The Denver Broncos didn't force a turnover all postseason, and it eventually cost them.
When the Broncos needed their defense to swing the Super Bowl with a clutch interception or forced fumble, it didn't. Instead, it let the Seahawks' Russell Wilson complete third-down pass after third-down pass, and it let Seattle score 43 points.
Sure, the offense scored just eight points, surrendered a safety and gave up seven points with a pick-six. However, the defense also failed to come through. Wilson threw for two touchdowns and had just seven incomplete passes, and running back Marshawn Lynch scored as well.
The Broncos lost by 35, and they now face an offseason that's sure to be full of change.
Luckily, Denver has the money to sign high-profile players. According to spotrac.com, it is projected to have $12.4 million, and it can free up more space by cutting players. If the Broncos cut Champ Bailey, they would save $10 million. If they cut Joel Dreessen, Chris Kuper and Jacob Tamme, they could free up about $10 million as well.
Bailey is an aging veteran who was burned repeatedly in the Super Bowl, and he's going to at least restructure his deal. Tamme, Dreessen and Kuper are overpaid backups who are almost certainly going to be cut.
Should Denver cut ties with Champ Bailey?
The Broncos could also restructure deals. Peyton Manning would likely be willing to take a pay cut to help the Broncos surround him with talent, and other players, such as Wes Welker, could do the same thing.
Once the Broncos free up cap space, they'll be able to make splashes on the free-agent market.
They will have to re-sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was fantastic in 2013. The same goes with restricted free-agent Chris Harris, who was also rock-solid before tearing his ACL. Zane Beadles is also a priority for the Broncos, even though the left guard had a poor 2013 season.
But the Broncos can sign these players at a decent price. Rodgers-Cromartie, Harris, Beadles, Shaun Phillips (if Denver re-signs him) and the wide receiver the Broncos sign (given they sign one) will cost them, but Denver would still save enough to upgrade at a key position with a high-profile player.
That position is safety.
Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner are three top-flight safeties hitting the open market this offseason. Other big names, such as Ryan Clark and Bernard Pollard, will be becoming free agents as well. Denver's safety play was abysmal in 2013, and it needs to improve.
Rahim Moore, who missed the last nine games of the 2013 season (including the playoffs), will return, but the Broncos could still improve in the defensive backfield. Strong safety Duke Ihenacho didn't intercept a pass, and Denver's safeties combined for a measly three interceptions.
Oh, and all of them except for Michael Huff, who played just 42 snaps at safety, surrendered a passer rating of 92 or higher.
Denver certainly needs to upgrade, and it needs to choose the right player. Ward and Byrd are likely the two best available safeties, but Byrd is a free safety (the Broncos need a strong safety). Ward will likely be re-signed by the Cleveland Browns, who have ample cap space and need their defensive star.
However, the San Francisco 49ers can afford to let Whitner go. They need to upgrade at other positions, like wide receiver, and they need to re-sign players. Plus, they have just $2.63 million to spend, and even with cuts, they could have a hard time signing him.
Denver, however, could pull it off.
Should Denver sign Donte Whitner?
The Broncos need an impact player who can stop the pass. They also need a physical presence in the secondary, and Whitner can provide that.
He can also provide quality pass coverage. He intercepted three passes, had 15 passes defensed and surrendered an opponent passer rating of 61.8 in 2013 (including the postseason).
He will cost a lot, but the Broncos could likely afford him if they got rid of some players and signed others at team-friendly prices. The 49ers let former Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson go to Tampa Bay last year, so they have set a precedent for allowing productive DBs to walk. Denver should be able to pry Whitner away from the 49ers.
If the Broncos do get Whitner, it would make a huge difference. Seattle beat Denver by forcing turnovers and converting those into points. Denver needs to do the same thing, and Whitner could make a big impact on the turnovers front.
With Rodgers-Cromartie and Harris in the secondary, the Broncos would be hard to throw against.
If Denver can't sign Whitner or another star safety, it could still add physicality. Pollard is cheap, and he could go to the Broncos at a reasonable price. If Denver wants to re-sign the expensive Eric Decker or upgrade their interior defense with a pricey middle linebacker, pursuing Pollard makes sense.
However, the Broncos should have enough for Whitner if they commit to signing him. And if they do, it would change the defense.
They would have a phenomenal secondary to complement Von Miller, Terrance Knighton and Danny Trevathan and other playmakers up front. Their defense would resemble the 2012 defense that finished second overall in yards allowed.
Oh, and they could add quality depth at many positions in the draft. They could fill their need at middle linebacker early in the draft, and they could rely on the quality depth they already have on the defensive line.
Denver's defense did a good job in the playoffs for the most part, but it struggled when it mattered most. It needs to upgrade to win the Super Bowl next year, and signing a safety is the way to force turnovers and stop offenses.
And in the end, it could be how Denver gets to the top.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).