After a great season, the Denver Broncos fell short of their goal. With just a couple weeks until the NFL Scouting Combine and just over a month until free agency, the Broncos must quickly transition to preparing to make another run next season.
Quarterback Peyton Manning is taking things year to year, and there was no way he was going to retire after such a poor performance in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos' window to win a Super Bowl is shrinking, so it will be a very important offseason for executive vice president of football operations John Elway and the rest of his front office.
The Broncos now know they need to get better on defense and tougher on offense if they are going to compete with the best the NFC has to offer. They will improve on defense just by getting healthy, but there is real work to do to shore up an offense that could lose three starters in free agency.
Also looming large are several key decisions that could shape the team's future. The Broncos have a projected $12.4 million in salary-cap space, according to Spotrac.com, but that number doesn’t compensate for cap casualties or re-signings.
The first thing the Broncos need to do is clean up the cap situation. Since they know their window is closing, they won’t want to mortgage the future by pushing guarantees into future seasons, so it’s vital that they have as much cap space in 2014 as possible.
Releasing veteran cornerback Champ Bailey would result in cap savings of $10 million, per Spotrac, while tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen would net $3 million and $2.5 million, respectively. Guard Chris Kuper will almost certainly be released and net the team $4.1 million in cap space.
The Broncos could make some other adjustments, but they should be able to clear around $15-20 million in cap space that they can use to re-sign current players and add others via free agency.
The key decision is Bailey, who is no longer worth $10 million per season. If he is willing to take a pay reduction, he could have a chance at a Super Bowl as a reserve and part-time player in the secondary next season.
The team will retain restricted free agents and exclusive-rights free agents because it’s so inexpensive to do so. The Broncos will be able to retain starting cornerback Chris Harris Jr. because he’s a restricted free agent, so he’ll have time to heal from the torn ACL he suffered against the San Diego Chargers a few weeks ago.
Cornerback Tony Carter and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein are restricted free agents, but they should be re-signed for quality depth. The Broncos will also likely retain exclusive-rights free agents Trindon Holliday and Duke Ihenacho. Holliday is the team’s dynamic return man and Ihenacho was the starting strong safety, so both re-signings are important, at least for depth.
|2013 Broncos Restricted/Exclusive-Rights Free Agents|
|Free Agent Type||Player||Position||Starter?|
|RFA||Chris Harris Jr.||CB||Y|
Beyond the players the Broncos are nearly certain to retain is a group of 14 unrestricted free agents that includes several starters and key role players. Wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno highlight the group, but they aren’t the only important players who have a chance to test the market.
"We’ll take the rest of this week and we’ll get into it next week and start developing that plan and plan of attack as far as our guys first, and then where we might go in free agency," Elway said in his season-ending press conference Tuesday via the team's official website. "It’s really part of that whole plan that eventually we are going to start constructing here in the near future.”
The Broncos already dropped hints that neither Decker nor Moreno will be back with the team in 2014. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported last week that the Broncos don’t expect to be able to sign Moreno, which is a nice way of saying they have no interest in bringing him back unless he comes cheaply.
The Broncos also fear losing Decker, according to Rapoport, because they know someone is going to pay him like a No. 1 receiver and they view him as a good No. 2. The Broncos have Montee Ball waiting to replace Moreno, but they have no such replacement for Decker.
Starting left guard Zane Beadles, last year’s starting center Dan Koppen, defensive ends Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers, linebacker Wesley Woodyard, safety Mike Adams and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are also free agents. It’s possible only one or two are with the team next season.
|2013 Broncos Key Unrestricted Free Agents|
The Broncos would be insane not to re-sign Rodgers-Cromartie, who was arguably the team’s best defender this season. The problem for the Broncos is that he could fetch quite a bit in free agency.
It will be interesting to see what the team decides to do with Beadles, who didn’t have a great season. If the Broncos were to lose Beadles, they would have an immediate need on the offensive line. They could kick either right tackle Orlando Franklin or left tackle Chris Clark inside because left tackle Ryan Clady is coming back.
Phillips was a key player when outside linebacker Von Miller went down with an ACL injury, but he’s getting up there in age, and there will likely be other quality options available to the Broncos. Woodyard fell out of favor after moving to middle linebacker and will likely move on. Both players fall into the situation where the team would be willing to take them back, but only for cheap.
The Broncos will likely be in the market for a wide receiver to replace Decker. A veteran like Anquan Boldin, who has proven he’s able to beat press coverage and is a solid No. 2 receiver, could help the Broncos. The alternative would be trying to reclaim a talented young player like Kenny Britt, who is just 25 but has produced like a No. 1 receiver in the past.
The oft-injured Danario Alexander would also make sense, but beyond him, the Broncos are probably looking at receivers outside of their price range. With Manning satisfied, the Broncos can turn their attention to the defensive side of the ball, where they may need a defensive end, linebacker, safety and cornerback.
Whatever the Broncos don’t get in free agency, they will likely try to get with the 31st pick of the NFL draft. Denver has been scouting all season but is no doubt a little behind because of the Super Bowl.
Depth just about everywhere is important, but the Broncos may need to add a starter considering the losses they could suffer in free agency. In a deep draft, they should be able to find a nice player at the end of the first round.
A tone-setting safety, a complementary pass-rusher or an offensive lineman with a nasty streak could infuse new life into the Broncos. They need to get younger and faster and learn to force the issue on defense if they are going to be of assistance to Manning.
The Seattle Seahawks were a younger, faster team than the Broncos in the Super Bowl. That's not going to be rectified in one season, but they can make a bold move in that direction in 2014 by parting ways with overpriced and underperforming veterans and bringing in impact, young players to replace them.
If Manning can’t repeat his amazing performance from 2013 next season, Denver’s defense must be more effective. The Broncos desperately need an infusion of youth and attitude to match the intensity of a team like the Seahawks.
The best place to find that kind of player is the draft.
With Manning’s Super Bowl window slowly closing, the Broncos have one more year before things really start to get dicey. After next season, wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker are free agents, along with tight end Julius Thomas, Miller, Harris and defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton.
Safety Rahim Moore, linebacker Nate Irving and Franklin, among others, will also hit free agency in 2015. The Broncos just have too many players coming up for renewal in 2015 to retain them all. Manning’s salary also jumps from $17.5 million to $21.5 million.
What’s next for the Broncos is figuring out a way to push even more chips into the middle and go for broke to win the Super Bowl next year. They have a long road ahead, but they have the salary-cap space to make a few more tweaks to the roster.
Beyond next season, the Broncos head into uncharted territory with a quarterback approaching 40 who threatens to hamstring their salary cap. If Manning doesn’t realize it’s time to hang up his cleats and devote all of his time to commercials and commentating after next season, the Broncos could be in trouble.
Unless otherwise noted, all salary cap data and contract information via Spotrac.com.