5 Players the Denver Broncos Should Still Target on the Free-Agent Market
It's safe to say that the Denver Broncos took the free-agent market by storm this year, targeting the players that they wanted early and throwing down the cash to make it happen. The most notable acquisitions up front were Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward. They followed up that defensive overhaul shortly afterward by adding Emmanuel Sanders on the offensive side of the ball, replacing Eric Decker.
However, no team is ever really complete. There are always moves that can be made and upgrades that could change the dynamic and provide new options. For every position of strength and depth, there is another position that is thin and weak.
Opposing teams identify these positions and target them when possible. Against a weak defensive backfield, the game plan will be to throw the ball and test those players, for instance, avoiding a strong defensive line that is able to shut down the run. In this way, a good game plan can neutralize some of the best players on the other side and make the team as ineffective as its worst player.
No one knows this better than Peyton Manning. He does it on a weekly basis.
To avoid this, teams must have as much talent across the field as possible. Denver has made key upgrades and the team will look much different—defensively, at least—in 2014. However, there are still steps that can be taken to improve the team so it is less vulnerable, especially in the playoffs, when injuries make such a difference.
While the money situation will not make all of these signings easy, there are some excellent free agents that the Broncos should still target if they can make the cap space work out. With a team poised for a Super Bowl run, that's often easier since players will be a bit more flexible if they can play for a winner.
At this point, though, need is the most important factor, even when looking at depth. These players are ranked by how well they would fit a need with Denver, and not necessarily by their own raw talent.
Corner: Asante Samuel
I know, the Asante Samuel the Broncos would get today is not the Asante Samuel who was once a lock-down corner in the NFL, a guy who quarterbacks refused to look at. He's not getting younger, and speed and athleticism—two things that decline rapidly with age—are huge if you don't want to get burned on the outside. On top of that, there's a higher injury risk than there once was.
The Broncos recently parted ways with fan-favorite Champ Bailey for some of these same reasons. Champ was aging and just seemed a step slower than he used to be. He was also set to be paid more than the team felt it was worth considering he'd been hurt all year.
Still, they need some depth at corner, and Samuel could be the perfect fit if the price is right. He was going to make $3.5 million for the Falcons when they cut him, but that doesn't mean he has to get the same money in Denver. If he's willing to come in for a low cap number, he brings experience, talent and the ability to step right in and play.
It's that last quality that may be most helpful. Bradley Roby, Denver's first draft choice, looks like he has the tools to dominate, but that's not something rookie corners usually do. It takes a few years to adjust. Aqib Talib has an injury-filled history, but he should be good to go to start the year.
Possibly the best corner on the team, Chris Harris, may not be ready to play, though. He's been rehabbing a torn ACL, and, while things look good, that's a pretty serious injury.
If Harris can't come back for the first week and Roby isn't where he needs to be to start, Samuel would be able to fill in beautifully until he can come back. If Talib goes down at any point after Harris returned, Samuel could step up again.
You don't want to take too many snaps away from Roby, who needs to play to develop, but you also have to remember that he may not be an every-down starter already, despite the high draft position. Samuel would provide excellent depth, and he could play wherever Denver needs him throughout the year.
Running Back: Alfonso Smith
After going undrafted in 2010, Alfonso Smith worked hard to stay with the Arizona Cardinals, even though he was never a feature back. This chip on his shoulder and dedication to doing what it takes and working hard every day could be excellent in Denver, as well as his knowledge that he's not meant to be the starter. He wouldn't be in Denver, either, with Montee Ball ready to take on that role.
After letting Knowshon Moreno go—in a move that's looking better and better every day, seeing as how Moreno is apparently well back in the depth chart in Miami—the Broncos could use more depth at running back. It's clear that Ball will carry the load, and he looks like he'll be a beast. Still, the depth on the team is a bit in question, so bringing in more talent wouldn't hurt. The other two backs—Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson—haven't done enough yet to show how solid they'll be if Ball goes down.
However, what really looks best about Smith is his pass protection ability. Reports indicate that he was so impressive with protection in camp that the Cardinals kept him on the team mostly to use him when they needed pass protection on third down. His actual carry numbers were almost non-existent, but he still had value.
That's a large part of the reason Denver kept Moreno last year. He knew the system and could block for Peyton Manning. Keeping Manning from getting hit is probably more of a priority than getting yards on the ground anyway.
That's not to say that Ball can't block. It's just that having someone who excels at it could be very nice if you end up in third-and-forever and you have to make sure that Manning has time to find Demaryius Thomas streaking down the sideline.
Guard: Travelle Wharton
Denver has made some moves to shore up an offensive line that played pretty well last year and then got manhandled when it counted. Ryan Clady will be coming back, and they drafted Michael Schofield out of Michigan with the idea that he can play all over the line, not just at tackle, as needed.
However, they did lose Zane Beadles to Jacksonville, and they moved Orlando Franklin to guard. That's probably going to be a good move, allowing Clady to stay at tackle and putting a big, experienced player into the guard spot. However, transitions in the real world don't always go as well as they seem like they should go on paper.
Just in case—or in case there is another injury—it might not be a bad idea to look at Travelle Wharton. He's a long-time vet at this point, having been drafted in 2004. Still, he was recently ranked by Pro Football Focus as a top-five guard, and he's still not getting much attention. He's even thinking about retirement.
That means that Denver could bring in an incredibly solid backup for what would probably amount to almost nothing. This guy was drafted by Carolina when John Fox was there. It'd be something of poetic justice if Fox could bring him in for a season in Denver to add depth and leadership, and to give him one more shot at a Super Bowl run.
Tackle: Eric Winston
Picking up Winston would be similar to picking up Wharton, as he is another long-time vet. He said that it did not look like the Cardinals were eager to bring him back, and he was talking about trying to get on another team back before the draft. That didn't happen, which could help when looking at how much it would cost to get him.
The thing about Winston is that he certainly wouldn't need to start. If that's what he wants, it's hard to imagine that he'd pick Denver. He'd be a backup for the Broncos, adding depth on the offensive line.
What really stands out about Winston, though, is that he started 119 games in a row. Denver had a fair amount of injuries—that's putting it lightly—last season. Having an ironman who never gets hurt on the team would be perfect for depth. If 2014 goes like last year, they're going to need a guy they can count on to step in and start.
Winston has done a lot of that in his career. In fact, he only played in 124 games, with those 119 starts. Since he was able to get on the field, he never left. He'd be ready and eager when Denver needed him to play.
Defensive Tackle: Ryan Pickett
This would be a bit of a gamble since Pickett is going into a 14th season. He certainly wouldn't be a long-term solution, but he could give the Broncos some depth—sensing a theme with what this team needs most?—for the next season. He has said that he wants to come back and play for at least one more year.
A possible wrench could be the fact that Green Bay actually seems a bit interested in just bringing him in again, though he would be used on a more limited basis. Odds are that he'd want to stay there, especially if he only commands a minimum salary, but you never know.
He's a big-bodied player who could nicely complement Terrance Knighton in stuffing the run, especially with all of the outside pressure that Denver brings. Sylvester Williams has been improving and should play a lot, but rotating guys through is always good.
What's more, since Kevin Vickerson hurt his hip last season and had to end his year early, it's hard to know how he'll come back from that. If he can't step back up into his old role, having Pickett there to take over would be excellent.
Most of all, though, Pickett would be a defense against future injuries, offering leadership, experience and a way to keep the line solid even if someone does go down.