The Denver Broncos may be the cream of the NFL crop right now, just over a week removed from an AFC Championship win and less than a week from a Super Bowl battle with the Seattle Seahawks, but offseason mistakes could bring this team back down to Earth in a hurry. John Elway, John Fox and Pat Bowlen need to make the right decisions if they want to turn the last two 13-3 seasons into a trend.
The NFL offseason is huge, more important than the season itself in many ways. Modern teams are built and crafted like works of art through free agency, contract negotiations and, of course, the draft.
Each one of those arenas represents an opportunity for positive growth and development that will keep a team dominant in its division for years to come.
Each one also represents a chance for mistakes and could all but doom the franchise.
One of the strangest stories out of the media this week was Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's statement that he may retire after the Super Bowl. His contract ends five days after the game—it's a two-year deal on paper, but this clause effectively makes it a one-year contract in reality—so he'd hit the free-agent market.
The way he's played this year, he deserves a big payday. He's been the best defensive player on the field in most games, especially with Von Miller missing so much of the year.
Denver needs to lock him up for years to come. He's only 27, so he still has a huge upside and great longevity. With Champ Bailey nearing the end of his career, DRC could be the answer at corner that Denver has been seeking.
Denver has to talk him out of retirement and keep him on the field.
One thing that works in the team's favor is that Rodgers-Cromartie said he chose Denver in the last offseason because it criticized him and told him what he was doing wrong. He made this statement to Alan Dell of the Bradenton Herald after joining the team:
"They told me about my flaws. Nobody had done that, and it impressed me. They told me what I needed to work [on] and how they would get me better instead of telling me about what I could do."
Denver offered to help fix his techniques, rather than just telling him how great he was, and he picked the team so that he could improve.
Why do that for just one season? That type of desire for development does not sound like a player who will be too dedicated to hanging up his cleats after just six seasons.
Eric Decker's rookie contract is up after this year, and he's been nothing short of spectacular with Peyton Manning under center. In the last two regular seasons alone, his stat lines looked like this:
Those are numbers that are going to command a lot of money on the open market.
Now, Decker's contribution can't be overstated, and he's become something of a fan favorite and a clearly central piece to Manning's offensive machine. The problem is this: Demaryius Thomas' contract is up next year, and he's also going to be looking for a lot of money.
Unless they have enough money to pay them both—doubtful unless Champ Bailey restructures his deal—there is no way that the Broncos should pay Decker so much that they can't afford to keep Thomas.
Champ Bailey really showed up in the AFC Championship Game, fighting off injuries and playing on 56 snaps out of 59. He didn't record any interceptions, but he certainly was effective, keeping Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to just three points through the third quarter.
Champ is a legend in Denver, as he should be. He's a surefire lock for the Hall of Fame. For years, he was the best corner in the game, and it was incredible to watch him lock down any receiver on the field.
Unfortunately, those days are now behind him. Bailey was only able to play in five games this season due to injury. Even when healthy, it's clear that he's lost a step, and he's been playing a lot more at the nickel spot, where he doesn't have to run down the sidelines.
The extension Bailey signed in 2010 will pay him $9 million next season, and that's just his base salary. It's too much when that money needs to be spent on younger players like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Broncos need to work with Bailey to restructure his contract. As mentioned, getting his cap number down might also make it possible for them to pay Decker or offer extensions to players like Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.
Moreno has been terrific this season. He has played with power and emotion. He has been all heart. When he gets tackled, he jumps back up and runs to the huddle. Before one game, cameras caught him crying on the field, he was so amped up to play.
It's been a beautiful transformation to watch, and Moreno deserves a lot of credit for what the team has done this year.
That said, Denver should not make the mistake of rewarding one good year with a huge contract.
Sure, Moreno has been good, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he's done it in a contract year. This story has played itself out before. Players step up in contract years because they want to get paid.
While it's impossible to know what Moreno will do in the future, it is possible to know what he's done in the past. History is the best teacher you can find.
Moreno has suffered his fair share of injuries, including a torn ACL. This is the first time in a five-year career—longer than the average for a running back—that he has broken the 1,000-yard mark. He fumbled so much in 2012 that he was deactivated for eight weeks and sent to the practice squad.
Paying players who only perform in a contract year just sets the team up for the new contract to backfire. Moreno has been inspiring this season, but it would be a mistake to give him an extended contract that might see the return of the mediocre numbers that he produced in every year but this one.
On top of that, the Broncos invested a second-round pick in Montee Ball, so it would be wise to see what they have in him. He can probably produce similar numbers in this offense, with Manning taking the pressure off the running game, for less money.
Denver's pass defense has been fine for much of the year, especially in the postseason, but it's also been routed from time to time—like when Dallas put up 470 passing yards and 48 points against them. They need more depth and more playmakers in the secondary.
Originally, this was going to be a slide about how the team should pick up a safety to replace Mike Adams. Having a ball hawk over the top would go a long way toward shutting down opposing quarterbacks, and that still might be a good move to make.
However, with DRC talking about retirement and Bailey clearly not that far from it himself, cornerback might be the most pressing issue. Who knows how Chris Harris will come back from his ACL injury? If he is not himself and the other two are gone, Denver will have lost its top three corners.
A good solution would be to go after Bradley Roby, out of Ohio State. He's an aggressive player with a nose for the ball, and he's not afraid to step up in run support and deliver a hit when it's needed.
Corner is a very hard position to start at right out of the gate, but that might be exactly what the Broncos need from Roby.
Best of all, his 40-yard dash times have been consistently around 4.3 seconds, so he has speed to burn. For comparison, that's faster than Demaryius Thomas (4.38) and much faster than Richard Sherman (4.56).
Roby is going to make mistakes as a young player, but his speed may help him recover from them.
This postseason has been proof that Denver's defense has a lot of the right pieces in place. When Von Miller comes back, he and Shaun Phillips will be able to get great pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If Denver can extend Rodgers-Cromartie, draft for the defensive backfield and maybe swing Bailey back to safety, it can be set to play the pass and create turnovers.
How long has it been, though, since Denver had a beast of a middle linebacker who just physically dominated against the rush and who drove fear into the hearts of opposing running backs who knew they were going to get lit up as soon as they touched the ball?
It's been way too long, and that's the big piece missing from this defense. Wesley Woodyard has been great, but he could swing over to outside linebacker and instantly upgrade that position. Denver needs to make sure that it does not make the mistake of neglecting to bring in a force to direct the defense.
There are a few ways to do this outside of C.J. Mosley, who will be long gone before the Broncos pick in even the initial round. The first is Shayne Skov. At 6'2" and 245 pounds, he's a fast, powerful linebacker who has regained his explosiveness after an injury early in his career. His Stanford defense was one of the best in the country, and he could be an anchor for years to come.
If Denver is still looking for a linebacker in the later rounds, it could look at Michigan State's Max Bullough. He is similar in size and weight to Skov, and he's been blowing up plays in the middle of the field in East Lansing for years. He is an intense, emotional leader, and he wouldn't be much of a risk since he's projected to go in the seventh round.
This one shouldn't be too hard to do. Manning has been asked about retirement countless times over the last few weeks, and he recently responded with this in an interview with Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News:
When you still enjoy the preparation and the work part of it, I think you ought to be still doing that. I think as soon as I stop enjoying it, if I can’t produce, if I can’t help a team, that’s when I will stop playing. If that’s next year, then maybe it is. I certainly want to continue to keep playing.
That does not sound like someone who wants to walk away from the game, especially not after having the best statistical year of all time.
Denver needs to make sure that Manning knows that the team wants him back, because he still has a lot left in the tank. There are no indications that he's slowing down.
Even if he is slightly less effective next season, Denver could easily win the AFC West and storm through the playoffs.
People love to cite the fact that Manning might want to ride off into the sunset after a Super Bowl win, on top of the league, just like John Elway. What they often forget, though, is that Elway did not do that until his second Super Bowl victory.
After he got the first one, he came back and did it again.