Like every team in the NFL, the Denver Broncos have shifted into offseason mode. With the college all-star games like the East-West Shrine Game and Reese's Senior Bowl over, it's time for teams to turn their attention to the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
For the last eight years, I have been traveling to the combine to cover the best prospects entering the NFL. This year, I am once again bound for Indianapolis where teams gather at Lucas Oil Stadium to measure, time and test the next crop of NFL hopefuls.
The Broncos have to get better on the defensive side of the ball. They have several free agents to consider re-signing, but most of the big names are on the offense. I see cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as their most critical defender to re-sign.
The Broncos should have a defensive focus when considering players to add in free agency and the draft.
Some positions of need include, but are not limited to: cornerback, defensive line and inside linebacker.
The offensive side of the ball is not without big decisions and perhaps great need. If the team keeps wide receiver Eric Decker, then the wide receiver position is virtually sewn up. If Decker leaves in free agency, there will be a big hole in the depth chart.
Positions of need on the offensive side of things include wide receiver, tight end and running back.
Let's take a look at some of the best players who will showcase their talents at the combine for all to see.
I believe the Broncos absolutely must re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He's arguably their most important free agent, and they should do everything in their power to keep him in Denver.
If they can't bring back Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos have a few other options in free agency. They could also look to the draft regardless of which—if any—free agents they sign at the position.
Champ Bailey has a $10 million cap number with zero guaranteed money. He's a candidate to be released or restructured this offseason. If restructured, Bailey could end up moving to free safety as he's not the same player he used to be.
Chris Harris is recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers. He proved himself in 2013 starting on the outside opposite of Rodgers-Cromartie. His status for the start of training camp is up in the air right now.
The Broncos could spend a premium pick on a corner like Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech.
If added to the roster, Fuller would compete with Kayvon Webster for playing time—likely as the nickel corner.
Fuller has the size and athleticism to be a factor as both a run and pass defender. He has good instincts for the position, and Fuller is rarely caught out of position. With a nose for the ball, Fuller can make impact plays that can turn the tide of a game.
He’s aggressive enough to play close to the line of scrimmage, and he’s not afraid of mixing it up with larger opponents. Fuller has good hips, and he will swiftly sink and spin to transition with a wide receiver downfield.
He lacks elite speed, and the few times he does get caught out of position he will struggle to recover.
Other cornerbacks the Broncos could consider are: Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska), Chris Davis (Auburn) or Antone Exum (Virginia Tech).
The Broncos may lose defensive end Robert Ayers in free agency. This creates a hole in the depth chart on the outside of the defensive line.
They clearly didn't get enough pressure on Russell Wilson in the Super Bowl, and that's why the Broncos could choose to add more talent at this position. The team needs to put quarterbacks under more duress, and a rookie defensive end could do just that.
A player they could consider with a first- or second-round pick is Trent Murphy from Stanford.
Murphy is a player who has the strength to set the edge as a run defender. Ball carriers won't often get away from him as Murphy has strong arms to engulf opponents.
He can stand up to rush the passer, and Murphy shows a good understanding of leverage when going after the quarterback.
I was disappointed by his performance during the week of practice for the 2014 Reese’s Senior Bowl earlier this year. Murphy seemed to get winded easily, and he failed to show the ability to fight through two blockers consistently.
Other defensive ends the Broncos could consider are: Kareem Martin (North Carolina), Ed Stinson (Alabama) and Taylor Hart (Oregon).
The Broncos should emphasize the defensive side of the ball in both the draft and free agency. They could use more talent in the middle of the defensive line, especially if Kevin Vickerson is a surprise cut for the team, which I wrote about in a previous article.
Sylvester Williams was the team's first-round pick last year, and he played better as the season went on. He has the work ethic to be a quality starter if he continues to progress.
Terrance Knighton, aka "Pot Roast," played well during his first season with the Broncos. Per Jeff Legwold, of ESPN.com, Knighton is unlikely to get a new deal after his performance in 2013.
Middle pressure is an important part of what a defense can do. When facing quarterbacks who get rid of the ball in less than three seconds, the Broncos won't be able to get pressure consistently from the edge. Putting a quarterback under duress directly up the gut is huge for a team's success.
A player who was known for wreaking havoc in the middle was Aaron Donald from Pitt.
Explosiveness is his hallmark. Donald gets off the line quickly, and he has the leverage ability to get under and around larger offensive linemen.
When his first step doesn't get him through, Donald will churn his legs to power through opponents. He's surprisingly strong, and Donald will use the bull rush to put opponents on skates back to the quarterback.
Other defensive tackles the Broncos could consider are: Ego Ferguson (LSU) and Justin Ellis (Louisiana Tech).
The Broncos have to decide whether or not to pay big money to Eric Decker. He's a free agent, and the veteran receiver is arguably the best player at his position on the open market.
It will take a hefty financial commitment to keep Decker around. With the contract of Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas looming after 2014, the Broncos may decide to draft a player to take Decker's spot.
They may not want to select a wide receiver in the first round. Defensive needs should trump everything this offseason for the Broncos. However, in this deep wide receiver class there are plenty of gems in the second round or later.
Jarvis Landry is one of those gems who could be available when the team picks in the second round.
Decker is the pro comparison I would use for Landry. Like Decker, Landry can make difficult catches in traffic.
He's fearless when running over the middle, and Landry can be a quarterback's best friend. Landry has the strength to take a hit, keep running and gain extra yards after the catch.
Landry also can be used on sideline routes. He has the body control to get open on the edge, then tightrope the sideline after securing the pass.
Also like Decker, Landry struggles at time with press coverage. He needs to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and learn how to get into his routes quicker.
Other wide receivers the Broncos could have interest in are: Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), Paul Richardson (Colorado) and Martavis Bryant (Clemson).
Denver will have two decisions to make at the tight end position. Both Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen could be released or restructured in order to free up more cap space.
Tamme has a cap number of $3.5 million in 2014. The Broncos could decide to keep Tamme around because of his long-standing chemistry with Peyton Manning. There's a chance the Broncos will approach Tamme about restructuring his deal.
Dreessen has a cap number around $3.2 million in 2014. After being inactive (or injured) for most of 2013, we could see the Broncos part ways with the veteran tight end.
If one of both of these veterans are released, then the Broncos will have at least one spot to fill at the tight end position. At the combine, the Broncos could have their eyes on this incoming crop of tight ends.
C.J. Fiedorowicz was a standout player for the Iowa Hawkeyes. He's a huge target, measuring in at 6'6" and 262 pounds.
As a blocker, Fiedorowicz can blot out an opponent. His hands are strong, and once his hands are in place, he has full control.
As a receiver, Fiedorowicz knows how to use his sizable frame to box out smaller defenders. He is more flexible than most players his size. Fiedorowicz can go low to scoop in passes, or climb the ladder to grab passes over his head.
His size and wingspan make him a great target in the red zone. Fiedorowicz was a standout player for me during the week of practice at the Senior Bowl earlier this year. He could fit in nicely with the Broncos as a reserve tight end behind Julius Thomas and Virgil Green.
Other tight ends the Broncos could have interest in are: Crockett Gillmore (Colorado State), Marcel Jensen (Fresno State) and Jordan Najvar (Baylor).
The Broncos haven't had a quality middle linebacker in a long time. The last impact player they had at the position was "Smoke Dog" Al Wilson. A neck injury forced him to retire after the 2006 season, and Denver has been scrambling to find a replacement ever since.
Last year, the Broncos had a plan to elevate Nate Irving into that spot. He was selected in the third-round of the 2011 NFL draft with the idea that one day he would be their starting middle linebacker.
Irving did not impress in camp.
In fact, his play is one of the reasons why the Broncos signed Stewart Bradley in free agency last year. Bradley was hurt in camp, and the Broncos were left scrambling again.
Wesley Woodyard was moved to the middle from his weak-side position. He's a team captain and a leader on the defense, so Woodyard moved willingly. Woodyard was okay, but not a good fit for that spot. He was eventually replaced by 36-year old Paris Lenon.
Denver needs to finally find an answer at middle linebacker. Enter Chris Borland from Wisconsin.
Borland reminds me of former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. Like Thomas, Borland is undersized. However, Borland packs a punch and is known as a devastating tackler.
He has incredible football intelligence, and Borland can track down plays quickly as they unfold in front of him. Borland can "scrape and flow" to the football quickly, and he does a good job avoiding blockers who get to the second level.
While lacking the athleticism to play sideline-to-sideline in coverage, Borland makes up for it with savvy, work ethic and a high motor.
The Broncos need tougher players who can be enforcers on the football field. That sums up Borland's game to a T.
Other inside linebackers the Broncos could consider are: Shayne Skov (Stanford), Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky) and Max Bullough (Michigan State).
As I noted when writing about the needs on the defensive line, the Broncos need to add pass-rushers in this draft. They may choose to address the outside linebacker position with a premium pick.
The Broncos can't fully rely on Von Miller. He's going to spend most of the offseason recovering from a knee injury he suffered in Week 16 against the Houston Texans. His status for the start of training camp is up in the air right now. It would be foolish for the Broncos to believe their pass rush is okay with Miller as the top rusher.
They are going to get Quanterus Smith back from the knee injury that cost him his rookie season. Smith has talent, but was known for compiling sacks in bunches during his time at Western Kentucky. He's not proven at the pro level, and he can't be counted on fully as a result.
Lerentee McCray is going to be back from the thumb injury that bounced him from his rookie season before it could even begin. He's strong at the point of attack, but like Smith he's unproven and has problems staying healthy.
Denver needs to get someone they can count on. That someone is Dee Ford.
The Auburn prospect has the ability to create pressure from the edge. He gets off the snap smoothly, accelerates quickly and his long arms help him get to the quarterback in a hurry. Ford can change direction with ease, and he has a good closing burst to the ball.
He lacks strength at the point of attack, but his role with Denver would be primarily as a pass-rusher.
Ford is not a liability in coverage. He has the athleticism to stay with move tight ends in the open field. Ford lacks experience in this department, so there's likely going to be a learning curve as a rookie.
He is likely to be a first-round pick, and Ford may be off the board before the Broncos pick at 31st overall.
The Broncos need a backup plan at outside linebacker. Fortunately for them, this class is rather deep at the position.
Other outside linebackers the Broncos could consider are: Jordan Tripp (Montana), Adrian Hubbard (Alabama) and Tyler Starr (South Dakota).
The Broncos could let Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. If they do that, we'd likely see Montee Ball as the lead back. This would leave C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to compete for the primary backup position.
There's a chance the Broncos could add a running back to the mix in the 2014 NFL draft. Those who think they would not take a running back with another premium pick might be sorely mistaken. In 2006, John Fox—then with the Panthers—selected DeAngelo Williams in the first round. Then in 2008, Fox and the Panthers selected Jonathan Stewart in the first round as well.
If the Broncos don't think they have enough talent at the running back position, they will look to upgrade the competition.
Any back added to the roster should have an all-around skill set. One of the best all-purpose backs in the 2014 draft is Charles Sims (West Virginia).
Sims originally began his college career at the University of Houston. He considered coming out last year, but instead decided to transfer to West Virginia where he was reunited with head coach Dana Holgerson, who was the former Houston offensive coordinator. It was a great move for Sims.
On film, Sims reminds me of Matt Forte from the Chicago Bears. He's a swift runner who can cut crisply without losing much speed. When running, Sims doesn't give opponents much to tackle. He keeps his shoulder pads low and his knees high. This causes defenders to bounce off him regularly.
Sims is a natural-hands catcher. I believe he could line up as a wide receiver, run routes and catch passes downfield over his shoulder. He is great on screen or swing passes to the flat. Sims also can outrun linebackers on a wheel route down the sideline.
He was a standout player during the week of practice at the Senior Bowl earlier this year. Sims also was impressive when I interviewed him that week. He's a smart, humble and focused prospect who wants to prove himself at the pro level.
Other running backs the Broncos could show interest in are: Isaiah Crowell (Alabama State, Georgia transfer), Storm Johnson (UCF) or Kapri Bibbs (Colorado State).
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.