What We've Learned About the Denver Broncos at the Start of Free Agency
General manager John Elway went for the players he wanted right from the word “go.” He’s made big moves in the past, like adding Peyton Manning and Wes Welker (among others), and this year was no different.
Elway has a vision for what he wants this team to be. He’s stayed true to that vision, and he hasn’t gotten desperate throughout the process. He knows the players he wants and the price he’s willing to pay to acquire them. This mindset gives Denver all the leverage it needs in negotiations.
This has been another whirlwind free-agency period for the Denver Broncos, and they aren’t done yet.
What have we learned here in the early stages of free agency? Let’s take a look.
Defense Wins Championships
The Broncos already have the league’s most dangerous offense led by Peyton Manning. The team immediately began to look at ways to upgrade the defense when free agency opened up.
The first signing on the defensive side of the ball was safety T.J. Ward. The Broncos signed him to a four-year, $23 million contract with $14 million guaranteed. He will give them an intimidating presence in the back half of the defense.
The next signing on defense was cornerback Aqib Talib. They handed him a six-year, $57 million contract with $26 million guaranteed. Talib takes over for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the starting lineup, and he’ll reunite with college teammate Chris Harris Jr. in the defensive backfield.
Arguably the biggest splash in free agency was felt when they signed defensive end DeMarcus Ware. He’s been one of the best pass-rushers in recent NFL history and should wreak havoc opposite Von Miller. Ware signed a three-year, $30 million contract with $20 million guaranteed.
They'll Spend Money but Won't Overpay
Many fans have been taken aback by the dollar amounts in the contracts handed out to Ward, Talib and Ware. The Broncos certainly paid a fair price, but they have set themselves up for a two-year window to win at least one Super Bowl.
However, they did not overpay.
At $23 million, Ward’s total dollar amount is less than half of the $54 million that safety Jairus Byrd received from the New Orleans Saints. Before the start of free agency, Ward and Byrd were considered the top two safeties available. In terms of total dollar amounts, Ward’s deal ranks fourth for all safeties who have been signed in free agency so far.
Talib’s deal has drawn some criticism due to the guaranteed money and the veteran corner’s injury history and off-field incidents. When looking closely at the deal, it shows the Broncos have protected themselves in their hefty investment.
Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports the Broncos have an out in the contract. If Talib doesn’t work out in 2014, the contract could essentially turn into a one-year, $12 million deal. His salary in both 2015 and 2016 are guaranteed for "injury only." Barring a career-ending injury, the Broncos have given themselves an option to move on next offseason.
Like Talib’s deal, the contract (and guaranteed money) for Ware has come under scrutiny as well. Looking over the total dollar amounts for defensive ends signed so far in free agency, he ranks fourth with his $30 million total. With $20 million of that guaranteed, it’s basically a two-year deal for $10 million annually.
That price is fair for what he could potentially bring to the team. His 2013 season saw him nab a career-low six sacks, but that was because he was playing through a painful elbow injury. Ware had offseason surgery on the elbow and should be 100 percent healthy to start this season. The Broncos added an impact player for a premium (but not over-the-top) price.
The Broncos looked into keeping Rodgers-Cromartie, but he didn’t jump at the chance to stay with the team. Denver also was interested in Jared Allen but chose to sign Ware instead. Elway is willing to spend money, but he’s not going to overpay when better value (and better talent) is available.
Known as a salary-cap guru, director of football administration Mike Sullivan has worked his magic again.
Andre Caldwell Is Important to the Team
With all the big splashes coming on the defensive side of the ball, the contract handed out to wide receiver Andre “Bubba” Caldwell hasn’t gotten much publicity.
The Broncos decided to keep the veteran receiver around for a good price. He signed a two-year contract for an undisclosed amount. Pro Football Talk has reported the deal is worth a maximum of $3.45 million total.
WR Andre Caldwell agrees to stay with the Broncos, per league source. Two years, with a max value of $3.45 million.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 11, 2014
After signing, he expressed relief and shared why he stayed with the Broncos.
“I just felt this was the best situation for me and my family coming into a system that I know. I felt like I made the most of my opportunities when they gave me a chance to play. I think I made the most out of the limited time I had last year. Hopefully I can compete for an extended role this year and contribute a lot more to the team.”
It was important for the Broncos to keep Caldwell around, especially since bringing back Eric Decker was unlikely to happen. Caldwell filled in for an injured Wes Welker last year and flashed the ability to make plays with his speed and concentration on downfield routes.
With Decker gone to the Jets, Caldwell will get a chance to compete for more playing time in 2014.
Letting Zane Beadles Walk Could Sting
Losing Zane Beadles is going to sting. We'll see him in a Jacksonville Jaguars uniform this year.
He has improved every year during his time with the Broncos. He plays with strength and attitude at the left guard position. He has good chemistry with center Manny Ramirez and greatly helped left tackle Chris Clark when he took over for an injured Ryan Clady after Week 2.
The Broncos could decide to move Orlando Franklin to left guard this year. They would then move Clark to right tackle.
They’ve tried this before for a small handful of days in camp, and the results were not good. Franklin’s feet are too slow to keep up with edge-rushers on the right side. This prevents him from being able to pull and adjust to stunting blitzers as a guard.
Another option is to draft a center and kick Ramirez to his more natural position of guard. That may happen, but chemistry would have to be re-established no matter what because of Beadles’ departure.
Team Needs Are Starting to Come into Focus
With the additions of a safety, pass-rusher, cornerback and wide receiver, some positions that were previously question marks have been answered. Whether it is via free agency or the draft, the positions of need are starting to show up.
- The Broncos still need another wide receiver. The 2014 NFL draft is chock full of wide receiver talent. That’s probably the direction they go, perhaps with a first- or second-round pick.
- Denver still needs to add a running back. Knowshon Moreno is likely to move on at some point in free agency, although the market for backs is soft this offseason. That means the Broncos are likely to draft a young running back. With the depth of this class, they could wait until Day 3 of the draft to add a back for depth behind Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson.
- Middle linebacker is still a glaring need for the Broncos. They haven’t had an impact linebacker in the middle since the days “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson was patrolling the field. The free-agent market dried up a bit when Daryl Smith decided to stay with the Ravens. Another former Patriots player, Brandon Spikes, could be an option. They could also draft someone like Chris Borland or Shayne Skov in the middle rounds of the 2014 NFL draft.
- You can never have too many pass-rushers. The Broncos made a huge splash with Ware, but that doesn’t mean they’re done. Adding more talent at defensive end or outside linebacker is not out of the question. Perhaps a guy like Dee Ford (Auburn) would be their pick in the first round of the draft.
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.