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Denver Broncos: Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions

Cecil LammeyContributor IMarch 6, 2014

Denver Broncos: Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    We’re virtually on the eve of free agency, and the Denver Broncos made a big move on Wednesday night. Per Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports, they released veteran cornerback Champ Bailey.

    It’s the first domino to fall for a team that could be more active in free agency than some people think.

    Denver is still in a Super Bowl window now that Peyton Manning has passed his physical. General manager John Elway will work diligently to ensure this team remains near the top of the AFC.

    In this article, we’ll take a look at how much money the Broncos might have to work with in free agency. We’ll also look at the current free agents on the roster, team needs and potential targets.

    The offseason is about to shift into another gear. Here’s why the Broncos could be turbo-charged in this free-agency period.

Cap Space

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    The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

    The Broncos (and every other team in the league) received good news when the salary cap in 2014 rose to $133 million. This is approximately $10 million more than it was in 2013, and it’s about $7 million more than earlier estimates.

    Additionally, the Broncos are rolling over $6.4 million in cap space from last year. As of right now, the Broncos will have $17.9 million to work with in free agency, per Spotrac.com.

    With the release of Bailey, the Broncos added another $10 million in cap space. This brings their total to approximately $28 million.

    With a few moves, they could create even more cap space.

    Offensive lineman Chris Kuper has a $5.9 million cap number in 2013, and there is only $1.8 million in dead money. He is a fantastic interior lineman when healthy, but a severe ankle injured suffered in 2012 may prevent him from playing up to his usual level. He was a reserve player in 2013, and his future with the team is in doubt.

    Tight end Joel Dreessen has a $3.1 million cap number in 2014, and there is only around $667,000 in dead money. His 2013 season didn’t go the way he would have liked. Recovering from offseason knee surgery, he struggled to get back to his old form. With the emergence of Julius Thomas, the Broncos could let Dreessen go.

    That may also happen to tight end Jacob Tamme. He has a $3.5 million cap number in 2014, and there is only $500,000 in dead money. He has long-established chemistry with Peyton Manning, and the Broncos may decide to keep him around as veteran insurance at that price. He is also a candidate to restructure his deal.

    With a little salary-cap gymnastics, the Broncos could end up with more than $30 million to spend in free agency.

Current Free Agents

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Given the list of current free agents for the Broncos, the team has several tough decisions to make. Starters from 2013 like wide receiver Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, left guard Zane Beadles and running back Knowshon Moreno will be allowed to hit the open market.

    Mike Klis, from The Denver Post, believes Decker may get a contract that averages around $8-$9 million annually. This price tag would put him out of range for the Broncos. With both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas in contract seasons, the Broncos could let Decker walk.

    Rodgers-Cromartie was the team’s best cornerback in 2013. He had a bounce-back year after his career got off track during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. He may be allowed to test the free-agent market, but it would make a lot of sense for him to stay with Denver. He’s found a home, and he is a good fit for the Jack Del Rio defense.

    Beadles made the Pro Bowl in 2012, but he struggled at times during the 2013 season. In games against the Colts and (obviously) the Seahawks, he struggled to stand his ground.

    Moreno ran for more than 1,000 yards for the first time in his career this past season. He also became the first Broncos back to have more than 500 yards receiving in addition to eclipsing 1,000 yards rushing. He accomplished most of this against six-man fronts, as defenses were more concerned with slowing down the high-powered passing game.

    If (when) Moreno moves on in free agency, the Broncos are likely to give Montee Ball the first crack at the starting job. Ball was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft with the idea that he would be the lead back someday. That day is coming quickly for the 23-year-old runner.

    In addition to these three starters, other players are set to hit free agency who played key roles in 2013.

    Wesley Woodyard is a team-first guy. He emerged as an undrafted free agent in 2008 to become a quality weak-side linebacker for the Broncos. Last year, the team asked him to move to middle linebacker, but the results were not as good. Danny Trevathan excelled at weak-side linebacker, and his play has made Woodyard expendable.

    Mike Adams is also a team-first veteran. He has been a starter and a quality backup for the Broncos during his two seasons with the team. With an emphasis on getting younger and faster on defense, we might have seen him play his last game with Denver.

    Robert Ayers was a 2009 first-round pick who was selected just a few picks behind Moreno. He finished his senior season on a hot streak and had one good day of practice against Michael Oher at the Senior Bowl.

    He did not play up to expectations during his time with Denver. Injuries and inconsistencies held him back, and his performance in the Super Bowl was cringe-worthy.

    Shaun Phillips led the team with 10 sacks in 2013. He’s likely to sign for more than the $1.5 million he did in 2013, but his price tag is not going to be that huge. If the Broncos can sign him for a deal that averages around $4 million annually, they are likely to bring him back for 2014.

    Andre “Bubba” Caldwell is set to be an unrestricted free agent this year. Per Klis, the Broncos are expected to try and bring him back.

    Other unrestricted free agents like Quentin Jammer, Stewart Bradley and Paris Lenon could be gone.

    Restricted free agent Chris Harris should stick around in 2014. The team placed a second-round tender on him, and since he is coming off a partially torn ACL injury, another team may not make a run at him.

Team Needs

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The language of the NFL is money, and it’s interesting to see the early clues the Broncos have given us this offseason.

    With workouts for free-agent linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu, it’s clear the Broncos want to secure a new starting middle linebacker. They haven’t had a quality middle linebacker since 2006 when “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson patrolled the field.

    Other needs on the team reside mostly on the defensive side of the ball.

    The Broncos need more speed at the cornerback and safety position. The safety position is a huge need that they could address with a big splash in free agency.

    We could see Denver add more pass-rushers to the mix as well. You can never have too many pass-rushers, and the team could build a quality rotation to harass opposing quarterbacks.

    On the offensive side of the ball, the team could use a wide receiver to replace Eric Decker if he leaves in free agency. They may decide to use the draft in order to add more wide receiver talent. However, a cheaper veteran receiver could make the cut.

    They may also add a guard in free agency if Zane Beadles leaves. Per ESPN's Jeff Legwold, Denver could have an in-house option if it loses Beadles to another team.

    Finally, the Broncos may be in the market for a cheaper veteran free-agent running back. If Knowshon Moreno leaves, it will create a hole on the depth chart that could be filled by a veteran.

Possible Targets

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    All across the league, teams are forced to let talented players explore the free-agent market. The Broncos are prepared to pounce on some of these players when free agency opens on March 11.

     

    Inside Linebacker

    Targets at inside linebacker already include D’Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu. Other targets might be Brandon Spikes, Daryl Smith and Jameel McClain.

    Spikes constantly ruffled feathers during his time with the Patriots, and he is looking for a fresh start. He’s a two-down run-stuffer who plays the game with plenty of attitude.

    Smith was a quality starter for the Ravens last year, and they may consider him a priority to keep this offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens wrap him up before the start of free agency.

    McClain visited the Broncos when he was a free agent in 2012. The problem was that the Broncos were courting Peyton Manning at the same time. John Elway, John Fox and former general manager Brian Xanders were all away from the facility when McClain visited.

     

    Safety

    Targets at the safety position begin with Jairus Byrd. He was not franchise-tagged this year, and he could sign a new contract that pays him more than any other safety in the league.

    If the Broncos don’t want to pay a hefty price tag for Byrd, they could make a run at T.J. Ward. He will have a lower price tag, and he has a previous relationship with director of pro personnel Tom Heckert. Ward was selected by the Browns when Heckert was the team’s general manager.

    The Broncos want more attitude on the defense. Enter Donte Whitner from the 49ers. He is hitting the open market after making $4.9 million in 2013. His price tag could be somewhat hefty as well, but the swagger he would bring to the defense is worth it.

     

    Defensive End

    The Broncos want to strengthen their pass-rush. Adding a player like Michael Bennett would be a huge move for the Broncos. He made $4.8 million last year in Seattle, and now he’s looking for a much richer long-term contract.

    The Broncos could also consider B.J. Raji.

    He hasn’t recorded a sack since Week 12 in 2011 and is an odd fit for Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. Raji has the size to play inside, but he would be an interesting fit at defensive end in Jack Del Rio’s system. He could be added for a lower price on a “prove it” deal.

     

    Outside Linebacker

    The Broncos can add pass-rushers to the roster at the outside linebacker position. They have a need with Von Miller coming back from his Week 16 ACL injury. His status for the season opener is in question at this point.

    O’Brien Schofield has a history of battling through knee injuries. He played a part-time role for the Seahawks in 2013, and his price tag is not going to be enormous. He has good upside as long as he can stay healthy.

     

    Wide Receiver

    If the Broncos let Eric Decker walk in free agency, they will have a need at the wide receiver position. Several veterans on the open market could help.

    Hakeem Nicks could go from one Manning to another. He has long been a favorite target of Eli, and he could easily slide into a similar role catching passes from Peyton.

    Nicks has struggled to stay healthy over the last couple of years, so he could sign for a lower price. If healthy, he could more than adequately replace Decker.

    Like Nicks, Kenny Britt could sign for a lower price on a “prove it” deal. Injuries, attitude and inconsistencies have been problems for him during his entire pro career.

    He’s never played up to his potential, but Britt could flourish with a fresh start. He could especially prosper with a team like the Broncos. They have the veteran leaders in the locker room to keep him in line.

    Putting up big numbers by catching passes from Manning could jump-start his career.

     

    Running Back

    If Knowshon Moreno leaves in free agency, the team would have a hole to fill at the running back position. Montee Ball should get the first crack to win the starting job without Moreno.

    However, the Broncos could add a lower-priced veteran in free agency.

    One of those free agents might be Donald Brown. He has experience working with Manning from their days together with the Colts. He could work as a change-of-pace back alongside Ball. However, he may not want to go to a team where he cannot compete for the starting job.

    Another back the team could look at is Darren McFadden. He’s never played a full 16 games during his pro career, but he would not have to carry the full load in Denver. He is still an explosive player who can score any time he touches the ball.

Predictions

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    The Broncos are going to be more active than some think. Under John Elway, they have not been afraid to spend money if they find a player who is worthy of a high salary.

    We could see Denver make a strong run at Jairus Byrd, but T.J. Ward might be the better value. The Broncos would greatly upgrade their secondary by adding him.

    They could add an extra pass-rusher like O’Brien Schofield or B.J. Raji if the price is right.

    At the wide receiver position, a player like Hakeem Nicks makes sense. We’ve likely seen Eric Decker play his final game in a Broncos uniform.

    Denver should go ahead and keep Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie around in 2014. A majority of the cap space could be spent on the secondary by wrapping up Ward and Rodgers-Cromartie.

    The middle linebacker position could be fixed by the addition of Daryl Smith. The Ravens want to keep him around, but there is no deal imminent per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun

    It will be interesting to see how the Broncos build their blueprint for 2014 when free agency opens on Monday.

     

    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. 

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