Denver Broncos: Biggest Scouting Combine Takeaways
With the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine wrapped up, the Denver Broncos are beginning to get a better idea of what their team could look like in 2014.
The frenzy that is known as free agency is set to begin in a couple of weeks. Before we get to that time of turnover and transactions, let’s look at the takeaways from the combine.
The Broncos fell short in 2013, but with the right moves this offseason, they could win their third Lombardi Trophy. Let’s pick through the news, quotes and rumors swirling around this team during the week in Indy.
They Have a Plan If Zane Beadles Moves on
The Denver Broncos have many tough decisions to make in free agency. Several key starters in 2013 are set to hit the open market. Guys like wide receiver Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and running back Knowshon Moreno could be playing elsewhere in 2014.
Another key starter who is set to hit the open market is left guard Zane Beadles.
He has started the last 62 games for the Broncos at left guard. He was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season but did not get selected again in 2013. He had an up-and-down year. Most weeks he held his own as a pass-protector and run-blocker. However, in a few games (most notably against the Colts and the Seahawks), Beadles struggled.
Per Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, the Broncos may consider moving right tackle Orlando Franklin to the left guard position if Beadles moves on.
The Broncos have toyed with this idea before during practices in the offseason. I have seen Franklin work at guard a small handful of days during his time with the Broncos—and it didn’t look good.
The Broncos also have to decide whether or not to keep Chris Kuper at his current price tag of $5.9 million. With around $1.8 million in dead money, the Broncos could always ask him to take a pay cut to stay with the team. If healthy, he would be a quality starter at guard for the Broncos.
The team also may be looking to move Franklin inside, as Denver has been impressed by the development of Vinston Painter. He was a sixth-round pick in last year’s draft, and the team moved him to the active roster earlier this year.
I would like to see Beadles stay in Denver. He's great in the community, a strong presence in the locker room and a quality player who could be signed for a reasonable price. Keeping cohesion on this offensive line is important for a well-oiled machine like the Broncos offense.
No matter what happens with Beadles, the Broncos will have multiple options.
Eric Decker Will Be Allowed to Test the Open Market
The Broncos are going to let their own free agents test the open market. Arguably their biggest free agent to consider retaining is wide receiver Eric Decker.
General manager John Elway gave use insight at the combine about the team’s plan for their own free agents. “I think they (free agents) have to hit the market. The market sets those. Especially when you look where we are and what we have coming up. Julius—both Thomas'—are coming up next year...Wes is too. All that plays into it.”
With so many big names up for contract renewal after the 2014 season, it doesn’t seem like the Broncos are going to overpay to keep any of their own free agents this offseason.
This is a good notion for Broncos fans who wanting to cling to Decker. The reality of the situation may be much different for a player like Decker.
Eagles reached agreement with WR Riley Cooper on a five-year, $25 million deal, per a league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 27, 2014
Decker has been more productive than Cooper during his pro career, and he could sign a deal that is worth roughly double of Cooper's. A five-year, $50 million deal would be far less than the five-year, $60 million deal that Mike Wallace signed with the Dolphins last offseason.
Jeff Howe, from the Boston Herald, wrote earlier this month that Decker could sign a deal worth roughly $10 million per year. The five-year, $50 million price tag sounds about right for a player of his caliber.
If that’s his price, then Decker may be out of the Broncos' price range.
The Future of Knowshon Moreno Is Undecided
Another free agent whom the Broncos will consider re-signing is running back Knowshon Moreno. He’s coming off the most productive season of his career. He became the first Broncos back to have 500 yards or more receiving while also going over the 1,000-yard mark rushing.
Elway answered a question about Moreno’s future at the podium during the combine. “We are still in that process. We are still in the process of evaluating where we are. When you talk about Knowshon, he had a tremendous year for us. You look at the year—he was reliable, he caught the ball, ran the football for us and was also tremendous in pass protection. Knowshon was a big part of what we did this year. It’s still early in the process as far as what we’re going to do in the free-agent market.”
In the 2013 NFL draft, the Broncos selected Montee Ball in the second round. The idea was to groom him as the starting running back. Ball finished his rookie season with more than 500 yards rushing while averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Many don’t expect Moreno to be back with the Broncos, but he should not be expecting a white-hot market for his services. Running backs are easily replaceable, and this draft class is full of talented runners who would come with a much better price tag.
The Broncos could turn to Ball as their lead back in 2014.
They Would Consider Moving Up or Down in the Draft
The Broncos have several needs on the defensive side of the ball. Some of the biggest needs are at inside linebacker and safety.
Two of the best players available at those positions include linebacker C.J. Mosley (Alabama) and free safety Calvin Pryor (Louisville).
Sitting at the 31st overall pick, the Broncos would likely have to move up for either of those players. The team may be interested in doing this in order to secure the talents of players like Mosley or Pryor.
At the combine, I asked John Elway if moving up (or down) in the draft would be a possibility this year.
“We will assess that," he said. "We still have [three] months to get to that. We’ve only been out of the season for about three weeks now. We’ve been deep in the middle of free agency and then we’ll get the first look at the young guys in the next four days. We’ll look at all those possibilities as we get closer.”
His answer is not a confirmation of their intention, but it's not a denial either.
This draft class is deep at many positions. However, finding a quality middle linebacker or an upgrade at the safety position might require the Broncos to move up.
Elway Knows What He Wants on Defense
The Broncos are likely to be looking for an upgrade at the safety and middle linebacker positions in the draft or free agency.
Today’s NFL is full of pass-happy teams and spread offenses that thin out the defense. Teams need to be on the lookout for players in the secondary who can stay with receivers downfield as mobile quarterbacks keep plays alive. At the same time, teams are looking for players in the secondary who are sound tacklers and run defenders.
Middle linebackers are no longer exclusively seek-and-destroy run-stuffers. Finding one who can also cover is what teams covet.
At the combine, John Elway talked about being strong in the middle of the defense:
“You want to be strong everywhere. There is always a philosophy—some people say you build from the inside-out and others say you build from the outside-in. We were fortunate with the fact that with the corner position, we were pretty strong this year. We were good on the ends [with LB] Von Miller even though he missed the first six games. So it’s important. The thing is you have to make a decision one way or the other. It’s hard to get everyone, and that’s why we have to be good in the draft. Hopefully we’re able to find those guys. Safety is becoming such a big position because of the spread offense, and everybody is spreading everybody out. You have to have those strong safeties that also have the ability to cover.”
Elway also commented on what it takes to defense mobile quarterbacks who can extend plays:
“The way you battle that is you have to have speed. I think you have to be able to have the speed to catch them. The more speed you get on the defensive side the better you’re going to be. Those guys (quarterbacks) that can do that like Russell Wilson are a special athlete, and it’s a lot easier said than done.”
Clarity is a crucial asset for any front office in the NFL. Elway knows what he wants in a safety. Don’t be surprised if the Broncos find an upgrade at the safety and middle linebacker positions in some way this offseason.
They Will Try to Fill Glaring Holes Via Free Agency
Under John Elway, the Broncos have generally tried to fill major holes via free agency while building quality depth in the draft. That could once again be the plan this offseason.
It came as no surprise when he said as much during his podium interview at the combine.
“With free agency, we’re always trying to get ourselves in a position where when we go into the draft—we don’t have a glaring weakness where we are reaching for somebody in the draft. So I think it’s important for free agency, in my opinion, to try to pick up the places where you think you have glaring holes and fill those holes and then when you go to the draft be able to draft the best players that you hope are going to have great careers in the NFL.”
On Thursday, Jeff Legwold from ESPN.com reported that free-agent linebacker D’Qwell Jackson will visit the Broncos early next week:
This could be a sign that the team is looking for its upgrade at middle linebacker via free agency instead of the draft. That could be the Broncos' course of action for many different spots on the defense as they look to build a better unit in 2014.
There Are No Plans to Release Wes Welker
Some media at the combine wanted to know what decision the team would make on Wes Welker. He will see his cap number increase to $8 million this year, including a $3 million roster bonus that is due in March.
In 2013, his numbers fell off from his previous production as he battled through two concussions. With Eric Decker possibly moving on in free agency, keeping Welker around is the biggest no-brainer decision in the history of mankind.
Not everybody shared the same sentiment about Welker, and that’s why both John Fox and John Elway were asked about the receiver's future. Both quickly dismissed the question.
When asked if the team would retain Welker, Elway said, “He is under contract.”
When asked about the player's status with the team, Fox said, “Wes Welker is under contract so I don’t think it’s a tremendous decision.”
It’s clear that the Broncos have no plans to release him.
Both Free Agency and the Draft Could Be Defense-Heavy
Defense, defense and more defense could be the mantra of the Denver Broncos this offseason. Looking over this roster, many holes can be seen on the defensive side of the ball that need to be cleaned up before next season.
ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold also shares that sentiment: "With so many needs on defense, any significant dollars spent in free agency will address issues there. The coming draft class is expected to have a heavy defensive flavor as well."
John Elway spoke a lot about the team’s defensive needs at the combine podium. When asked about where his team needed to improve, he had this to say:
“I think that when you look at the numbers, offensively, you’re going to say we don’t have to get much better because you can’t put up better numbers than what we did offensively. Defensively, there were a lot of injuries over there, but we didn’t play as consistent as we had the year before. I think when you look at the Super Bowl and look at the way we played, I think there is a mentality there that we want to create that when we get down like that in a situation, we have to be able to get it turned around. We weren’t able to get it done in the Super Bowl. We had done it earlier in the year. I think there is always a mentality, and you try to create that mentality.”
He continued, “We are going to continue to evaluate players that are going to fit into our defense and our scheme and what we do and what [defensive coordinator] Jack [Del Rio] likes. Two years ago, we were in the top five in scoring and yards given up. We know it is there. We just will continue to try to stay healthy next year and find some players to help on that side of the ball.”
The Broncos have a few needs on offense. Adding a wide receiver, offensive guard, running back or tight end in free agency or the draft could be in the cards.
More needs are found on the defensive side. The team needs to add at least one cornerback this offseason. That could mean re-signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. With Chris Harris coming off a postseason knee injury, the Broncos could be interested in adding more than one cornerback for depth purposes.
Cornerback isn’t the only position of need in the secondary. Denver would be wise to get an upgrade at safety as well. The team needs to get younger, faster and more athletic at the position. This is why a guy like Calvin Pryor (Louisville) could be an option in the 2014 NFL draft.
The Broncos need to find a new “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson. They have lost some swagger defensively since Wilson was forced to retire after the 2006 season due to a neck injury. They’ll look into free agents like D’Qwell Jackson (among others) and may be interested in trading up to land an elite talent like C.J. Mosley (Alabama) in the draft.
The team also needs to add more pass-rushers. This could include more outside linebackers and defensive ends.
The Broncos can’t rely on Von Miller coming back at full strength. He suffered a knee injury in Week 16 against the Houston Texans, and his status for the start of training camp is up in the air right now.
They also can’t rely on Quanterus Smith in 2014. He’s coming back from the knee injury that cut his final season at Western Kentucky short. It will be a bonus if they can build a better pass rush with Smith as a key piece.
This is why drafting players like Dee Ford (Auburn) makes sense for the Broncos. Expect the team to also strongly pursue free-agent defensive end Shaun Phillips. He led the team in sacks last year with 10, and there’s a good possibility he would return to Denver for the right price.
Offense sells tickets, while defense wins championships. The Broncos are building to win another championship in 2014.
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. Draft grades all from NFLDraftScout.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.