5 Biggest Splashes the Denver Broncos Could Realistically Make in Free Agency
This number is not set in concrete, and it’s dependent on the team to lower the $10 million cap number of Champ Bailey. However, it does give us a good idea of where Denver is financially in the new league year.
The Broncos could be one of the more active teams when free agency opens on March 13. Vice President of Football Operations John Elway has done a good job constructing this roster in his vision. He’s made critical decisions to cement this team as a Super Bowl contender for the next couple of years.
Their biggest splash in free agency could be keeping key players on their own roster like Eric Decker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Zane Beadles. Depending on how those pursuits go will determine how big of a splash they make outside of their own free agents in 2014.
Ian Rapoport, from NFL Network, reported on Wednesday that the Broncos are likely to let running back Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency.
Getting Decker a new contract, restructuring Bailey and finding a good price to sign Rodgers-Cromartie may be the top three moves this offseason.
However, there are a few moves the team could make in free agency that could improve the team. Let’s take a look at what realistic free-agent splashes the Broncos could make in 2014.
Greg Hardy, Defensive End
It would be a surprise if the Carolina Panthers let Greg Hardy get away. He’s one of the best young pass rushers in the game today. According to Joseph Person (Charlotte Observer), Hardy has said on more than one occasion that he would take a hometown discount to stay with the team.
The Panthers could consider using the franchise tag on Hardy to keep him around for one more season. That would guarantee him a one-year deal worth around $12 million.
The John Fox connection is easy to make here. Fox discovered Hardy, and selected him in the sixth-round of the 2010 NFL draft. Fox was fired from the Panthers after that season and became the head coach of the Broncos in 2011. Hardy has been a tremendous asset for the new regime, but his origins are with Fox.
Hardy tied a franchise record with 15 sacks in 2013, and he played in his first Pro Bowl. He turns 26 in July, and Hardy’s best seasons may still be in front of him.
The Broncos could use money once thought to be spent on Elvis Dumervil in order to secure the services of Hardy.
Donald Butler, Inside Linebacker
The Broncos have needed an upgrade at middle linebacker for years. They haven’t been the same at the position since “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson was forced to retire from a neck injury in 2006.
Plucking Donald Butler away from the San Diego Chargers, a division rival, would be a wise move.
Butler made himself some money in his contract year, despite missing three games with a groin injury. He compiled 84 tackles, an interception and a half-sack on defense for the Chargers in the regular season. Butler also forced a fumble and picked off Peyton Manning in the playoffs to cap a strong season.
Denver has tried everything at inside linebacker, and they haven’t had the success they’ve been looking for.
This year they moved Wesley Woodyard to middle linebacker. He’s a fine outside linebacker, but he struggled to make the transition to the middle.
Nate Irving was drafted in the third-round of the 2011 NFL draft to be the middle linebacker of the future. That hasn’t happened, and Irving spent most of his time this year as a reserve strong-side linebacker.
Veteran Paris Lenon ended up with the job around the midway point of the season. He’s not a long-term option for the Broncos as Lenon is 36 years old.
The Chargers will make Butler a top priority this offseason. However, the Broncos lured three Chargers over in free agency last year (Louis Vasquez, Shaun Phillips, Quentin Jammer) and they could land another one this offseason.
Sam Shields, Cornerback
The Green Bay Packers should work diligently to keep Sam Shields around. The free-agent corner is considered one of the best young players in the game today, and he would be an option for the Broncos if they can’t bring back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Shields allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 72.7 in 2013, which ranks in the top 20 among all cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
At just 26 years old, Shields has his best football left in front of him. The Broncos could certainly use a player like Shields to upgrade the secondary.
If Champ Bailey sticks around in 2014, the team may decide to move him to safety. Bailey may also play as the nickel corner from time to time.
2013 third-round pick Kayvon Webster had an up-and-down rookie year. Webster is a big hitter, but he’s too often out of position and stiff to transition from backpedal to sprint. The team can’t look at him as a quality starting option at this time.
Chris Harris is a restricted free agent. A knee injury suffered in the playoffs may limit his offers in 2014. He’s a quality starter, but he may not be recovered in time for the start of training camp.
There are clear question marks in the secondary, and Shields could be an immediate impact player for Denver.
B.J. Raji, Defensive End
Here’s a “prove it” deal from the Broncos. They did that last year with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and it worked. B.J. Raji could get a similar deal this year.
Things haven’t worked out for Raji in Green Bay over the last couple of seasons. He’s simply miscast in the defense, and he could want out.
The Packers have turned him into a two-down player in their 3-4 defense. After starting his career with 9.5 sacks in 27 games, Raji has zero sacks over the last 37 games.
The Broncos may let Robert Ayers leave in free agency. If they can’t secure the services of a guy like Greg Hardy (Panthers), then Raji becomes an option.
His lack of production in recent years could impact the numbers he sees from offers on the open market. Denver could entice him with a Jack Del Rio defense that could get his career production back on track.
Alterraun Verner, Cornerback
As I noted in the slide about Sam Shields, the Broncos have some work to do in the secondary.
The Broncos finished the regular season ranked No. 27 in pass defense. They allowed an average of 254.4 passing yards per game. The Broncos also allowed 29 touchdown passes this year.
With an offense led by Peyton Manning, the defense will be under pressure when opponents switch to a pass-happy mode. Keeping up with Denver requires a team to go through the air more often and abandon balance. This means the secondary is under more pressure than other teams, and that pressure can skew the numbers.
This season, Verner proved he could be one of the best cover corners in the NFL. He recorded five interceptions and 23 passes defensed.
The 25-year-old stands to rake in a big payday, but the Broncos will have the cap space to sign him if they let Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie go.
Pairing him with Chris Harris would give the Broncos a dynamic duo at the cornerback position for years to come.
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, and free agent information is from Spotrac.com.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.