Denver Broncos: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency
They've done a good job of assembling talent and working within the confines of the salary cap. Their 2013 free-agent class included gems like Wes Welker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Louis Vasquez, Shaun Phillips and Terrance Knighton.
The Broncos need to decide which of their own free agents to keep around before they start exploring the open market. Tough decisions will have to be made on the likes of Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno and others.
John Elway, vice president of football operations, has done a great job of putting this team in position to win now. In order to stay on the winning track, the Broncos need to be wise with the salary-cap room they have in 2014.
Looking into their salary-cap situation, the Broncos will be better off than others. In fact, they could have around $26 million to work with at the start of free agency. This money could quickly evaporate depending on how many and which free agents they sign.
Let’s take a look at the free-agent market. Here we examine both the free agents on the Broncos roster and those on other teams who would be a good fit for the Broncos in 2014.
The Broncos will first have to make a decision on Knowshon Moreno.
He’s unlikely to be an option for the franchise tag, and the Broncos may decide to let him walk in free agency. Montee Ball was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to be the eventual starter for Denver. His time could come as soon as next year.
Looking over the free-agent class of running backs, Moreno is clearly near the top of the list. Any team looking for a back will take a long look at the five-year pro from Georgia.
If the Broncos lose Moreno in free agency, I believe they will likely add a back via the 2014 NFL draft. Ball will be their top back, while Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson will compete in camp to be his primary backup.
In an earlier mock draft, I had the Broncos selecting Isaiah Crowell (Alabama State, Georgia transfer) in the seventh round. A pick like that makes a lot of sense, and it makes more sense than grabbing a free-agent back for an inflated price.
The market for backup running backs this year isn’t that juicy. Sure, that could change with a few cuts here and there, but for the most part this isn’t the class to be selecting a backup runner from.
Arguably the team's most important move this offseason will be deciding the fate of Eric Decker. Fans, coaches and Peyton Manning would like to keep Decker around, but the Broncos may not be able to afford him.
Looking over the free-agent class of wide receivers, one can easily make the argument that Decker is the cream of the crop. He could command a contract so rich that the Broncos can’t match the offer.
Losing Decker would be rough, and the team would likely have to address the position through both the draft and free agency. The Broncos also have Andre "Bubba" Caldwell as an unrestricted free agent in 2014.
In the draft, the Broncos could take a guy like Paul Richardson (Colorado) in the second third round.
In free agency, they could consider a player like Hakeem Nicks. He’s likely to move on from the Giants and already has experience catching passes from a Manning. Nicks was a favorite target for Eli Manning, and he is a crisp route runner who can make something happen after the catch. His injury woes could keep his contract somewhat low.
Another player they could look at is Riley Cooper. The Eagles would like to keep Cooper around because of his on-field chemistry with Nick Foles. However, he’s an unrestricted free agent, and the allure of playing with Peyton Manning could prove to be too much to pass on. Cooper is similar to Decker, but he’s a better athlete and more dangerous after the catch.
Finally, the Broncos could possibly throw out a one-year "prove it" deal for a guy like Kenny Britt. He has fantastic natural talent, but Britt has been held back as a pro due to attitude problems. Perhaps playing alongside Manning would spark him to play up to his enormous potential.
Both Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen have around $3 million price tags in 2014. One or both could be released in the near future.
The team has Julius Thomas as the lead tight end, and after a Pro Bowl season, he could turn in another productive season in 2014. Behind Thomas, the Broncos have Virgil Green. He’s primarily a blocker, but he can also be used as a spot receiver.
Without Tamme and Dreessen, the Broncos would have to add at least one more tight end to the mix via free agency. Former Arizona State wide receiver Gerell Robinson is currently on the team’s practice squad, and he is listed as a tight end.
They won’t be looking for a starter at the position, but veteran quality depth is certainly on their list.
Alex Smith played his high school ball in Colorado at Mullen. He’s a good blocker and decent receiving option. His price tag would be lower, and the team may look at him on the open market.
Another player with Colorado connections is Kory Sperry. He played at Colorado State, and Sperry has always had intriguing athleticism for the position. Like Smith, his price tag would be low. Unlike Smith, Sperry is known more as a "move" tight end who can attack the seam of a defense.
The Broncos have a couple of key decisions to make here.
First, they’re likely to restructure Chris Kuper’s contract and his $5.9 million price tag. Next, they have to decide at what price they should keep unrestricted free agent Zane Beadles around.
Kuper has $2.7 million in dead money over the next two years, so the Broncos would be wise to find a way to lower his yearly cap hit. He’s a talented player who is one of the best interior linemen on the team when healthy.
Beadles has flourished during his time with the Broncos, and the Pro Bowl left guard could command a larger contract than the Broncos want to pay.
The free-agent class of guards isn’t that great. Travelle Wharton could be a target because of his ties with John Fox from their days together with the Panthers.
The Broncos have quality tackles with Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin. Chris Clark has proven this year that he’s one of the best reserve tackles in the game today. There’s no need to pursue this position with the quality depth the Broncos have.
The Broncos could have a much different look on the defensive line next year. Robert Ayers is set to hit free agency, and the Broncos may let him leave this offseason. That creates a hole on the outside they’ll need to address.
There’s no word on the long-term health of Derek Wolfe at this time. The mysterious illness he came down with this season could lead the Broncos to safeguard their roster with more depth at the position.
It would be a dream scenario for Greg Hardy to land in the Mile High City. Hardy has a history with John Fox from the Panthers, and he would give the Broncos yet another quality pass-rusher outside.
However, all indications point to Hardy staying in Carolina, perhaps even as a franchise-tagged player.
The defensive tackle position could be upgraded with a guy like Cam Thomas. The Broncos would be able to lift him off the Chargers roster in free agency for a decent price.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio loves big-bodied defensive tackles, so Terrence Cody from the Ravens might be a free-agent fit. He’s huge and can regularly take on two blockers.
The Broncos will have to decide if they want to keep Wesley Woodyard around in 2014. He’s a good outside linebacker, but he struggled to impress as a middle linebacker this year.
Woodyard began the season as the starter in the middle, but he was replaced by Paris Lenon around the halfway point of the year.
This team has been missing attitude at the middle linebacker spot since "Smoke Dog" Al Wilson had to retire after a neck injury cut his pro career short. I feel the Broncos could look to the NFL draft for the next starter at the position.
If they look to free agency, it’s likely for inside linebacker options. If they don’t want to bring back Lenon, then guys like Donald Butler or Daryl Smith become players to target.
The decisions regarding Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey are huge.
Rodgers-Cromartie is going to be a free agent, while Bailey has a $10 million cap number but zero guaranteed money in 2014. The Broncos are likely to pursue a long-term deal with Rodgers-Cromartie while also releasing or heavily restructuring the deal for Bailey. We may even see Bailey move to safety in 2014 if the Broncos keep him around.
The draft holds a few gems in the middle to late rounds the Broncos could consider.
Free agency doesn’t have that many affordable options. In my mind, it makes more sense to keep Rodgers-Cromartie if the price is right instead of adding an unfamiliar free agent for a similar price.
In addition to working with Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey, the Broncos will also have to deal with restricted free agent Chris Harris. His postseason knee injury could keep suitors to a minimum this offseason.
We’ll see if Rahim Moore can successfully recover from his rare leg injury. If he’s healthy, the Broncos are likely to keep him around as the starting free safety.
Mike Adams is a free agent the Broncos may want to keep around. He’s been a quality starter for them, and he's known as a team-first guy. Adams may want to sign a sweetheart deal with the Broncos, especially if they win the Super Bowl this year. The veteran may be looking for one last (larger) payday, but the chance to win with Peyton Manning is an attractive feature for many players.
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.