The Denver Broncos made it to the Super Bowl, and they will now transition to the offseason.
The first step of the offseason program is dealing with free agency. The Broncos have many key players who are set to hit the open market when free agency opens on March, 11.
Players like wide receiver Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive end Shaun Phillips will likely command more money than they earned in 2013. Even though they would like to keep all of these players, the reality is that not everybody will make it back to the roster in 2014.
Vice President of Football Operations John Elway spoke to the media on Monday and talked about the multiple tough decisions the team has to make this offseason.
We haven’t determined exactly the priorities. We know that we have a lot of guys, a lot of good football players, though.” Elway continued, “We’re going to look at all the options and see where we are—and also look at our cap situation. And we’ll develop that plan here in the next two or three weeks.
Elway sees the tough decisions as a badge of honor. “There are going to always be places that we need to continue to mold and work…the better you get, the tougher the decisions. And so we welcome the decisions because we’ve got a lot of good football players.”
Researching their salary cap situation, I’ve concluded the Broncos could have around $25 million to work with in free agency. I’ve looked into some of the biggest (and most realistic) splashes the team could make on the open market.
In this article, let’s examine the positions of need for the Broncos and see if there are any bargain players who could help in 2014.
The Broncos could let Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. They selected Montee Ball in the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft with the idea that he could one day be a featured back. That time may come in 2014.
Elway talked about whether or not he could see Ball as a featured runner.
Well, I think he gained experience each week. [We] still have high hopes for Montee, think that he’s going to be a very good back. He was young and he grew up a lot this year. There is no question, we have high expectations out of Montee. We’ll see how things flush out with [RB] Knowshon [Moreno]. We have some young backs—Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.” Elway continued, “We’ll see how that all flushes out. It’s a position that we have a lot of very good competition. We’ve got good football players at that position.
Even if Ball enters the season as the favorite to start, the Broncos may add more talent to the position via free agency or the draft. I feel that if they do use free agency to bolster the running back corps, the Broncos won’t spend a lot of money.
When looking over the list of available free agent running backs, there are a few who stand out as value additions.
He ran with great power, picking up 358 yards after contact. Jennings’ long carry of the year (80) was over two times longer than Moreno (31) had in 2013.
The Raiders have nearly $60 million in cap space in 2014. They may decide to pay more for Jennings to keep him around.
Jennings had a cap hit of $555,000 in 2013, and he is due for a large pay increase in 2014.
Blount has as many 1,000-yard seasons as Moreno (one), but he runs with more power and speed. In his first year in the league (2010), Blount rushed for over 1,000 yards even though he only played 13 games. He almost had more carries of 20 yards or more in that one year (11) than Moreno has had (14) in his entire career.
He would give the Broncos more power in the backfield. Blount has the ability to break down a defense, and he will break off long runs when an opponent is tired. He can also contribute as a return man.
Blount had a cap hit of $680,000 in 2013. Any long-term deal he signs would likely be affordable.
Stephens-Howling is a different back from the others on the Broncos roster. He’s a compact back who runs with a low center of gravity, good balance and agility. Stephens-Howling is elusive in the open field and can also be used in the return game.
He had a cap number of $620,000 in 2013. Stephens-Howling missed most of the season due to an ACL injury he suffered in Week 1. He could be added for a reasonable price.
The Broncos have a huge decision to make regarding Eric Decker. He’s arguably the best free-agent wide receiver this year, and he could get a larger offer than Denver is comfortable matching.
If Decker leaves in free agency, there will be a huge hole in the starting lineup.
Denver could address the position in the 2014 NFL draft by selecting a player like Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt). I believe Matthews plays a lot like Decker, and he could step in and start from day one.
If the Broncos want a wide receiver with more experience, then free agency is the way to go. The list of available wide receivers has a nice blend of untapped talent and veterans who need to prove they still have what it takes to be quality pros.
Decker isn't the only unrestricted free agent they have at the wide receiver position. Andre "Bubba" Caldwell is also set to hit the open market. Denver may have to add more than one wide receiver to the mix this offseason.
Nicks could go from one Manning to another. He’s played his entire career with the Giants, and Nicks has been a favorite target of Eli Manning.
After two down seasons, the Giants are likely to let Nicks walk in free agency. He hasn’t reached over 1,000 yards receiving since 2011, and Nicks failed to score a touchdown in 2013.
The Broncos could lure Nicks to Denver with the other Manning—Peyton. The possibility of playing for another championship could be appealing to Nicks.
Having never played a full 16-game schedule, the Broncos may be able to snare Nicks on some incentive-laden “prove it” deal.
Nicks could easily start opposite Demaryius Thomas from day one.
Cooper plays a lot like Decker. He can run precise routes, and Cooper has the concentration to make difficult catches seem routine. Cooper is probably more athletic than Decker, and he could prove to be a slight upgrade for the passing game.
I believe the fit would be good, but we’ll have to see what kind of asking price Cooper has.
Britt comes with a lot of baggage, but the natural talent is there. He’s a big, physical receiver who can fly down the field. Britt has a large wingspan, and he could make for a quality red zone target.
It all comes down to attitude with Britt. He needs a fresh start away from Tennessee, and that’s what he’ll get this offseason.
I consider adding Britt a longshot for the Broncos. He would likely come with a “prove it” deal, and maybe he would accept a one-year price tag that would be reasonable.
The talent is there but can Britt find the motivation to finally play up to his potential?
The Broncos have to decide the fate of both Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen this offseason.
Tamme has a cap number of $3.5 million in 2014. He has long-established chemistry with Peyton Manning, and the team may want to keep him around as a reserve player.
Dreessen has a cap number around $3.2 million in 2014. He battled a knee injury this year, and when he was healthy he did not see much playing time. This lack of playing time weighed heavy on his mind as he cleaned out his locker on Tuesday.
Joel Dreessen "certainly hope I'm not done. Not contributing as much as I'd like does not sit well with me, I've gotta change that" #Broncos— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) February 4, 2014
The Broncos could choose to restructure or release one or both of these veteran tight ends. If I had to guess, I would say they’ll let Dreessen go and look for a cheaper option in free agency.
There are several veteran tight ends who could come to Denver for a good price.
King has a connection with head coach John Fox from their days together with the Carolina Panthers. He was drafted by Fox in 2006, and left Carolina the same year that Fox did (2011). King has been with the Cardinals over the last few years, and he would be a fine addition to the roster.
The former high school basketball star would fit in with the Broncos. He’s a good blocker, decent red zone target and King is more athletic than some think.
His cap number in 2013 was $1.8 million. Denver could get him for around that same price in 2014.
Dickson has not quite played up to his potential during his pro career. He was often overshadowed in Baltimore by Dennis Pitta, but Dickson has the athleticism and size the Broncos covet at the tight end position.
He may want to go somewhere he could compete for a starting job. That won’t be the case with the Broncos. If added, Dickson would compete for playing time behind Julius Thomas and Virgil Green. I don’t know if he would like that scenario.
Sperry is an athletic and underrated tight end who has bounced around the league. Coming out of Colorado State, Sperry was known for his athleticism and fiery temper.
The Broncos could use some more attitude on the team, and Sperry could provide that. He would also give them a good receiver who can rack up yards after the catch. Sperry isn’t a devastating blocker, but it is an area of his game he has improved.
Zane Beadles is hitting the open market this offseason. He had a down year in 2013, and Beadles struggled to handle interior pressure at times. Beadles earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2012, and the Broncos may believe he could return to form.
If Beadles gets away, the team needs to find a quality replacement.
Veteran Chris Kuper has a $5.9 million cap number in 2014. His contract contains $1.8 million in dead money if the Broncos release him. They may look to restructure Kuper’s deal this offseason.
Kuper is a starting-caliber guard but injuries have knocked his pro career off track more than once.
The tackles in Denver are pretty much set. Both left tackle Ryan Clady and swing tackle Chris Clark received new contracts last year. Right tackle Orlando Franklin has one year left on his rookie deal.
If the Broncos add an offensive lineman through free agency, I believe it will be at guard. Here’s some bargain free agents at guard the Broncos could consider.
The Broncos stole right guard Louis Vasquez away from the Chargers last year. They could go back to San Diego for their left guard this offseason. Ohrnberger has a nasty streak and a team-first attitude.
His cap number in 2013 was $675,000.
Ducasse may be looking for a fresh start away from the Jets. He has the size the Broncos need on the offensive line. Ducasse could compete with Kuper for the starting job in 2014.
His cap number in 2013 was $886,250.
The Jets may not see Colon as a priority this offseason, according to Rich Cimini from ESPN.com. The veteran is only seen as a fallback option as they expect William Campbell or Oday Aboushi to step into his starting role. Colon may cost around what Beadles made in 2013, but less than what Beadles may command in 2014.
Colon’s cap number in 2013 was $1,162,500.
I feel the Broncos should break the bank to add Greg Hardy (Panthers). He has a connection with John Fox, and Hardy is one of the best young pass-rushers in the game today.
Denver has to decide what they want to do with Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips.
Ayers, like running back Knowshon Moreno, was a 2009 first-round pick who failed to truly play up to his potential. The Broncos may let Ayers leave in free agency.
Phillips signed a one-year $1.4 million deal with the Broncos around the time of the draft last year. After leading the team in sacks (10), Phillips may want a long-term deal with a bit of guaranteed money. Denver is likely to keep Phillips around if the price is right.
This is a bargain piece, and Hardy clearly doesn’t fit that label. You get what you pay for with defensive ends, but there are a few value players on the open market this year.
Things haven’t worked out for Raji over the last couple of years. The Packers have turned him into a two-down player in their 3-4 defense, and the results just aren’t there.
After starting his career with 9.5 sacks in 27 games, Raji has zero sacks over the last 37 games. Adding Raji would likely have the markings of a “prove it” deal.
Raji’s cap number in 2013 was $6.5 million. He’d have to sign for less than that to be an option for the Broncos in my opinion.
Moala could play either defensive end or defensive tackle for the Broncos. That versatility could work well in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s system.
Moala is a bit smaller for a tackle, weighing in around 300 pounds. However, he has the snap anticipation and quickness to be disruptive in the middle of the line.
His cap number in 2013 was $1.25 million.
Carrington failed to register a sack in 2013, and he only played in three games last year. The Broncos could try to snare him with an incentive-laden deal.
His cap number in 2013 was $846,000.
This is a big position of need for the Broncos. Middle linebacker is a position I feel they could address in the 2014 NFL draft. Outside linebacker could be where they look in free agency.
Von Miller is coming back from an ACL injury he suffered late in the 2013 season. His status for the start of training camp is up in the air right now.
Wesley Woodyard is likely to move on in free agency. They tried him at middle linebacker this year, but that was a failed experiment.
I’m excited about the upside of two rookies who didn’t play in 2013.
Quanterus Smith was added in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft out of Western Kentucky. He was an elite pass-rusher in college, but the Broncos put him on injured reserve so he could recover from the knee injury he suffered in college.
Lerentee McCray was a coveted addition as an undrafted free agent last year. He flashed big-play ability in training camp, and he was a standout player for the Broncos in the preseason. McCray looked as though he was going to make the 53-man roster when a thumb injury in the final preseason game cut his rookie year short.
The veteran has experience with John Fox from their days together in Carolina. At 33 years old, Witherspoon is a savvy veteran who would fit nicely on the Broncos defense.
The team could want to get younger at the position, and that could scratch Witherspoon from their list. There’s not a ton of upside, but there is plenty of experience with a guy like Witherspoon.
His cap number last year was $555,000.
Taking a defender away from the Seahawks may be a good idea for the Broncos. Schofield is a pass-rusher who has battled through injuries during his pro career. He started his career with the Cardinals, and Schofield was seen as a risky player due to the leg injury he suffered at the Senior Bowl.
I was watching Schofield that day, and you could hear the injury as it happened. Schofield was writhing in pain on the practice field, and some felt this injury could stunt his pro prospects.
He was taken in the fourth-round of the 2010 draft, but I felt he had first-round talent. Schofield was a reserve player for the Seahawks in 2013, and he could be an important rotational player for the Broncos.
Schofield is only 26 years old, and he still has plenty of upside. His cap number was $900,000 in 2013.
I don’t know if Butler will qualify as a bargain, but I’m putting him on the shopping list. Adding Butler would rob another quality defender away from a division rival.
Butler is athletic, smart and knows how to find the ball quickly as plays unfold in front of him. He can make plays on the ball, and Butler is known as a big hitter.
The Broncos need to find an impact player at middle linebacker. Butler may be priced outside the bargain bin, but he’s well worth the money.
His cap number in 2013 was $1.5 million.
The Broncos are likely to have a much different looking secondary in 2014. First, they must decide the fate of Champ Bailey. Then, they have to decide what they would like to offer Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Finally, they have to decide what round tender to put on restricted free agent Chris Harris.
Bailey has a $10 million cap number in 2014, but there is zero guaranteed money. This makes him a prime candidate for release or at least restructuring.
If the Broncos restructure Bailey, most of that money could be spent on a starting corner like Rodgers-Cromartie.
Harris suffered a knee injury in the playoff game against the Chargers. That injury will likely keep interest in him low.
The safety position could look different in 2014 as well.
Bailey could be moved from corner to free safety if the team decides to keep him around.
Rahim Moore is coming back from a rare lower-leg injury. He should be ready for the start of offseason workouts.
Duke Ihenacho is a talented young player who is known as a big hitter. The team needs more enforcers like Ihenacho on defense.
Mike Adams has been a great team-first guy for the Broncos over the last two years. Whether as a starter or reserve player, Adams has always given full effort. Adams is set to hit the open market this offseason, further complicating what the secondary could look like in 2014.
Most of the free agent moves the Broncos make in the secondary could be merely keeping their own players.
There’s nothing like stealing talent from a division opponent. Demps has bounced around the league, even played in the UFL, but he found a home with the Chiefs in 2013.
He hauled in a career-high four interceptions this season. Demps can also be used effectively as a return man. That versatility makes him an attractive option for the Broncos.
His cap number in 2013 was $555,000.
The Seahawks defense may lose a few quality pieces this offseason. Thurmond is one of those players who could look for greener pastures elsewhere.
The talented corner may not command more than a one-year contract, given that he's one positive drug test away from a one-year suspension.
The natural ability is there with Thurmond, and he could be a fine addition—even given the risk—if the price is right.
Thurmond’s cap number in 2013 was $607,639.
Carroll was a standout player with the Dolphins in 2013. He set a career high with three interceptions, despite playing through a knee injury.
He can contribute as a nickel corner and as a return man. He’s got plenty of experience even though he was mostly a special teams player prior to 2012.
Carroll had a cap number of $677,937 in 2013.
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 is from Spotrac.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.