The Denver Broncos are built to win the Super Bowl this year, but John Elway is not building this team just for the present. He is building this team to win "from now on". That is clear by how high he, and the coaching staff, value draft picks. But it also shows how they approach free agency in the off-season.
The Broncos have had to make some tough cap decisions, since Peyton Manning came to Denver. Some of the cap casualties include Champ Bailey and Elvis Dumervil. They were shown the door, in one way or another, because they were harming Elway’s vision of this team.
Obviously, the Broncos have made some huge signings in free agency under Elway and Fox. They've signed players like DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton, Louis Vasquez and, of course, Manning.
After the 2014-2015 season, the Broncos will be faced with having 20 players hit the free agent market. With that being the case, it's time to take a look at those players and which ones the Broncos should re-sign.
It needs to be understood that the Broncos currently sit with $108M on the cap for 2015, so using the current cap of $135M, the Broncos have just over $25M to spend. However, every year the cap rises and with the new Direct TV deal, it is being estimated the cap will raise to over $150 million.
That would put the Broncos 2015 cap room to over $40M. They managed to sign Ware, Ward, Talib, Sanders, Montgomery and their rookies with roughly $35 million in cap space. The Broncos know how to structure contracts to make them work.
Thomas is a key player who the Broncos must be willing to open their wallets to retain. The free agent wide receiver market is set to be a strong one, with players like Michael Crabtree, Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, and Reggie Wayne, all among those who will be unrestricted.
The team needs to get a deal done with Thomas before free agency starts, or hit him with the franchise tag, to give Elway extended time to negotiate. The Broncos and Thomas were negotiating on a new contract before the regular season started, but negotiations were brought to a halt to focus on the season. Thomas is team's top free agent priority.
CB Chris Harris
Harris is having a career year. He currently sits as the top cornerback in the NFL, statistically. He should be the Broncos second highest priority in free agency. Keeping him paired with Talib would be beneficial to the Broncos, especially with rookie Bradley Roby growing into a bona fide NFL corner. Unfortunately, that also makes Harris more expendable.
Roby was a 1st round pick and is loaded with talent. The Broncos also have former 3rd round pick, Kayvon Webster. Having two young cornerbacks, the Broncos look like they can afford to let Harris walk. But, that is not entirely accurate. Harris is playing at such a high level and has been a cornerstone in this Broncos defense for years. That makes him indispensable and the second highest free agent priority for the Broncos.
The other day, I took a small survey on Twitter with Broncos fans, asking the question, with Julius Thomas, Chris Harris and Demaryius Thomas, if you could only retain two, which players would it be? Somewhat surprisingly, not one answer included Julius Thomas. Even if that's how the fans see it, hat does not mean he isn’t a priority for the Broncos, by any means.
Thomas is a great receiving tight end who has struggled in the blocking game. He is far from a complete tight end, yet he reportedly turned down a contract offer of roughly $8.5M per year. That seems unwise.
When a team is planning on dishing out that kind of money, you want that player to be at least solid in all aspects, which Thomas is not. Remember those blocking issues? This is where those come into play.
As a great receiving tight end, Thomas deserves a good contract, but not a great one. He should be the Broncos third priority, as tight ends are pretty easy to find or replace, but from the reports coming out of Dove Valley, Thomas seems to be the #2 priority. If the Broncos are unable to get a deal done with Julius, but get one with Demaryius, then look for the Broncos to franchise tag Julius. It could also happen the other way around.
DT Terrance Knighton
The big man upfront signed a two-year deal with the Broncos before the 2013 season, which he has outperformed. After the Super Bowl, he pushed for a new contract from the Broncos, which he obviously never received. Knighton has had a pretty successful 2014 season so far, and is deserving of a good sized contract, even if it isn’t from the Broncos.
There are two key factors to think about in re-signing Knighton. First, is the weakness of the defensive tackle market. Outside of one or two players, there is no solid option to replace Knighton in the middle of the Broncos defensive line. The second factor is the Broncos drafting of Sylvester Williams and the slowly emerging Marvin Austin, who was signed this past spring.
Both young tackles look like they could be solid starters, but neither perform at the consistently high level that Knighton does. Knighton should be brought back, but he is not one the Broncos need to break the bank for.
The big man has had a solid year, after being moved from right tackle to left guard. But his year has not been great and it started out rough. Helping his case for a new deal is a weak left guard free agent group.
The Broncos need to retain Franklin, unless he has a major drop-off as the season progresses. Being a left guard, he isn’t looking at receiving a big contract by NFL standards, but for the position, he could be in line for a big pay raise. While he isn’t a high priority, the Broncos cannot wait long. With the weak free agent group, a team can come in and attempt to scoop Franklin right away.
FS Rahim Moore
The young safety has been up and down this season. Moore started off strong, but has faltered the last few weeks. That sums up his performances since being drafted. However, Moore is one of the stronger players in a rather weak safety free agent group. Being young and filled with potential, makes Moore a player the Broncos need to bring back.
TE Virgil Green
Green is an athletic freak. He can do it all, though his receiving and running has been used sparingly. His complete skill-set makes him a player the Broncos need to bring back. Even without prolific receiving stats, Green’s blocking ability gives plenty of reason to keep him around.
MLB Nate Irving
Irving finally cracked the starting lineup, without help from injury or suspension. He has proven to be a valuable two-down middle linebacker, but has been inconsistent at best in coverage.
The Broncos could look to keep him around simply for the strength of his run defense. Also, with the Broncos struggles to find a stable force at middle linebacker, it could push them into re-signing Irving. He should not be a high priority for the Broncos. They should wait on Irving, until after they make some other moves first.
TE Jacob Tamme
Tamme is a consistent player. He will go out and do what is needed every week. With the Broncos, his role has been limited since the emergence of Julius Thomas. The Broncos re-signing Tamme will likely depend on if they are able to retain Thomas.
If they keep Thomas, they may try to keep Tamme, but he could look for a starting role elsewhere, which he is very deserving of. If they are unable to retain Thomas, then it should be expected to see Tamme back in a Broncos uniform, unless he chooses to go elsewhere.
DT Mitch Unrein
Unrein has managed to stick around on the Broncos roster for a few years, mainly because he was an ERFA (exclusive rights free agent) and a RFA (restricted free agent) and has been a cheap depth option. He has played very little this season, having been inactive for a majority of the games. He very likely will return to the Broncos on a cheap contract, even if it is just through training camp.
C/G Will Montgomery
The combo center/guard has been sitting behind Manuel Ramirez as the backup combo-interior offensive lineman. After the season, it looks unlikely that he will return to the Broncos.
Currently, the team has a combo-interior lineman on their practice squad, with Matt Paradis. In limited action, he had a better preseason than Montgomery. He is young and still learning, however. Depending on how Paradis develops, the Broncos could bring in another interior lineman to compete for the backup spot, if not a starter spot. Still, it doesn’t look good for Montgomery to return, as he may look for a better shot elsewhere.
CB Tony Carter
Carter is a restricted free agent. Meaning, the Broncos can put a tender on him, a first, second or original round tender. So, whatever tender the Broncos place on him means that if another team signs him, they have to give up the corresponding pick.
Being an undrafted player, if he gets an original round tender from another team, the Broncos would not get a draft pick in return. The Broncos value Carter, despite his low position on the totem pole. His return next season is up in the air, as another team may look to sign him. But, also with the restricted status, the Broncos have a chance to match. It all depends on how big an offer another team makes Carter.
After being drafted in 2011, Carter has had a rough career. He had a great rookie campaign, where he usurped fellow rookie, Rahim Moore, as the starter. Then he got hurt and missed a year. It looked like he'd bounce back in his third year, but then he got hurt again and missed his second straight season.
He is now healthy, but is having an up and down season in limited action. However, he was a draft pick by Elway and John Fox, which makes it likely he will return next year. Like Moore, the weak free agent safety group helps his case to stay as well.
Marshall has been excellent thus far, so it is likely the Broncos will find a way to retain him. However, Marshall is an ERFA. Meaning, the Broncos can sign him to a 1-year minimum deal and he has to take it. There is no doubt Marshall will be wearing 54 in the orange and blue next year.
LS Aaron Brewer
Long snappers are an underrated position on a football team. The Broncos have found a good one in the undrafted Brewer. Long snappers are not in high demand around the NFL, as they are pretty easy to find. One should fully expect the RFA Brewer to return to the Broncos next season.
The former undrafted linebacker has become one of the better special teams players for the Broncos, but has not been able to crack a role on the defense. He is a RFA that will either go un-tendered or as an original round tender by the Broncos. Either way, it is safe to think he will be back with the Broncos, even if it is just through training camp and preseason.
DE John Youboty
Youboty has been injured for the Broncos, but they seem to like what little they have seen, as they keep him around on injured reserve. He is an ERFA, so don’t be surprised if the Broncos keep him around, even if it is just through training camp and preseason.
Garland started off as a defensive linemen for the Broncos. They eventually moved him to offense, where he has done better. He is a young player that is still growing. As an ERFA, Garland will be back with the Broncos next year.
RT Paul Cornick
Yet another ERFA for the Broncos. Cornick has been given the starting right tackle spot and has performed well in two games. He started out rough, but then bounced back with a great second game as a starter.
He will be back with the Broncos next year to solidify the position. Rookie, Michael Schofield, could also take a big step forward and earn the starting spot. It also could be handed back to Chris Clark, who began the season as the starting right tackle.
Obviously, the Broncos have their work cut out for them cap-wise. Most of these players will likely be back in a Broncos uniform. However, the team has to get their priorities straight.
There are some key players on the above list. Fortunately, the Broncos have some time between the end of this season (whenever that may be) and the start of free agency, to work out new deals. They also have enough money to keep three of their big four.
The question is, will they spend that money on these known commodities, or look for a potentially cheaper free agent replacement? We'll know soon enough. There is no doubt that the Broncos have a lot on their plate this upcoming off-season. But with the moves John Elway and those around him have made, there is no reason for Broncos fans to doubt the direction of this team.
Remember, the Broncos are building to win......from now on.