The Denver Broncos are still in a Super Bowl window. In order to get back to the big game, they must assemble the right talent this offseason. The Broncos are putting together their early draft board, but first they will look to add (or keep) talent in free agency.
They have a number of difficult decisions to make about their upcoming crop of free agents.
Players like wide receiver Eric Decker, left guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Robert Ayers may not be with the team in 2014.
However, there is one player who the Broncos should have at the top of their list: cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
With some painful (but necessary) cuts, the Broncos could have about $25 million to work with in free agency. That seems like a lot of money, but with so many free agents to keep the money could dry up quickly.
Broncos 2014 Salary Cap Situation
2014 Cap (Est.)
Broncos 2013 Carry-Over Cash
Broncos 2014 Dead Money
Broncos 2014 Initial Cap Space (Est.)
Coming out of Tennessee State, Rodgers-Cromartie was a first-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 NFL draft. He got off to a hot start as a pro, compiling 13 interceptions and 61 pass breakups in his first three years with the team.
In 2011, Rodgers-Cromartie was part of a trade that sent him to Philadelphia in exchange for quarterback Kevin Kolb.
During his time in Philadelphia, Rodgers-Cromartie lost his groove. In 2011 he went without an interception for the first time as a pro. He bounced back a little bit in 2012 with a three-interception performance. When he hit the open market in 2013, he wasn’t a hot commodity and the Eagles did not rush to sign him.
Rodgers-Cromartie signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Broncos in 2013. In return, he rewarded his new team with 25 tackles, 15 pass breakups and three interceptions.
He played most of the year as the Broncos’ top cornerback while Champ Bailey missed time due to a Lisfranc injury. Opposing quarterbacks didn’t try to test the veteran corner that much, but when they did he would make them pay.
Rodgers-Cromartie seemed to get his groove back in 2013. He especially looked good when the Broncos played teams from his former division, the NFC East. Rodgers-Cromartie had two interceptions against such opponents, including one (against Washington) returned for a touchdown.
He helped the Broncos get to the Super Bowl in 2013. Rodgers-Cromartie also gives the team veteran leadership on the defensive side of the ball. In 2014, the Broncos will have young players in the secondary, like Kayvon Webster, who need guidance from a guy like Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Best of the Bunch
Rodgers-Cromartie would also be the healthiest veteran cornerback entering the 2014 season.
Chris Harris suffered a knee injury in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers. His status for the start of training camp is unclear at this time.
Bailey may be moved to free safety in 2014. That’s if the Broncos rework his $10 million cap figure sometime this offseason.
Webster had a rough rookie season in 2013. He needs more guidance and experience playing as a nickel corner in the NFL.
Rodgers-Cromartie is the best of the bunch in Denver, and he stacks up well when compared to the other free agent cornerbacks on the open market.
Alterraun Verner (Titans) and Sam Shields (Packers) would be options for Denver if they can’t bring Rodgers-Cromartie back.
Both had similar numbers in 2013, and they’re just one and two years younger than Rodgers-Cromartie. The contracts that all three should sign will likely be quite similar in construct.
If Denver adds secondary talent through the draft, even with a premium pick, they may have to wait as a rookie makes a similar transition. Players like Marcus Roberson (Florida) or Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) could step in and start for the Broncos. Even players with that high-caliber skill set would benefit from the veteran presence of a guy like Rodgers-Cromartie.
Mid- to late-round picks like Chris Davis (Auburn) or Antone Exum (Virginia Tech) would help the depth, but neither would be likely starters in 2014.
The draft is a great place to add talent with varying upside. However, the Broncos need more of a “sure thing” at the position due to injuries and inconsistencies from other players currently on their roster.
Rodgers-Cromartie is that sure thing.
Defense Wins Championships
At the Broncos season-ending press conference, the “D” word was tossed around quite a bit. However, it was Seattle’s defense that was earning most of the praise from head coach John Fox and vice president of football operations John Elway.
At one point, Elway did compliment his own defense.
I was encouraged by the fact that [after] the next two [drives] were down 8-0 [in the first quarter of the Super Bowl]. So that was the encouraging sign. I thought the defense did a good job in a tough situation of really kind of stemming the tide at that point and time. So they kept us in it. We just weren’t able get it going offensively and make those plays.
I believe the Broncos will have extra emphasis on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. They could make moves in both free agency and the draft to secure (or keep) better talent on that side of the ball.
Restructure or Release?
In order to have the salary cap space to sign better players, the Broncos will look to several veterans with large cap numbers.
In addition to Bailey, Denver may look to restructure or release offensive guard Chris Kuper. He has a cap number of $5.9 million in 2014. If healthy, Kuper could fill the spot at left guard if the Broncos can’t afford to keep Beadles around. I feel Kuper’s unlikely to stay in Denver with that price tag—even if he does start.
Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are both candidates for restructuring or release. Tamme has a $3.5 million cap number in 2014, while Dreessen checks in with a $3.2 million cap number. I feel at least one of those veterans are gone this year. They may keep Tamme around because of his long-established chemistry with Peyton Manning, but it may be at a reduced price.
Even Kevin Vickerson may be asked to restructure his contract. He has a cap number of $2.5 million, but there’s only $500,000 of dead money in his contract. He’s a team-first guy who missed about half the season due to a hip injury. Vickerson may be asked to take a pay cut in order to make room for additional talent.
The Broncos just signed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to a new contract. The two-year deal ensures that the Broncos will have something they haven’t had in a long time—stability at the defensive coordinator position.
Del Rio brought out the best in Rodgers-Cromartie.
In 2013, Rodgers-Cromartie ranked as a top-four cover corner, according to Pro Football Focus rankings. He’s set to break the bank after that type of season.
While he may not get a contract similar to what Darrelle Revis got from the Buccaneers, Rodgers-Cromartie could still sign a lucrative contract. Revis signed a six-year, $96 million contract with the Bucs last year. He has a $16 million cap number in 2014.
I don’t believe Rodgers-Cromartie is a candidate for the franchise tag in 2014. The price of a franchise-tagged cornerback is estimated to be $11,256,000 this year.
So what kind of numbers should Rodgers-Cromartie (and his agent) be shooting for?
The Broncos could use a deal like Lardarius Webb got from the Ravens in 2012 for the framework.
A deal in the range of five years for about $50 million sounds about right. The Broncos could essentially swap the cap number ($10 million) for Bailey over to Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Broncos have a little bit of spending money to spread around this offseason. In my opinion, most of that money should be spent on the defensive side of the ball.
Rodgers-Cromartie is only 27 years old, and he got his career back on track under Del Rio in 2013.
Locking up one of the best corners in the game today has to be a top priority for a team with championship aspirations.
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.