Denver Broncos: Free Agency and Draft Wish List
As bad of a loss as it was, and as humiliating of a defeat as the Broncos suffered on the biggest stage of them all, fans must not lose focus of the big picture—the Broncos are still a stacked team.
The Broncos looked outmatched versus the Seahawks, but this is still a team that went 13-3 during the regular season and advanced to the Super Bowl.
Denver finished the season as the Super Bowl runner-up in spite of missing their best offensive lineman (Ryan Clady), best defensive player (Von Miller) and four key defensive starters (Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, Chris Harris Jr. and Rahim Moore).
As dark as the tunnel looks for the Broncos in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLVIII, this is still one of the top three teams in the NFL.
During the offseason, the Broncos will need to add depth to key positions, and they will need to replace key members of the 2013 team who will depart through free agency.
The Broncos don't need a roster overhaul; this squad will use this loss as motivation to achieve the ultimate goal of winning the Lombardi Trophy next season.
These are the following positions the Broncos will need to address through free agency and the draft this offseason in order to achieve that ultimate goal.
As odd as a selection this may seem at first glance, consider this—the Broncos' starting running back, Knowshon Moreno, is a free agent this offseason. Moreno had one of the best seasons of any running back in the NFL in 2013, ranking fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and fourth in rushing touchdowns.
When you combine Moreno's familiarity with the offense and his ability to protect Peyton Manning in pass-blocking situations, it's not hard to see why the five-year veteran is considered such a vital part of the offense.
The problem is this: Bringing back Moreno will likely come at a price.
One of two things will happen with Moreno: Either the veteran running back values money over an opportunity to win a Super Bowl and leaves the Broncos, or he re-signs with the Broncos for less than his market value with an opportunity to help the Broncos avenge their Super Bowl XLVIII loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Assuming the worst case scenario happens where Moreno leaves the Broncos, Denver will have a huge void to address at the running back position either through draft or free agency.
What are some of Denver's more intriguing options through free agency and the draft?
Free Agency: Darren McFadden, Rashad Jennings
Darren McFadden: The six-year NFL veteran was a huge bust with the Oakland Raiders after having been drafted with the fourth-overall selection in the 2008 NFL draft.
Upon being drafted by the Raiders, McFadden signed a $60 million contract with $27 million guaranteed.
Let's put it quite simply—McFadden won't be making that kind of money as a free agent this offseason. The Raiders will likely allow McFadden to walk in free agency.
Talent has never been an issue with the University of Arkansas product. Injuries have been McFadden's biggest detriment. If he signs with the Broncos, it will come at a cheap price, and the Broncos can lace the contract with incentives to make it a performance-based deal.
Regardless of what happens with Moreno, the Broncos will bring back Montee Ball to complement whoever else is in Denver's backfield. With a new organization and zero expectations, McFadden could thrive in an offense with Peyton Manning.
Rashad Jennings: Ironically, Jennings is the running back who replaced McFadden in Oakland's starting lineup in 2013. He had a solid season rushing for 4.5 yards a carry with 733 yards on 163 carries.
The concern is over whether or not Jennings could succeed in a big role within Denver's offense; he has never been a full-time starter and he will be 29 years old by the start of the season. On the other hand, due to the fact that Jennings has never been a full-time starter in the NFL, the wear-and-tear on his body is minimal. The running back has just 387 career carries.
However, Jennings has performed well in small doses in complementing McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew during his five-year NFL career. If the Raiders allow Jennings to walk, there will be a market for Jennings.
Draft: Devonta Freeman
Freeman isn't projected to be drafted until the third or fourth round. CBS Sports ranks Freeman as the seventh-best prospect at his position.
The Broncos should not reach any higher than the third round for a running back. Of all of the positions on offense, running back is the easiest to develop. When also considering the role of the running back in Denver's offense, there is no need for the Broncos to waste a high draft pick on the position.
The Florida State running back is just 5'8" and 203 pounds, but he has good speed and he's a better power runner than people realize due to his lack of size. At FSU, he was a three-down back capable of providing pass protection for the quarterback.
With Ronnie Hillman falling quickly out of favor in Denver (he wasn't even active for the Super Bowl), John Elway could choose to replace Hillman with a back of a similar build in Freeman through the draft.
The Broncos had the best receiving core in the NFL this past season. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker each had 10-plus touchdowns in 2013 in aiding Peyton Manning to establish an NFL single-season record 55 touchdown passes.
Having said that, Decker will be a free agent this offseason, and according to Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated, the veteran receiver will test the market.
Receivers Andre Caldwell and Trindon Holliday will also be free agents.
Considering Decker's production in 2013 (1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns), the Broncos may find it hard to retain the services of their No. 2 receiver. As Burke mentioned in the aforementioned article:
Both Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas will be entering contract years in 2014, which means that the Broncos will have to set aside some money to ensure neither player reaches free agency. Locking down Decker at a massive cost would make it far more difficult to keep the Thomases in tow.
Another option for Denver: using the franchise tag on Decker. That, too, would be a large financial commitment. The receiver tag came in at approximately $10.5 million this season.
In terms of prioritizing, Decker would be at the bottom of the list as Demaryius and Julius would stand as larger priorities for the Broncos to re-sign next offseason.
If Decker were to walk, Welker could take the role of No. 2 receiver alongside Demaryius, while the Broncos find a way to utilize Julius, Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen or another receiver in the slot more often.
Expect the Broncos to re-sign Holliday and allow Caldwell to walk. If they have to, the Broncos can replace Decker and Caldwell by targeting these free agents and draft prospects:
Free Agents: Anquan Boldin, Hakeem Nicks
Anquan Boldin: Over the last several years of his career, Boldin has become the quintessential No. 2 receiver in an NFL offense.
Boldin caught 85 passes for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013 while earning a base salary of $6 million.
As unlikely as it seems right now, it is possible for Boldin to leave San Francisco in order to play with Peyton Manning and get another opportunity to win a Super Bowl. Although he had a great season in 2013, he will be 34 years old and teams won't be knocking down his door to give him a huge contract.
Similar to the Wes Welker situation of 2013, if Boldin feels disrespected by the Niners' contract proposal, he could join forces with the orange and blue in 2014.
Hakeem Nicks: A very appealing option for the Broncos would be signing Nicks to replace Decker as the No. 2 receiver.
Nicks has carved out a career with the New York Giants as a No. 2 receiver complementing Victor Cruz. The Giants receiver has two 1,000-yard seasons to go along with one year where he had 11 touchdowns.
In Nicks' contract year, he had a disappointing season. He produced zero touchdown catches in 15 games played. In spite of this, Nicks is just 26 years old and would come at a modest price for the Broncos.
Draft: Donte Moncrief
The Ole Miss receiver possesses the size of Decker and Demaryius at 6'2" and 226 pounds. Despite ranking third in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns, Moncrief is projected to be picked in the third or fourth round.
Moncrief has a thick frame with good route-running ability who is excellent in his breaks. His weakness? He lacks elite speed. That is the one big difference between a player like Moncrief and Decker.
Either way, the Broncos will need to prepare themselves for the future at the receiver position. The Broncos aren't going to be able to retain both Thomases and Decker down the road. It's just not possible with the salary cap.
Moncrief has the size to replace either receiver in the offense. With a middle-round selection, it would be at a low-risk cost.
The Broncos have major issues at cornerback entering the offseason.
Two of Denver's top corners in 2013 are free agents in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. Champ Bailey stated that he will return in 2014, but after a season which saw Bailey struggle with injuries in only five appearances during the regular season, it's hard to envision Bailey being able to handle the load as a starting cornerback at the age of 36 next season. Champ will be forced to restructure his contract during the offseason, as he has a cap hit of $10 million next year.
In a situation where the Broncos are unable to bring back Harris and Cromartie, they will need to find starting cornerbacks through free agency or the draft.
Free Agency: Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, Sam Shields
All three of these free agent corners are priorities for their respective teams to re-sign. Because all three cornerbacks are in the primes of their careers and are coming off of solid 2013 campaigns, they won't sign with the Broncos for cheap. Denver will have to offer deals that are more enticing than the other teams that are in the market for a defensive back.
The Broncos will be forced into this situation if they are unable to retain Cromartie and Harris. Having a lockdown cornerback is the most important thing to have on the defensive side of the football outside of having an elite pass rusher. If the chips fall where they may, the Broncos will be forced to overspend in free agency for a starting defensive back.
Draft: Marcus Roberson, Lamarcus Joyner, Kyle Fuller
There are too many directions the Broncos could go with this draft. Because defensive back will be a high priority with Harris, Cromartie and Quentin Jammer as free agents, the Broncos could use their 31st-overall selection on a corner.
Roberson, Joyner and Fuller will all be on the board by that time. Roberson and Fuller have the solid frame that the Broncos like (both are 6'0" and nearly 200 pounds), while Joyner stands at just 5'8".
Expect the Broncos to draft high for a CB due to their two starting cornerbacks hitting free agency and Bailey likely being forced to convert to safety in the offseason.
Zane Beadles, Chris Kuper and Steve Vallos are free agents. The Broncos will let Kuper walk as he was inactive all season after struggling through season-ending injuries in 2012 and 2013. Vallos could be brought back for depth, while Denver's biggest priority of the three is to re-sign starting left guard Beadles.
Beadles has grown from a struggling rookie offensive lineman into an elite guard in four years spent with the Broncos.
Expect the Broncos to bring back the 2012 Pro Bowler, but they still need to bring in a guard for depth purposes.
Free Agency: The Broncos should avoid free agency for this position. Unless Beadles leaves as a free agent, the Broncos serve no purpose by bringing in a veteran at the position. Due to Kuper likely retiring, the Broncos need depth at the guard position.
There would be no point in overpaying for a veteran who will sit on the bench all season long as Kuper did in 2013.
Draft: Brandon Linder
The four-year starter at guard for the Miami Hurricanes enters the draft as the 10th-ranked prospect at his position. Linder is projected to go in the fifth or sixth round. Due to offensive guard not being as high a priority in comparison to cornerback, wide receiver and running back for the Broncos, Linder would be the perfect selection for the Broncos.
The University of Miami product has size (6'6" and 315 pounds) and experience (started four consecutive years). In 2013, Brandon Linder was named offensive MVP for the Hurricanes. In addition, he was named All-ACC second team and received an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl.
Mike Adams will be a free agent this offseason, and the Broncos might allow the 11-year veteran to walk in free agency.
As solid as Adams and Duke Ihenacho were throughout the season as the last line of defense, the Broncos would prefer more playmakers at the position.
With Rahim Moore returning from injury in 2014, the Broncos should be a bit better. However, the safety positions can be improved through the draft, and the Broncos won't hesitate to sign another free agent as they did in 2013 with Michael Huff and Quentin Jammer in order to shore up the position.
Free Agency: Ryan Clark, Bernard Pollard
The Broncos should really opt to follow the draft route as far as adding another safety to the roster, as the Broncos already have Duke Ihenacho, Rahim Moore, David Bruton and Omar Bolden as experienced veterans in the defensive backfield. When you add in Champ Bailey, who would benefit from converting to safety, the Broncos would be stacked with veterans at safety.
However, imagining a scenario where the Broncos keep Bailey as a nickel cornerback and choose to go the annual route of adding a veteran safety to the defense (Jim Leonhard in 2012; Jammer and Huff in 2013), the Broncos could add Clark and Pollard at low salaries.
Clark is 34 years old, while Pollard will be 30 years old in 2014. Both players are no longer in their primes but they remain hard-hitting safeties who can provide an intimidating presence in key defensive packages.
When you combine the fact that both safeties have started on Super Bowl-winning defenses and have played on some of the best defenses in recent memory (Clark with the Steelers, Pollard with the Ravens), these two players would be better additions than what Leonhard, Huff and Jammer were over the past two seasons.
Draft: Ed Reynolds
It really depends on how the Broncos look at their situation with their safeties. If the Broncos are not content with their safety situation, they could use a second-round draft selection on a safety.
If the Broncos are content with the level of play that Adams and Ihenacho provided in 2013, where the duo made solid contributions but not many game-changing plays (in the case of Adams, he had zero sacks and forced fumbles with just one interception), then they might not even address the position through the draft.
Assuming Denver chooses to reach high for a safety, Ed Reynolds out of Stanford would be available in the second round. Widely regarded as the third-best player at the free safety position, Reynolds has solid size (6'2") and had six interceptions with three returned for touchdowns during the 2012 season.
The Broncos have an unstable situation at safety, with Ihenacho as the only safety with a definitive future with the Broncos in 2014. Reynolds could provide that playmaking spark that Denver's safeties lacked in 2013.
(Editor's note: While with Pittsburgh, Ryan Clark did not travel to Denver's high altitude due to sickle cell trait. Although he was cleared by doctors, it was the decision of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for Clark not to play. The Broncos could still pursue Clark considering he was medically cleared to play, though his condition would certainly play a role in their decision.)