The Denver Broncos made an unexpected splash last week at the beginning of free agency by signing WR Wes Welker and four other veterans—CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, G Louis Vasquez, LB Stewart Bradley and DT Terrance Knighton.
It was a far cry from what was expected as the Broncos were entering free agency with only $5 million available in cap space.
Four of the five free agents signed were signed to no more than two-year contracts—low risk investments on young veteran players to make contributions in the present.
How will these five free-agent signees impact the Broncos' 2013 season?
Welker was signed to a two-year, $12 million deal by the Broncos last week.
What this Signing Means: The Broncos will enter the season with the best receiving corps in the NFL—Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Welker all had 1,000-yard seasons in 2012—and will utilize their three wide-receiver package just as often as they did last season with the best slot receiver in the league now in the orange and blue. The Broncos started in the three wide receiver—or "11 personnel"—package nine times last season.
The signing of Welker also means the Broncos will likely not re-sign free agent Brandon Stokley. Stokley had a fine season last year as Denver's slot receiver (45 catches, 544 yards, five touchdowns), ranking as the best slot receiver in the league (according to Pro Football Focus).
The Broncos could always bring back Stokley for insurance and depth purposes as the season progresses, especially if Welker is decimated by injury.
However, there are currently no indications for that to be the case, although Stokley has stated that he plans to continue playing in 2013, whether that's with the Broncos or another team.
Cromartie was signed to a one-year, $5 million deal quickly after the start of free agency.
What this Signing Means: The Broncos realized that Rodgers-Cromartie is long on talent but underperformed the past two seasons as the Eagles' cornerback opposite of Nnamdi Asomugha. Cromartie was given a contract similar to what the Broncos gave cornerback Tracy Porter just a year ago.
Rodgers-Cromartie will likely start opposite of Champ Bailey while Denver shifts Chris Harris back to his more familiar role as the nickel cornerback in Denver's 3-3-5 defense. It also means that the Broncos may hold off another year before making a high-round selection on a cornerback, as Rodgers-Cromartie (26 years of age) may be the guy that ends up replacing Bailey once Champ hangs it up.
The Broncos also have young cornerbacks Tony Carter and Omar Bolden for depth.
Vasquez will likely replace longtime Broncos offensive lineman Chris Kuper at right guard. Vasquez was Denver's first free-agent signee, having signed a four-year contract worth $23.5 million.
What this Signing Means: Vasquez is just 26 years of age and it's interesting to note that of Denver's five major free-agent signings last week, he was the only signed to a long-term contract. It demonstrates John Elway's and Denver's expectation for Vasquez to be a mainstay along the Broncos offensive line for the next several years.
Incumbent Chris Kuper has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, first suffering a season-ending injury vs. the Chiefs in the 2011 season finale and then suffering an injury that would cause him to miss several games at the start of the 2012 season.
Expect Vasquez to be Denver's starting right guard in 2013 while the Broncos figure out what to do with Kuper.
Like all of Denver's free-agent signings—with the exception of Welker—Knighton is young (26) and is expected to make an immediate impact for a Broncos team expected by many to contend for the Super Bowl.
What this Signing Means: The Broncos re-signed incumbent starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson at the beginning of free agency, and with free agent Justin Bannan still on the market with no indications that he'll re-sign, expect the Broncos to field a starting duo of Vickerson and Knighton along the interior of the defensive line.
Knighton—like Rodgers-Cromartie—has loads of potential yet to be fulfilled. He played under Jack Del Rio when Del Rio was the head coach of the Jaguars.
With Del Rio now the defensive coordinator of the Broncos, Del Rio and Knighton will work once again to tap into the 335-pounder's talent pool.
Bradley was signed by the Broncos to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million with a $200K signing bonus.
What this Signing Means: The Broncos have a bunch of question marks at middle linebacker. Bradley figures to possibly fix those woes.
Free agent Keith Brooking is not expected to be back as Denver's starting middle linebacker, while Joe Mays—who was signed to a contract extension before 2012—will have to compete with Bradley and possibly a rookie in order to be Denver's starting middle linebacker.
Bradley was named to the All-Pro team by Sports Illustrated in 2008 in his first year as Philadelphia's starting middle linebacker. Bradley may not represent the future as Denver's starting middle linebacker, but he represents a safe stopgap solution in the meantime, while the Broncos find a better alternative through the draft.