Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno both posted their best years, statistically speaking, in 2013, and both are going to command large contracts as they hit the free-agent market. The question looming over Denver as the offseason sweeps on is whether or not the team can afford to let them go.
It's not as cut-and-dry as John Elway and John Fox would like it to be, and it's going to feel like pulling teeth either way.
Can the team afford to give out huge contracts that limit its ability to make any other moves? Do the Broncos really want to tie up all of their money like that?
The Broncos have around $11 million in cap space, rolling over the extra room from last season. While that's better than many teams, it's not enough to just throw money around to keep players in the Mile High City.
On the other side, can they afford to let a back and a receiver go when the pair combined for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns? That's an incredible amount of offensive production to let walk. The Broncos wouldn't have set all of those records without them.
With those numbers staring at me, it's hard to write this sentence, harder than when I sat down to type this out and got my thoughts in order, but the fact of the matter is that they can.
They can let all of that production walk right out the door and get on the next bus to New York, New England, or whatever team decides to come calling.
If either one is an easy call, it's Moreno.
He was playing in a contract year, and he broke 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. People say it was due to Manning, and that's true, but he was with Manning last year too, and they sent him to the scout team because he was fumbling too much.
This is not a guy who has been an integral part of the offense for long. Was he terrific in 2013? Of course he was. But one good year out of five does not deserve a big contract.
On top of that, I'll join all of those other people and throw my hat into this ring: It was because of Manning. Name one team that came to Denver and tried to stop Knowshon.
The Broncos invested a second-round pick in Montee Ball and they need him to step up and be the man. He broke 500 yards and scored four touchdowns as the backup. If he can get the blocking schemes down and double his production—not as lofty of a goal as it sounds since he'd be the starter—he could easily replace all of Moreno's production at once.
Don't pay Knowshon. You don't have to.
Plus, there are plenty of other ways that Denver could spend that money—like on defense—that would help the team a lot more than keeping him.
Decker's a bit harder. He was arguably the best No. 2 receiver in the game last year, with 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are better than the ones posted by the top receivers on some teams.
Better yet, though Decker did it in a contract year in 2013, he also broke 1,000 yards and actually put up more touchdowns (13) in 2012.
He can be counted on to do this again, whereas Moreno cannot.
The problem for the Broncos is money. If Decker will take a discount to play in Denver, with Manning, potentially making another run at the Super Bowl, they can keep him.
But his numbers suggest that he's going to get an offer to be a top receiver somewhere else.
Can Denver afford to pay him like a No. 1?
It can't. The real top receiver on the team is Demaryius Thomas, and he's going to be due a new contract next offseason. The Broncos cannot afford to cripple themselves with a huge contract for Decker and then watch Thomas walk. He's too good.
He's elite good.
The good news is that they can actually afford to let Decker go. There are three reasons for it, and their names are Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas.
They're all legit threats in the passing game. Demaryius demands attention on every snap.
Remember the Super Bowl, when the Broncos looked like a JV team going up against the best team in the world? When they couldn't block, couldn't move the ball and couldn't score?
In that game, Demaryius had 13 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Oh, by the way, that's a Super Bowl record for catches.
Also, he had a separated shoulder for almost the whole game.
Basically, this is a guy who is going to go out and get his anytime he wants it.
Welker and Julius Thomas—who plays tight end, but, like Jimmy Graham, could argue that he's actually a wide receiver—proved their worth over the entire season. Welker missed a few games with a concussion and he still had 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. Julius also missed some time with an injury, but he put up 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.
With a three-headed monster like that, the Broncos offense would still be effective, though perhaps not record-breaking, without Decker.
You also have to look at what Manning does with receivers: He makes them better. He's done it his whole career.
Just look at Austin Collie. Manning made him into a receiver who was good for over 600 yards and seven or eight touchdowns.
No offense to Austin Collie, but he's Austin Collie.
Not to start the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning conversation, but Collie was in New England this year, on a team that desperately needed receivers, and he only caught 10 passes for 63 yards. He never scored.
The point being that Manning can take someone else and make him into a threat in this offense. There's no telling who he will be, but it almost doesn't matter at this point. Manning has proven that it doesn't over and over again.
They could go out in free agency and get someone like Hakeem Nicks.
They could address it in the draft and find someone late who can step into the role.
To some degree, they could just give Andre Caldwell, another free agent from last year's team, a smaller contract than Decker and have him slide up the depth chart. Would that really be such a bad move?
At the end of the day, the Broncos don't have to be as good as they were in 2013. They don't have to break all of the records again to get back in position for a Super Bowl run.
Letting Decker walk would be a punch in the gut, but one they can take. One they can absorb.
The team will move on and be fine. If it uses the money it saves on the rest of the roster, it might even be better.