Despite finishing as Super Bowl runner-ups, the Denver Broncos will head into free agency with holes to fill and free agents to re-sign.
It became abundantly clear in Super Bowl XLVIII, when the Broncos were dismantled by the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8, that the AFC conference champions weren't even close to being the best team in football.
The Seahawks were faster, more athletic and a lot more aggressive than the Broncos were. It was a huge wake-up call for a team that was actually favored over the Seahawks heading into the Super Bowl.
General manager John Elway and the organization will make the right moves necessary in order to ensure the Broncos remain the team to beat in the AFC, and ensure that the team will be better equipped personnel-wise to matchup with NFC powerhouse teams such as the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Throughout this article, we'll take a look at how much salary cap space the Broncos have heading into free agency, along with impending free agents, free agent targets and a few key players who will be the target of contract extensions as 2014 progresses.
First, let's take a look at how much cap room the team has:
Salary Cap Room
According to Spotrac.com, the Broncos have nearly $18 million in cap space entering free agency.
Obviously, the salary cap space might increase as we progress through free agency, with releases and restructuring of current contracts. Having said that, don't expect the Broncos to go on a free-agent spending binge.
Whereas last offseason the Broncos brought in high-profile free agents such as guard Louis Vasquez, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and receiver Wes Welker, the team might not bring in more than one big name through free agency.
As it stands right now, the Broncos have voids at defensive end, linebacker, safety, cornerback and possibly depth at wide receiver and running back. Most of those voids can, and will be filled through the NFL draft.
15 of the 22 players that started Super Bowl XLVIII for the Broncos are under contract next season. The team is in a position to retain its core from last season, while adding in a few inexpensive pieces through free agency and the draft.
Expect the Broncos to try to restructure Champ Bailey's $10 million cap hit for 2014, along with role players such as tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, who are due to earn over $3 million each in 2014. Backup guard Chris Kuper has a $6 million cap hit for next season, and the Broncos will restructure that contract or outright release Kuper.
Impending Free Agents
The Broncos have 22 free agents, with three different types of free agents: Restricted, unrestricted and exclusive-rights free agents.
The team's restricted free agents are as follows: DT Mitch Unrein, CB Chris Harris, WR Trindon Holliday.
The unrestricted free agents are the following: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, RB Knowshon Moreno, DE Robert Ayers, LB Wesley Woodyard, S Mike Adams, LB Stewart Bradley, DB Quentin Jammer, LG Zane Beadles, DE Shaun Phillips, LB Paris Lenon, C Dan Koppen, WR Andre Caldwell, T Winston Justice, S Michael Huff, OL Steve Vallos and WR Eric Decker.
The exclusive-rights free agents include S Duke Ihenacho, CB Tony Carter and LB Brandon Marshall.
Free Agents the Broncos Will Look to Re-Sign
There are numerous players the Broncos will look toward re-signing, but the top priorities for the franchise are Rodgers-Cromartie, Decker, Moreno, Beadles and Phillips.
Rodgers-Cromartie is the Broncos' No. 1 corner, and he had one of the best seasons of any corner in the league in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, Cromartie had the fourth-highest coverage grade in the NFL last year.
Beadles has been the Broncos' starting left guard for the past four seasons, and has emerged as one of the better guards in the NFL. Beadles was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012.
Decker is the Broncos' No. 2 receiver and will likely cash in with a huge contract in free agency. Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. A big reason for why the Broncos' offense was so explosive last season was due to Decker.
Moreno is the Broncos' starting running back and had a breakout season in 2013, ranking in the top five in the league in touchdowns and receptions for a running back.
Phillips was the Broncos' biggest pass-rushing threat, registering 10 sacks to lead the team.
There are other players the Broncos will look to re-sign, such as Harris, Ihenacho, Ayers and Holliday, but Cromartie, Beadles, Decker, Moreno and Phillips will be the top players the organization will be keeping an eye on as free agency begins.
Free Agent Targets
The Broncos will not overspend for players in free agency.
The team has been very cautious of giving out long-term deals to players, and it has worked out for the franchise. Players such as Cromartie and Phillips were signed to one-year deals where both players ended up outperforming their contracts.
The franchise knows that the way to build a championship contender is through the draft, and not free agency. The Seahawks' Super Bowl-winning season was driven by players drafted within the organization, such as QB Russell Wilson, S Kam Chancellor, S Earl Thomas, CB Richard Sherman and Super Bowl MVP LB Malcolm Smith.
Some free agents that will be targeted by the Broncos through free agency will likely be at the linebacker, safety and wide receiver positions (especially if Decker leaves).
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller analyzed the linebackers the Broncos will target through free agency, and he states the organization will look for a middle linebacker through free agency. Miller lists Minnesota Vikings LB Desmond Bishop as being a fit for the Broncos' defense.
Bishop has practically missed the last two full seasons due to injury. He missed the entire 2012 campaign due to a hamstring injury and he played in only four games in 2013 before being placed on injured reserve due to a torn ACL in his right knee.
Before those two injury-riddled seasons, Bishop had established himself as one of the top inside linebackers in the league, registering over 100 tackles in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, including being a starter on the Packers' championship team following the 2010 season.
The franchise has also made it a habit over the past two years of adding veteran safeties for depth purposes. In 2012, the Broncos added Jim Leonhard and in 2013 they added Michael Huff and Quentin Jammer. Expect the team to do the same before the season begins. Tennesee Titans safety Bernard Pollard is a possibility, especially considering the fact that Denver's two starting safeties from Super Bowl XLVIII (Ihenacho and Adams) are both free agents.
At receiver, the Broncos have a variety of options. Anquan Boldin, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt and James Jones are all free agents. If Decker chooses to sign a contract elsewhere, the Broncos could elect to either replace him with a receiver through free agency, or draft one in the middle rounds of the draft.
Due to the savviness of John Elway, the Broncos are in a position of flexibility entering free agency. The team has enough cap space to re-sign key free agents and bring in needed pieces in order to remain the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for a second straight season.
How the Broncos approach this free agency period will depend upon the market value of players such as Decker, Moreno, Beadles and Rodgers-Cromartie. If said players leave the franchise, the Broncos will look to fill those positions quickly during the free agency period.