The Denver Broncos are on their way to the Super Bowl. This season has built up to a crescendo where they have a chance to win a championship. They will soon face the Seattle Seahawks for the rights to call themselves world champions.
Soon after they win or lose, the Broncos will turn their sole focus to the offseason. This time is full of scouting college players at pro days and the NFL Scouting Combine, and it culminates with the NFL draft in New York City.
They are in the middle of a Super Bowl window. With Peyton Manning under center, the team is capable of making a deep postseason run each season. In order to keep the window open, the team needs to make tough roster decisions.
They have a few players who are unrestricted free agents in 2014. Before the team builds a draft board, they will first have to choose which players to pay in free agency.
The NFL is just business, but there are tough decisions each team must make. Sometimes favorites of the coaching staff (or the fans) have to be let go in order to clear salary-cap space. It’s the nature of the business in the NFL today. There’s nothing personal about these decisions; each team has to work within the structures of the rules.
The Broncos could have quite a bit of salary-cap space heading into 2014. That money could dry up quickly, depending on the free-agent decisions this team makes.
Let’s take a look at the five toughest decisions the Broncos will have to make this offseason.
Arguably the biggest decision the team will have to make has to do with the future of wide receiver Eric Decker. He’s a fan favorite, a favorite target of Peyton Manning and he played a critical role for the passing game in 2013.
When looking over the 2014 free-agent class of wide receivers, one could easily make the case that Decker will be the best available. There are likely to be several teams interested in acquiring the rising star, and they may offer him a contract similar to the one Mike Wallace got last year from the Dolphins.
Putting his price tag around five years for $60 million may prove to be too rich for the Broncos. They would like to keep him around, but the team also has to worry about the contract for Demaryius Thomas. His deal expires at the end of the 2014 season, and it could be an even larger price tag than what Decker could get.
Another tough decision will be dealing with running back Knowshon Moreno. He was the team’s leading rusher this year and finished with more than 1,000 yards on the ground for the first time in his pro career. Moreno also became the first Broncos back to have over 500 yards receiving in addition to 1,000 yards or more rushing.
I’ve often described Moreno as the heart and soul of the Broncos offense. Capable running backs can be found fairly easily in today’s NFL. Backs who embody the spirit of the team are much more difficult to find. Moreno runs with attitude, and that is infectious to the rest of his team. He refuses to go down without a fight, and the Broncos feed off of that “take no prisoners” mentality.
The market may be cooler for Moreno than some think. He’s matured on and off the field, but durability concerns still linger. No team wants to pay him a handsome salary only to have his season (or career) cut short by another knee injury.
The lower price tag may keep Moreno in the team’s salary range. However, the Broncos selected Montee Ball in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to be a featured runner someday. They may decide that time has come, and it’s time to move on from the first pick Josh McDaniels ever made for the Broncos.
This decision is not that tough from a business standpoint. Champ Bailey has Hall of Fame credentials, and he certainly could end up in Canton someday. He is a fan favorite, and Bailey has embraced the community during his time with the Broncos.
Bailey has a $10 million salary cap number in 2014. That high number immediately makes him a target for getting cut. That target is further accentuated because Bailey has zero guaranteed money due in 2014. That means cutting him would immediately give the Broncos $10 million in salary-cap space.
He’s not the same player he used to be, and the team may choose to let him go. Bailey may choose to go ahead and retire if the Broncos win the Super Bowl this year. The Broncos also have the option of moving him to safety if he sticks around in 2014.
Bailey is a favorite of the coaching staff, and cutting him would certainly be painful on a personal level. It makes more sense to restructure his contract and move him to safety. This could be the best bet for both sides.
Like Bailey, Wesley Woodyard is a favorite of the fans. His contract is up after this season, and Denver has to make a critical decision.
Woodyard is a quality weak-side linebacker, but he moved to middle linebacker this year and had an up-and-down season. A neck injury in the Dallas game slowed him down this season, and he ended up losing the starting job (in the base package) to Paris Lenon.
If the Broncos bring back Woodyard, it’s likely to play on the weak side. This would mean Danny Trevathan would have competition for his starting job. That’s not a recipe for success, as Trevathan is an emerging star on the defense. It would be best for the Broncos to let Trevathan continue to develop in his starting spot.
Woodyard could provide depth, but at what cost?
Last year, the Buccaneers set the new benchmark for cornerback contracts when they signed Darrelle Revis to a six-year, $96 million contract after they traded for him with the New York Jets. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is not going to get that type of money, but he could earn a yearly salary close to the $10 million range.
Rodgers-Cromartie signed essentially a one-year deal with the Broncos last year. The terms were officially for two years, but his contract expires if he is on the roster five days after the Super Bowl. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent, and he will have a larger price tag.
This season we saw Rodgers-Cromartie thrive with the Broncos. He finally got his swagger back after losing confidence during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was the primary cornerback for the Broncos, and he helped shut down opponents' top receivers each and every week.
This contract could be closely tied to what the team does with Champ Bailey. If the team frees up the $10 million cap number Bailey has, then we could see most (if not all) of that money go toward Rodgers-Cromartie.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has done a fine job with Rodgers-Cromartie, and it would make sense to try to keep him around for the foreseeable future.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.