The offseason is always a flurry of activity, with even the best teams scrambling to improve or at least hold their positions on the top, and the Denver Broncos, fresh off of the most dominant offensive regular season of all time, still have a lot of work to do.
The Super Bowl certainly showed that.
Fortunately, John Fox and John Elway—especially Elway, who has been brilliant in his return to the team—have shown that they are up to the task. They built this team from the ground up, taking a club that lost enough games to draft Von Miller second overall and transforming it into a juggernaut like the NFL had literally never seen before.
Any good GM knows that complacency is the ultimate slippery slope. It's what kills you in this league.
You have to scrape and claw for every inch, even if you're already near the top. There is too much parity. Teams are too good, and the system is set up to even things out (...just don't tell the Cleveland Browns).
The Broncos have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to storm back into 2014 to launch the type of campaign that they unleashed upon the AFC this year and show that they can get back to the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl didn't go his way—to put it mildly—but Peyton Manning had a season for the ages. His 55 touchdowns shattered Tom Brady's single-season TD record. He broke Drew Brees' single-season passing yards record by one, and then he sat the second half of the game, the record and the Broncos' playoff seeding fully intact.
If Denver wants to replicate the 2013 season, it has to retain him.
Talk of Peyton's retirement has plagued the organization almost since he signed in Denver. People asked how long he could play. If his neck was healthy. If he was too old. When he got to the Super Bowl, they asked if it was his last run.
The thing about Peyton is this: He lives to compete. He works harder than anyone in the league to be the best that he can be. When asked about the matter, he said this to Kimberley A. Martin of Newsday:
I feel a little bit better than I thought I would coming off that [neck] surgery a couple of years ago. I feel better physically. I've been rejuvenated playing under a different offense, playing with new receivers, because it keeps me stimulated every day. So I certainly would like to keep playing.
Prediction: Manning will stay. After the year that he had, he's not ready to hang them up. He'll play until he feels like he can't play well enough to please himself.
He also does not want the loss to the Seahawks to be his last game ever.
As good as the team was this year, you can't keep everyone. In the world of free agency and the salary cap, it's just not a reality.
The Broncos are going to see a lot of starters return next year, and they will always be a force to be reckoned with as long as Manning is under center, but they are likely going to lose three very popular players this offseason: Champ Bailey, Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker.
The Broncos simply can't trust him going forward enough to give him the big contract that he's likely going to seek, especially when they have Montee Ball waiting in the wings—and looking better with every game this season. Ball is the future and they know he can put up relatively the same numbers that Moreno did, so why pay too much?
Champ Bailey is going to retire. Everyone in Denver will be sad to see him go, but this is the time to do it. He's had a great career, and he will make it to Canton, but he doesn't have much left. He's lost a step, and the Broncos need to get younger at corner.
The only way he stays is if he restructures his contract and moves to safety. He might be willing to do it considering the way that the Super Bowl went. He certainly wants to win one. He's smart enough to play the position, where speed won't be as much of an issue.
Eric Decker presents a tricky situation. There is a chance that he comes back, though he's up for free agency. It all depends on what he wants.
If he's willing to take less money than he could get on the open market and be a No. 2 receiver, he'll sign with Denver.
If he wants a big contract, which is certainly deserved after the numbers he put up, he'll be gone.
Denver has to pay Demaryius Thomas next year, and it probably can't afford to pay them both, at least not the huge numbers that they will want. When forced to choose, the Broncos will choose Thomas. As they should.
The biggest draft needs for the Broncos are at cornerback and linebacker. Some of it depends on value, but the Broncos really don't have that many needs, so they have the flexibility to target the right players unless someone really falls and they can't resist.
With Champ Bailey out of the picture, they have to draft for the future. You typically don't want to draft a corner and throw him right out on the field because there is such a high learning curve, so this could be a good year to take one.
As long as they lock up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a long contract and get Chris Harris back from injury, they can get a third corner who will get experience playing in the nickle spot and who they can groom for the future.
I've already made my case for Bradley Roby, and I stand by it. He's big, fast and physical. He's a hard hitter and he's not afraid to play the run—much like Champ—and he also has great ball skills. Best of all, he should be available for the Broncos to get, even picking so late in the first round.
If they don't go after Roby, they may end up targeting Marcus Roberson, who is projected to go just ahead of Roby, out of Florida. He has a ton of heart, he's a terrific athlete, and he's great at making plays on the ball. He just lacks the mean streak that Roby has, making him a little less physical. He's also not as good against the run, which is why he's not projected to go higher.
A round or two later, they could target someone like Victor Hampton, out of South Carolina. He's also a hard-hitting, athletic player, but that could be a problem in some situations. He tends to assume that his athleticism will be enough in most cases, and while it often was in college, it won't be in the NFL. He needs more development. If Roby and Roberson are gone, though, he could be a good project as a later pick.
As for linebacker, the Broncos need to either get someone like Shayne Skov to play inside, allowing Wesley Woodyard to move back outside, or they need to get a premier outside linebacker and let Woodyard run the defense from the inside.
Either one will work, but they do need an upgrade. Von Miller is a great pass-rusher, but they need someone to stay home and stuff the run. This would free Miller up to do what he does best.
An excellent choice at outside linebacker would be Ryan Shazier, also out of Ohio State. He's the ultimate competitor, and he makes a ton of tackles; he ranked sixth in the country with 143. He'd be a great complement to the pass rush because they could count on him to clean up anything that got past the line of scrimmage.
Predictions: Roby with the first pick, Skov with the second.
If Decker really does leave the team, Denver needs to go out and get another receiver to replace him. The Broncos could simply turn to Wes Welker, but he's best in the slot. He needs to stay there, and that means the team needs someone else for the outside.
It all depends how things shake out, but there are a ton of free-agent wide receivers coming onto the market this year. Some of them, like Josh Gordon, are going to want way too much money, and they're going to want to be top WRs on their respective teams.
A nice target for the Broncos would be Emmanuel Sanders. He has good speed and could be a nice second option. The problem is that some people think that he will want too much money for the Steelers to keep him, which means that Denver probably won't be in the market to pay him, either.
One target that makes sense may be Hakeem Nicks. He's been terrible this year. He didn't score a touchdown, and his totals have declined for the last four years. That 11-touchdown year seems like a distant memory.
The thing is, that's exactly what the Broncos may need. He wouldn't demand a huge contract, and teams aren't going to get into a bidding war for him. Denver needs to save money to keep Demaryius Thomas long-term, and Nicks could come in with a small contract since he's been so bad. But you know who was really bad this year?
The New York Football Giants.
As a whole.
They were a walking disaster in a year when they could have played the Super Bowl at home. Who's to say that Nicks wasn't as much a victim of that as anyone? No one's numbers looked good on that team.
Peyton Manning constantly turns no-name players into stars. Remember when you didn't know who Pierre Garcon was?
Nicks wouldn't be a top target. He wouldn't have much pressure in an offense with so many weapons. But he's still a big, athletic receiver, and maybe Manning could get the most out of him and bring him back to 2010 form.
It'd be a huge risk because he might also be awful, but he would be cheap enough with his abysmal numbers that it wouldn't matter too much if he didn't pan out.
If Peyton Manning can make Austin Collie into a viable option, he can certainly do it with Nicks.
Prediction: I'd love for the Broncos to make a huge splash here if Decker leaves because of the firepower it would give them, but I don't see it.
Unless they bring in someone under the radar, the way they brought in Andre Caldwell, they'll probably just draft a WR in the sixth round and see if they can develop him.
And, at the end of the day, with the way Manning develops receivers quickly, that might be the best option.
With the emergence of Julius Thomas as an elite tight end, there's just no way that the Broncos will keep Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen around for next year. They brought both of them in to catch passes, but neither one does it well enough to compete for that spot with Thomas.
They might keep Virgil Green on the roster because he's a bigger, stronger tight end who can help with blocking. He's all right catching passes in the flat, but not awesome.
But that's not what the Broncos need from him; they need him on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line, pushing the defensive end back into the linebackers.
The only other way that this could really go is to cut Dreessen, who has been a non-factor this year, and restructure Tamme's contract. That gives Denver a solid backup receiving tight end for about the price that position should command.
They can then use that money if they want to extend Julius Thomas and make sure that he stays around. Thomas will be a free agent in 2015, after all, and the club really doesn't want to lose him.
During Super Bowl Week, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie shocked everyone by talking about retirement, but he quickly backpedaled, as reported by Gregg Rosenthal, saying:
They misunderstood what I'm saying. I've got a one-year deal. There's been plenty of times when guys get a one-year deal and it doesn't pan out and that's it. That motivates you to go out there and play hard.
DRC does not want to retire; he wants security. He wants a long-term contract so that he knows what he'll be doing for the next few years.
Denver will gladly give it to him.
He chose Denver because the coaches said that they could help him improve. They gave him a one-year deal to see how it panned out, helped him with his technique and turned him into one of the best corners in the AFC. He's crucial to Denver's defense.
Denver needs to have a corner locked up so that it can worry about other positions. Sure, John Elway could chase down a free agent like Sam Shields, but why do that when a better corner is already on the roster?
DRC isn't going to retire. He's just going to get the long-term deal that he has earned, and he's going to sport that Orange Crush jersey for the next five years.
The Broncos brought in a pair of former San Diego Chargers in 2013, and both have drastically different futures with the team.
Cornerback Quentin Jammer was brought in on a one-year deal and given just over $1 million, with bonuses for production.
He was awful. He barely touched the field all year.
When he had to come in to replace Chris Harris against the Chargers, in the playoff game where Harris blew out his knee, the Chargers' passing offense suddenly started to click. They stormed back to make it a game, never taking the lead, but certainly showing that they were now able to drive down the field at will, Jammer running futility behind the receivers as they jogged into the end zone.
Maybe it was Philip Rivers understanding his old teammate.
More likely, it was Jammer being old and slow. It's safe to say he did not make those production bonuses.
The other Charger to move to Denver was pass-rusher Shaun Phillips. The Chargers basically told him that they didn't want him anymore. As Phillips recently said in an interview with CBS's Jason La Canfora:
I really wanted to stay in San Diego, but they asked me come back as a backup. For me, that wasn't in my mind-set. I would have loved to stay in San Diego, but I'm happy with my situation here so I can't complain.
It's worked out beautifully for Denver. The Broncos are only paying him about $1 million, just like Jammer, but Phillips has been a consistent starter, replacing Elvis Dumervil, who bolted for Baltimore. He's gotten a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks in a year that saw Von Miller so often on the sidelines.
In 2104, these guys are going in very different directions. Their production levels have been as different as night and day, and the Broncos will make moves that reflect that perfectly.
Prediction: Jammer is not signed again when his contract expires and is replaced with a younger corner through the draft. Phillips is offered an extension for two-to-three years.
The Denver Broncos are basically going to be the same team in 2014 that they were in 2013. Manning isn't going to throw for 55 touchdowns again, especially without Eric Decker, but he'll throw for 40-plus. Montee Ball will develop nicely into the starting role and run for around 900 yards, though he'll split time a bit with Ronnie Hillman.
The defense will be better. Whether it's through the draft, free agency or simply the return of injured players—like Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Rahim Moore and Chris Harris—the defense is going to improve. They still won't be dominant, but they'll be solid.
In the end, the 2014 Denver Broncos are going to go 12-4.
They also have to go to both New England and Seattle.
Still, if the offense is clicking, the schedule is nothing they can't deal with, and they should win the AFC West and make the playoffs with ease.
The Broncos are going to have a lot to do this offseason, but they are in a good position to get it all done and compete for the AFC title again in 2014. It's not so much rebuilding as it is tinkering with what they have.
If they do it well, they could wash the taste of that Super Bowl out of their mouths with another playoff run.
1. Peyton will not retire but will come back for at least another season; he'll stay for longer if there still isn't a drop-off in production.
2. Champ will retire and head for the Hall of Fame. Moreno and Decker will sign big contracts elsewhere.
3. Denver will take Bradley Roby with its first pick and Shayne Skov with its second, acquiring two potential starters to bolster the defense.
4. The Broncos will choose to develop younger receivers, rather than bringing in a big name, feeling confident with Thomas and Welker as the main targets. They may bring in free agents for depth.
5. Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen will both be gone. Julius Thomas will get an extension.
6. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will get a long-term contract.
7. Quentin Jammer will be allowed to walk, but Shaun Phillips will be given an extension.
8. The Broncos will go 12-4 and win the AFC West.