The playoffs are in full swing, and the Denver Broncos are sitting atop the AFC as the number one seed in the conference. Their 13-3 record gave them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The team is hopeful they can win the Super Bowl with a three-game win streak in the postseason.
The Broncos have 16 players set to be unrestricted free agents in 2014. Among those players, there are several big names like Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno.
Vice President of Football Operations John Elway will have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason. Good thing he has a quality group of scouts and evaluators led by Matt Russell. John Fox will also have a say in the personnel the Broncos add this offseason.
The team is currently in a Super Bowl window. With a properly built roster and smart salary cap decisions, the Broncos could expand that window.
So who will be with the Broncos in 2014? Let’s take a look at a few key players that are questionable to return next season.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Contract/free agency status found at Spotrac.
Peyton Manning is the franchise quarterback. Brock Osweiler is being groomed as the quarterback of the future. Zac Dysert is a third-string developmental prospect who needs to impress in training camp in order to keep his roster spot.
Dysert has not been able to showcase his talents since training camp. He’s held a clipboard for the Broncos all season long.
In training camp and the preseason I noted the struggles of Dysert on a daily basis. He regularly made poor decisions with the football when under duress, and many passes were well off the mark.
During the media portion of practice of the regular season (and playoffs) I get to watch Dysert throw in basic drills. His accuracy and pass placement hasn’t improved that much from what he showed in training camp. It’s incredibly difficult to make a definitive opinion about what I’ve seen because Dysert is just going through warm up drills.
He is known as a favorite of John Elway, and that will help him keep his roster spot. If he looks horrendous in training camp and the preseason next year then perhaps the Broncos cut ties, but I doubt they do.
2013 Stats: No games played
Verdict: Stays through training camp and the preseason at a minimum
If the team loses Knowshon Moreno in free agency, then Montee Ball would likely become the lead back. This leaves Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson as the primary backups. The Broncos may choose to add another running back or two to the mix through the draft or free agency.
Hillman may be on the roster bubble if he doesn’t prove to the team that he can hold onto the rock. He’s only had one lost fumble this season, but it was a costly one both for him and the team. Hillman only played in nine games this year, and received just 15 carries since his Week 7 fumble against the Colts.
He can make plays at the pro level as a change-of-pace back, but he needs to prove his ball security if he wants to get a larger role. His skill set is not unique, and the Broncos may choose to add a speed back in the later rounds of the 2014 NFL draft.
Hillman spent most of last offseason as the starter. He fumbled away the starting job in the preseason, and he’s struggled to impress since then. If he matures and takes advantage of a larger opportunity next year in camp, then he’s likely to stick around.
2013 Stats: Nine games played, 55 carries, 218 yards, one rushing touchdown, 12 catches, 119 yards
Verdict: Makes the roster as the primary change of pace back
The team may lose Eric Decker via free agency. He wants to stay in Denver, even his wife Jesse wants to stay in Denver, but that won’t stop another team from making a big-money offer to Decker. Looking at the free agent class of wide receivers, it’s plain to see that Decker is at the top.
Losing Decker would create opportunities for players behind Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. Like Decker, Andre Caldwell is also an unrestricted free agent. He may leave to get a larger opportunity elsewhere in 2014.
The Broncos are likely to add a wide receiver in the 2014 NFL draft. A player like Paul Richardson (Colorado) in the third-round would make a ton of sense. Richardson could start opposite Thomas, leaving Welker in the slot.
They selected Tavarres King in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, but they released him during the season. The Carolina Panthers quickly scooped up King on the open market. That move could come back to sting them if a young receiver they add doesn’t develop.
Outside of a practice squad player like Nathan Palmer, nobody is really on the roster bubble here. However, return man Trindon Holliday may be on the roster bubble.
He’s a dangerous player—for both his team and an opponent. Holliday has had several memorable touchdown returns as a member of the Broncos. He’s also had some issues holding onto the rock. The risk/reward with a player like that may be too much for the Broncos to handle.
Holliday is not an unrestricted free agent in 2014, but he is an exclusive rights free agent.
2013 Stats: 15 games played, one carry, seven yards, 0 targets, 32 punt returns, 271 yards, one touchdown, 28 kick returns, 775 yards, one touchdown
Verdict: Squarely on the roster bubble
Julius Thomas has emerged as one of the best young tight ends in the game today. Virgil Green has gone from a one-dimensional receiving tight end to an all-purpose tight end who excels as a blocker. Both are safe on the roster next year. However, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen may both be on the roster bubble.
Tamme is set to make $3.8 million in 2014, while Dreessen has a cap number of $3.3 million. Neither will likely see those salaries. The Broncos are more likely to ask one or both to restructure their contracts.
Dreessen has the ability to be a quality blocker and red-zone threat. However, knee injuries slowed him down in 2013.
2013 Stats: 13 games played, nine targets, seven catches, 47 yards, one touchdown
Verdict: Squarely on the roster bubble unless he restructures
Tamme has long-established chemistry with Peyton Manning dating back to their time together with the Colts. So long as Manning is the quarterback, Tamme may accept a lower offer to stick around. His skill set isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and Tamme may choose to stay where he’s comfortable.
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 25 targets, 20 catches, 184 yards, one touchdown
Verdict: Squarely on the roster bubble unless he restructures
The team has to first make a decision on unrestricted free agent Zane Beadles. If he’s retained, then the offensive line will get to keep its well-established chemistry.
If Beadles moves on in free agency then perhaps the team could turn to veteran Chris Kuper. He’s a quality player who lost his starting job as the right guard when Louis Vasquez was signed in free agency last offseason.
Kuper has been slowed in recent years by injury. That history of durability problems, plus his $5.9 million cap number may put him squarely on the roster bubble. The team could always ask him to restructure if he’s open to sticking around on a reduced salary.
The development of 2013 sixth-round pick Vinston Painter needs to be watched here as well. Painter is listed as a tackle, but the Broncos could try him out on the inside at guard.
Like fellow 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, we could see Robert Ayers leave in free agency. The Broncos will turn to young defensive ends like Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe to fill the void if Ayers leaves.
The middle of the defensive line features 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams. He’s had an up and down rookie season, but Williams has great upside if he can play up to his full potential in the future. His job is safe.
Veteran Terrance Knighton has seen a career rejuvenation under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “Pot Roast” eats up space naturally, and he was the leader of an interior line that only allowed one 100-yard rusher (Ryan Mathews, Chargers) all season long. His job is also safe.
Mitch Unrein is a restricted free agent, and the Broncos would be wise to keep a blue-collar worker like him around.
Kevin Vickerson may be the player on the roster bubble here. If the Broncos add a rookie defensive tackle in the draft, then that could push Vickerson off the team.
He’s a team-first player who has been a valuable asset for the Broncos. His 2013 season was cut short by injury, and Vickerson carries a $3.5 million cap number in 2014.
Tough decisions have to be made at the pro level. Vickerson is a valued player, but his price tag and injury concerns may cause him to get bounced.
2013 Stats: 11 games played, 18 tackles, four assists, one sack, two batted passes
Verdict: On the bubble if the Broncos add more talent at the position
What happens to Wesley Woodyard? That’s the biggest question for the Broncos at this position. Woodyard is an unrestricted free agent, but his disappointing 2013 season may keep his price low for the Broncos.
The Broncos were impressed by what they saw from undrafted rookie Lerentee McCray in training camp. The rookie was shut down for the season with an ankle injury he suffered in the preseason. He could play a larger role than some think in 2014 if back to full strength.
Von Miller may be ready for the start of the regular season, but his status for training camp is up in the air right now. He’s set to undergo surgery on the ACL injury he suffered in the Week 16 game against the Texans. His roster spot is safe.
Danny Trevathan can make plays in space. The young playmaker has developed into a quality starter for the Broncos. He only has a $596,018 cap number in 2014. His roster spot is also safe.
Looking over the players under contract for 2014 there doesn’t appear to be any linebackers on the roster bubble.
In 2013, the Broncos signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a one-year “prove it” deal. He’s certainly proven his worth this season, and is the team’s top cornerback. The Broncos would be wise to sign him to a long-term deal if the price is right.
Chris Harris is a versatile player who can play outside or over the slot receiver. He’s a restricted free agent in 2014, and one the Broncos should keep around. His emergence could perhaps make Champ Bailey expendable.
Bailey may end up retiring at the end of the season if the Broncos win the Super Bowl. He’s not the same player he used to be, and his dwindling skill set may force him to the analyst booth in the near future.
He’s certainly going into the Hall of Fame when his playing days are done. Bailey could even be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as he’s arguably the best cornerback to ever play football.
If Bailey wants to stick around in 2014, then he’s likely going to be asked to take a pay cut. Right now, Bailey has a cap number of $10 million. He’s not going to play at that inflated salary.
There’s a chance Bailey could restructure his deal then make the move to free safety. He’s discussed moving there this season but felt doing it in the middle of the year didn’t make much sense.
I’d love to see Bailey go out on his own terms. He’s one of the finest players I’ve ever been around in covering the NFL for 10 years. Not only is he a Hall of Fame player, but he’s a Hall of Fame person.
2013 Stats: Five games played, 12 tackles, two assists, three passes defensed
Verdict: On the bubble unless he restructures, possible position switch
The Broncos have gotten quality play from veteran Mike Adams. They will have to choose to keep Adams around as he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2014.
Meanwhile, Duke Ihenacho continues to go through the ups and downs most young safeties do in this league. He’s an exclusive rights free agent this upcoming offseason.
Rahim Moore should be healthy next year. He’s currently on the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list with a rare compartmental leg injury. Moore has a cap number of $1.4 million in 2014, but as long as he’s healthy the team should keep him around.
Special teams ace David Bruton is unlikely to be on the roster bubble even though he has the highest cap number ($1.6 million) of any safety on the team.
Omar Bolden is the player on the bubble here. He only has a cap number of $688,607 in 2014, but his play has been poor in 2013. The Broncos could choose to let him go unless he impresses during camp.
2013 Stats: 16 games played, 11 tackles, three assists
Verdict: At least makes it through training camp, but needs to impress