Denver Broncos' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
The Denver Broncos have added quality talent so far this offseason in free agency. Their moves have given clues as to what positions they felt were the most important to address.
By adding strong safety T.J. Ward to the secondary, it sends the message that they want more toughness on defense. He is an intimidating force who can crush opponents. This move makes third-year pro Duke Ihenacho a reserve player who can continue to develop behind Ward.
The move to acquire cornerback Aqib Talib came down to price. The Broncos didn’t want to overpay last year’s top corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and they quickly moved to add Talib off the open market. His presence gives the team a true shutdown corner—and more toughness on defense.
Bringing in future Hall of Fame pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware was a master stroke by general manager John Elway. Ware is an upgrade over Shaun Phillips, last year’s leader in sacks. Moving on from Dallas, the veteran Ware will now play with a chip on his shoulder to prove he’s still near the top of his game. He makes the defense more dangerous—and tougher.
Sense a theme here?
The Broncos weren’t limited to making moves on the defensive side of the ball. Their final big move in free agency was to add wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
In addition to adding free agents from other teams, the Broncos also kept a couple of their own free agents.
Wide receiver Andre “Bubba” Caldwell returns to compete for a spot on the depth chart. Offensive tackle Winston Justice was recently re-signed in order to give the team more depth at the tackle position.
With all these moves, the Broncos are looking stronger in 2014. However, they are far from finished. During the rest of the offseason, they’ll continue shaping and molding the roster that they hope will get them back to the Super Bowl.
Here’s a look at the top remaining offseason priorities for the Broncos.
The Broncos wanted to address this position in free agency but failed to do so. Missing out on guys like Daryl Smith (Ravens) and D’Qwell Jackson (Colts) stings, as both could have been excellent fits in the Jack Del Rio system.
Per Mike Klis of The Denver Post, the Broncos are going to let Nate Irving compete with Steven Johnson for the middle linebacker job in training camp. Irving has played well as a reserve strong-side linebacker, but he has not made the same amount of plays inside. Johnson has been a good special teamer, but his true value in the middle is unknown.
The draft could be the place where the Broncos add more competition at middle linebacker.
It seems unlikely at this time, but if C.J. Mosley (Alabama) falls to the Broncos in the draft, they might acquire him with the 31st overall pick. He is arguably the only middle linebacker prospect in this draft class that can be a three-down player. He’s not quite Luke Kuechly (Panthers) or Patrick Willis (49ers), but Mosley is regarded as the top inside linebacker coming into the NFL this year.
In the second round of the draft, Chris Borland (Wisconsin) is an option for the Broncos. He’s limited athletically and is best served as a two-down thumper. He makes up for his size/athleticism restraints by playing with incredible instincts. He’s smart, knows where plays are going and can scrape down the line to the ball-carrier.
A third-round prospect that the Broncos could consider is Shayne Skov (Stanford). Like Borland, he’s a two-down inside linebacker who could struggle in coverage at the pro level. He is an aggressive player who loves to create contact. Adding him would continue the offseason theme on defense—toughness.
Even the late rounds of the draft could yield potential inside linebackers. Guys like Max Bullough (Michigan State), Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky) and DeDe Lattimore (South Florida) could draw interest from Denver.
Even if Irving impresses in camp and wins the job, the Broncos will still add talent (and more competition) at the position.
He entered the league in 2006 with John Fox’s Carolina Panthers. He’s bounced around the league a bit since his debut with the Panthers, but he certainly found a home with Washington.
During his career, he has started 46 games at center, 10 at right guard and seven at left guard. He opened every possible game for Washington during the last three seasons, competing at center in all but two of those contests. In those 49 total games, he participated in 3,387 of 3,393 (99.8 percent) possible snaps on offense.
Per Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Montgomery will compete with Manny Ramirez for the starting center job in camp. If Montgomery wins the job, Ramirez could go back to his more natural position of guard.
This move would prevent the Broncos from moving right tackle Orlando Franklin inside to guard. This move had been speculated, but apparently didn’t sit well with the veteran right tackle. Over the weekend, Franklin seemed frustrated on Twitter: "They say it's business, never personal. OK well I'm pissed and it just became personal. I'm betting on me, 2014 will be a great year for me."
The tweet was later deleted from his Twitter account.
With Montgomery in the fold, the Broncos may have changed their draft strategy. Colorado State center Weston Richburg could still be a nice fit at the center position if the team wants a young player who could develop into a long-term starter. Richburg’s draft stock is currently somewhere around the second round. That may be too rich of a price to pay for the Broncos.
With Winston Justice, Chris Clark and Vinston Painter competing for depth at the tackle position, the Broncos may look inside in the draft. Since Montgomery was added, they may look for late-round developmental players.
A guard like Trai Turner (LSU), Kadeem Edwards (Tennessee State) or Ryan Groy (Wisconsin) could wind up in Denver. The Montgomery move was a good one for Denver, but it doesn’t mean the team will shy away from adding another interior lineman in the draft.
One of the best moves the Broncos made in free agency was to add veteran cornerback Aqib Talib. He’s set to start opposite Chris Harris Jr. this season, and Talib gives them a shutdown corner who can cover and tackle.
However, there are some depth concerns at the cornerback position. These concerns are further accentuated when considering the injury issues both Talib and Harris may deal with.
Talib has never played a full season during his six-year pro career. Yes, this could be the season that changes—but the Broncos can’t bet on that. Various injuries (hip, quad, etc.) have slowed him down during his pro career. The Broncos need insurance in case the injury bug bites him again.
Harris has been an outstanding find for the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He is coming off a partially torn ACL he suffered in the playoff game against the Chargers earlier this year.
Per Stuart Zaas of DenverBroncos.com, Harris feels good about his recovery.
“It’s coming along great,” he said of the rehab. “Just taking it day-by-day and following the instructions of the trainers. I’m feeling fine, I’m feeling great. I think I should be ready by the season.”
At this time, his status for the start of training camp is up in the air. He could begin camp on the PUP list with an eye on being ready for the season opener in Week 1.
Going for added cornerback depth could be the team’s intent early in the draft. In fact, there should be a few quality options for the Broncos when they pick at 31st overall.
Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) may be available when the Broncos are first on the clock. He’s a big, physical corner with the ability to jam and re-route receivers at the line of scrimmage. His technique as a cover corner needs to be revised as he can get beaten by taking unnecessary risks.
Jason Verrett (TCU) is another player the Broncos could be targeting in the first round. He’s not a big corner, measuring in at 5’10”, 189 pounds, but he makes up for his lack of size with a tenacious attitude on the field. He’s best at playing off his receiver as he has incredibly fast click-and-close ability. He will also put up a tremendous fight at the point of the catch.
Another first-round target for the Broncos could be Bradley Roby (Ohio State). Like Verrett, Roby can fly to the football. He ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, per NFL.com, and that may have locked him in as a first-round pick. With his speed and nose for the ball, he has shutdown corner upside.
Cornerbacks who will be available later in the draft that might intrigue the Broncos include guys like Pierre Desir (Lindenwood), Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska), Chris Davis (Auburn) and Antone Exum (Virginia Tech).
With Talib’s injury history and Harris coming off a knee injury, the Broncos would be wise to add another starting-caliber corner early in the draft. Any player they add will initially compete with second-year player Kayvon Webster to be the team’s nickel corner.
Running Back Depth
It looks like we’ll see Montee Ball as the featured back for the team in 2014. With Knowson Moreno moving on in free agency to the Miami Dolphins, the Broncos have an open spot on the depth chart at running back. They’ll look to fill that spot later this offseason.
C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman give the Broncos a varied mix of backup runners behind Ball. Anderson is the team’s only true power back, while Hillman is the change-of-pace/speed back—and likely the fastest player on the team.
So what kind of back are the Broncos looking for?
The 2014 NFL draft is full of specialty backs. At various points in the draft, power backs, speed backs and a small handful of all-purpose backs will be available.
If the Broncos want another power back, then Jeremy Hill (LSU) could be an option for them in the second round. He’s a punishing runner with enough speed to get to the edge at the second level of the defense.
Later in the draft (likely to be third-day picks), two-down thumpers like James Wilder Jr. (Florida State) and Tyler Gaffney (Stanford) will be available. Both are strong runners between the tackles, but neither can be trusted as a consistent receiver out of the backfield.
If the Broncos want another change-of-pace back, then James White (Wisconsin) could be a nice fit. He was a college teammate of Ball, and he’s an efficient runner who wastes little motion out of the backfield. Going with a double-Badgers backfield would be an interesting move by Denver.
Other mid- to late-round speed backs to consider include De’Anthony Thomas (Oregon), Kapri Bibbs (Colorado State) and Tim Flanders (Sam Houston State). Thomas is small at 5’9”, 175 pounds, but he can fly down the field and also contribute as a return man. Bibbs has a nose for the end zone and could work well as a complementary back. Versatility is an asset that Broncos head coach John Fox covets, and Flanders can play running back or fullback.
If the Broncos want to add another all-purpose back, then guys like Charles Sims (West Virginia) and Isaiah Crowell (Alabama State, Georgia transfer) could be on their radar. Sims is a good runner between the tackles with enough speed to get to the second level quickly. Crowell is arguably the most naturally talented runner in this class. His instincts, power and vision could make him a solid pro.
Denver lists 2013 undrafted free agent (Vikings) Jerodis Williams (Furman) as its fourth-string running back. He is more of a speed back who will compete for a roster spot in 2014. It’s clear that he is likely to face competition from a rookie in camp.
Adding a future Hall of Fame pass-rusher like DeMarcus Ware this offseason was a brilliant move by the Broncos. He gives the Broncos an elite-level pass-rusher opposite Von Miller. There is no doubt opponents will be under duress quite a bit in 2014.
However, there is some doubt about the pass-rushers on the roster.
Ware should be able to bounce back after a six-sack season in 2013. He dealt with a painful elbow injury most of the year but should regain his pre-injury form this season.
Miller suffered a torn ACL in the Week 16 game against the Houston Texans last year. His status for the start of training camp is unknown at this time. With a full recovery time around 12 months, we may not see him look like his old self until at least the midway point of the 2014 season.
Third-year defensive end Derek Wolfe is coming back from a scary injury. He was lost for the rest of the season in November after he suffered seizure-like symptoms due to a preseason spinal injury. He has upside as a pass-rusher, but no one knows how quickly he’ll return to form this year.
The Broncos have yet to see what 2013 fifth-round pick Quanterus Smith can do as an outside linebacker at the pro level. He was leading the NCAA in sacks back in 2012, but a knee injury ended his final season at Western Kentucky with three games to go.
That same knee injury prevented him from making the active roster in 2013 for the Broncos. Instead, the team decided to give him more time to heal and put him on the injured reserve list. Entering 2014, Smith is a great unknown. He could give be a nice part-time pass-rusher if he can regain his speed and quickness after more than a year of recovery time.
All of these question marks mean Denver could be looking for pass-rushing help in the draft.
Early indications seem to point to the Broncos waiting until the mid-rounds to select another pass-rusher. With other needs defensively, we could see them address cornerback and middle linebacker before they get to add more edge players.
Defensive end/outside linebacker Marcus Smith (Louisville) could be a target for the Broncos in the third round of the draft. The converted quarterback can bend around the edge quickly to plant and explode to the passer. He’s incredibly athletic, and that helps him when asked to drop into coverage. He is a raw prospect who needs to add more moves to his repertoire, but his upside makes him an intriguing player to watch.
Later in the draft, players like defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe (Colorado), outside linebacker Denicos Allen (Michigan State) and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (Colorado State) could be targeted by the Broncos.
If they’re all healthy, the Broncos already have a fantastic group of pass-rushers on the roster. Denver may want to add more prospects to develop just in case injuries pop up at the position.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. Draft grades provided by NFLDraftScout.com. Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.