The Denver Broncos made a splash in free agency in 2013 by signing slot receiver Wes Welker and right guard Louis Vasquez. They did it again in 2014 by signing strong safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib, pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Winning the offseason didn’t translate into a Super Bowl win, but it did get the Broncos close in 2013. In 2014, the Broncos are betting even more on their offseason acquisitions and hoping to get over the hump.
It’s worth wondering if the Broncos don’t win the Super Bowl if they will spend in free agency in 2015. With contract extensions looming for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris, the Broncos could pull back a little bit. Peyton Manning is only going to get older, so the team should be motivated to use every dollar of cap space this year.
Contrary to popular belief, the Broncos still have weaknesses. No team is complete in March, and the Broncos are no exception. The Broncos can still improve in areas that can have a significant impact on their 2014 season.
The increase in usage of the nickel defenses has rendered a third linebacker less valuable than it was just a few years ago. It doesn’t so much matter which linebacker comes off the field in those situations as long as the two in the game are effective in coverage.
The Broncos have pulled their middle linebacker off the field on passing downs for the better part of two years now. That’s not expected to change in 2014, but that doesn’t mean having a decent middle linebacker is unimportant.
Wesley Woodyard was moved to middle linebacker in 2014, played poorly and was benched late in the season in favor of veteran Paris Lenon. Woodyard signed with the Tennessee Titans, and Lenon is a 36-year-old free agent.
There also isn’t an in-house option to take over the job. Of the other young linebackers on the team, Nate Irving received the most playing time last year, but mostly on the strong side.
According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Irving would be the starter if the season started today, but Denver likes him better at strong-side linebacker. The Broncos were also interested in bringing in three-down middle linebackers like D’Qwell Jackson, Karlos Dansby, Jon Beason, Perry Riley and Daryl Smith.
Now the Broncos are in a bit of a pickle at the position. There aren’t any three-down middle linebackers left on the market, forcing the Broncos to either use Irving in that spot or burn a draft pick on the position.
|Matt Miller's Inside Linebacker Rankings 2/27/2014|
|6||Christian Jones||Florida State||6'3⅛"||240||136||Sr|
If the Broncos do address the position in the draft, there are few appealing options. The Broncos could use their first-round pick to select Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, which would fill their most pressing need. Mosley is the only inside linebacker Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller gave a first- or second-round grade.
The Broncos could also address the position later with Shayne Skov from general manager John Elway’s alma mater Stanford. A player like Skov could be available when the Broncos select at the end of the third round but wouldn’t give the team anything more than a two-down thumper.
It defeats the purpose of drafting a middle linebacker if they can’t play immediately on three downs. Outside of Mosley, there may not be a middle linebacker in the draft who is ready for an every-down role as a rookie.
It made a lot of sense that Elway was trying to address the position in free agency. The best the Broncos can hope for now is to add depth and competition at the position.
Interior Offensive Line
With the departure of left guard Zane Beadles in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Broncos will have to shuffle their offensive line. That shuffle may or may not leave a hole, depending on which players change positions and if the Broncos can bring in a starting-caliber player.
Per Klis, the Broncos tried to sign center Will Montgomery and were interested in center Evan Dietrich-Smith before he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The interest in centers suggests that the team may not be happy with Manny Ramirez in that role, or they believe he’s the best fit to take over at left guard.
The Broncos moved Ramirez to center in 2013. If the Broncos sign a starting center, Ramirez would move back to guard and compete to replace Beadles with current right tackle Orlando Franklin.
Franklin has been the starting right tackle for the Broncos since 2011, when he was drafted in the second round. The Broncos have the luxury of moving Franklin because Chris Clark played so well in relief of left tackle Ryan Clady last season. With Clady’s anticipated return, Clark will flip to the right side.
No matter how the Broncos shuffle the offensive line, someone is losing their job if the Broncos bring in a starting center. Such a move would be great for their depth on the offensive line, which proved to be important last year after Clady tore his ACL.
Ramirez, Franklin and Clark were all superb in 2013. Pro Football Focus (subscription required), gave Ramirez the lowest grade of 14.9, but that was just below Clark’s 16.8 and Franklin’s 19.2.
|Player||Ryan Clady||Chris Clark||Manny Ramirez||Louis Vasquez||Orlando Franklin|
|PFF Grade 2013||-1.0||+16.8||+14.9||+33.6||+19.2|
If there is one thing that can alter the Broncos' path, it’s quick pressure on Manning. An injury to Manning would be even more disastrous. The offensive line must be settled and effective in 2014 for the Broncos to achieve their goal.
The best option is to bring in a starting center. By doing so, the Broncos would create competition at three offensive line spots and they would have good backups at every offensive line position.
With three centers grading out in the Top 100 of Miller’s rankings, the Broncos could opt to use the draft to fill their need. There is never really a great time to draft a center because they aren’t flashy. The Broncos would be wise to draft one now as opposed to when the team is transitioning from Manning to Brock Osweiler for that reason. Colorado State product Weston Richburg fits Denver’s zone-blocking scheme. Marcus Martin and Travis Swanson are also good options. If the Broncos don’t go the draft route for a center, they may decide to bring in a veteran offensive guard to achieve the same goal.
Travelle Wharton was Pro Football Focus’ top offensive guard available in free agency, and he hasn’t signed yet. Wharton is 32 but may give the Broncos just the kind of short-term quality option they want.
Trindon Holliday wore out his welcome in Denver in less than two years despite being a dynamic return man. The small-statured Holliday signed with the New York Giants after returning over 72 percent of the Broncos’ punts and kicks in 2013.
Without Holliday, the Broncos need a new return man. Wes Welker fielded 10 punts last year and no other player fielded more than one. One of them was Eric Decker, who is no longer on the team. The Broncos shouldn’t put any more of the punt return load on Welker, prompting the need for a better option.
The Broncos have a similar problem with their options to return kicks. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell and Omar Bolden are the only players besides Holliday who returned a kick last season, if you don’t include onside attempts. Caldwell had just six returns and Bolden just two.
Bolden did have the kick return job in 2012 before Holliday’s arrival but wasn’t ineffective in the role. The Broncos should at least consider bringing in another option.
Recently signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders returned 10 kicks last season, but it would be understandable if the team doesn’t want to subject him to injury on kickoff returns. Sanders returned nine punts in 2012, but he hasn’t been a regular return man in any capacity since 2010—his rookie year.
The ideal addition would be veteran return man Devin Hester. Although Hester is on the decline, he’s still effective. Hester’s price will also be affordable because he’s 31.
|Hester vs. Holliday|
|Player||Kick Returns||Kick Return Avg.||Punt Returns||Punt Return Avg.||TD||Fumble Rate||Career Fumble Rate|
In 2013, Hester’s average kick return was just 0.1 shorter than Holliday’s average return. Hester’s average punt return was 14.2 yards, third in the league and almost six yards longer than Holliday’s average return.
Hester sometimes puts the ball on the ground, but at a rate of 4.6 percent of his total touches compared to 8.3 percent for Holliday. That’s roughly half the number of expected fumbles from Hester as Holliday over the course of a season.
The Broncos should entertain drafting a player with value in the return game, but they don’t have to take a lesser player just because he has added return value. Hester is a good option if the Broncos don’t find the right young player in the draft.
Free-agent running back Knowshon Moreno isn’t getting much interest in free agency, and a door could be open for a return to the Broncos for the right price. The Broncos' plan was to move on to Montee Ball in 2014, but they still need a quality No. 2 option in case he falls on his face.
The Broncos are light on experience at the position with only Ball, C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman and Jerodis Williams on the roster. Moreno wouldn’t have to learn a new offense, which makes things easier on the coaches.
|2014 Running Backs Career Statistics|
Ball would still have the best shot to win the starting job, but considering his ball-security issues, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep Moreno around. The Broncos will want to avoid drafting a running back for the third consecutive year.
If the Broncos want to bring in another running back with experience running the zone-blocking scheme, they could consider Justin Forsett. It’s not a good sign for Forsett that the Jacksonville Jaguars released him when they don’t have a starter at running back.
Whatever the Broncos do, they would be wise to hedge their bets on Ball. The Broncos don’t want to get into a situation where they need a running back in the middle of the season and quality options are scarce.
The Broncos’ list of needs speaks volumes of the quality of the roster, but that doesn’t minimize the fact that they need to upgrade in a few more areas. The Broncos may decide to address some or all their remaining weaknesses in the draft, but they could just find some replacements in free agency.
Elway has so far done a masterful job putting a great team around Manning, but the expectations couldn’t be higher. If Elway doesn’t address the above needs, there will still be some room for criticism if the Broncos fall short yet again.