams are going to have interest in Bruton.
Keith Brooking and Leonhard were brought in at the same time; it just so happens that the Broncos needed Brooking to play a lot more than Leonhard. The Broncos have been looking for better play from the middle linebacker spot for several years, they just haven’t devoted the resources to the position.
The Broncos are finally in a position where drafting a middle linebacker makes some sense, which obviously hurts Brooking’s shot to return in 2013. Brooking was only brought in for depth in the first place, and that seems like a good role for him next season.
Brooking isn’t a bad guy to have around to mentor a draft pick, and he’s already proven he can start when needed. The Broncos should re-sign Brooking at some point in the offseason, even if that doesn’t come until after the draft.
Ty Warren has played exactly one football game over the past three years. Warren lost all of the 2010 season to a hip injury, all of 2011 and 15 games in 2012 for two tears of the same triceps. It’s terrible that Warren’s career has been derailed by injuries, because he was a solid player for six years in New England.
Warren hasn’t gotten any younger, but he’ll be cheap to re-sign. If Warren can stay on the field, the Broncos would be happy to have him in the rotation at defensive tackle. At this point, the Broncos are going to wait and see how Warren’s rehab might progress.
Maybe Warren’s career is over, but I’d like to see him battle back from the injury again. Three full years rehabbing injuries has to take a toll on Warren mentally. If Warren can make it back, he’s one heck of a story. The Broncos should make it happen if he gets healthy before training camp.
Dan Koppen became the starter when J.D. Walton was injured, and he did a great job as an injury replacement. Koppen may have earned himself a starting job with another team with his play, but there isn’t usually much of a market for centers.
Since Walton was the worst center as graded by ProFootballFocus in 2011, the Broncos would be wise to bring Koppen back and have a competition for the starting job. Both Walton and Koppen aren’t the best run blockers, but as long as Peyton Manning is under center, the focus will be on protecting him and not the running game.
Expect Koppen to be re-signed after the draft if the Broncos don’t bring in a center in the middle rounds to compete with Walton.
Kevin Vickerson shared time at defensive tackle with Justin Bannan and Mitch Unrein. While Vickerson doesn’t provide much in the way of interior pass rush, he makes up for it by being an excellent run defender. Vickerson had a nice year in 2012 simply because of his ability to stop the run.
Since the Broncos get their pass rush elsewhere, they can afford to keep Vickerson in the middle where he can clog up running lanes for a rookie middle linebacker. Vickerson is another veteran who will come cheap and is a good guy to have for depth.
The Broncos should wait until after the draft to see if some talent on the defensive line drops, but even drafting a defensive tackle shouldn’t prevent the team from bringing Vickerson back into the fold.
Brandon Stokley is like Manning’s security blanket. Stokley‘s physical traits are totally replaceable, but he has Manning’s trust, which is extremely valuable. Stokley is a good guy to have around even if he isn’t playing many snaps just so the other receivers can see how he prepares for games.
The Broncos might bring in the next big thing at slot receiver (probably not), but they know they can always fall back on Stokley. Manning likes players he can depend on, and Stokley is the epitome of a dependable wide receiver.
Despite being one of the free agents that the Broncos should re-sign, the Broncos don’t have to rush anything with him. Stokley doesn’t want to go anywhere and there isn’t going to be a huge market for his services.
The Broncos can wait until after the draft to re-sign 10 of their 12 free agents, with Stokley being the last in that category.
Although Bannan isn’t a pass rusher, he had an excellent year stopping the run in 2012. The Broncos are very thin at defensive tackle with so many of the players from last year hitting free agency, and the team needs to bring a couple guys of back just to have enough bodies.
Bannan is getting up there in age, but as long as he stays productive, it doesn’t really matter. Bannan has some gas left in the tank and he will not break the bank, which makes the decision to re-sign him easy.
Bannan could get some looks from other teams, so the Broncos shouldn’t waste any time bringing him back. Since most of the Broncos’ free agents want to re-sign, money should not be a huge issue. The Broncos have more than enough cap space to accommodate everything they want to do in free agency.
Priority: 1/12 (Franchise Tag)
The top priority is obviously left tackle Ryan Clady. It seems likely that Clady will receive the franchise tag while the two sides work out a long-term contract that will keep him in Denver for a long time.
Unlike all of the other unrestricted free agents, Clady is not going to ever really be unrestricted. At some point, the two sides will come to an agreement on a long-term contract, as the Broncos will not want to let the contract issue linger into next season.
The Broncos have put themselves in a great position with their free agents. Just about every free agent wants to re-sign with the team, few of them will have other options and there are no players that the Broncos want to keep that they will risk losing in free agency. The Broncos can take a wait-and-see approach and still retain the players they care about.
Even though the Broncos have 12 unrestricted free agents, they are in great position to maximize their resources this offseason. The rich get richer in the NFL, and that’s certainly should be the case for the Broncos this offseason.