To finish up the off-season free agent strategy, we will take a look at the free agent defensive fits for Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense. Just a season ago, John Elway brought a trio of defenders to Denver in a free agent spending spree that was widely praised.
Heading into the off-season, the Broncos are projected to have $27M in cap space, a number that may go up with restructured contracts and by releasing a few players who are poor fits or contributors. I anticipate that somewhere between $12-15M of that cap space will be used to re-sign Demaryius Thomas in some manner. Another tidbit of some importance, during the preseason, only the top 51 contracts count against a team's salary cap.
By cutting a trio of offensive players, Andre Caldwell, Manny Ramirez and Chris Clark, the Broncos can add $5.75M in cap space with only $592,336 in dead cap. For three players who are all over-paid, poor fits and contributors, the savings outweighs the dead money charges easily. Depending on how the team approaches such moves and contract restructures, they could be looking at an available cap figure in the neighborhood of $40M.
With the available cap space, it is clear the Broncos will address their offensive line, a must heading into the off-season. But with the move to a 3-4 defense and with a few key defensive starters who are free agents, Elway and company will undoubtedly look for some free agent options on the defensive front.
DT Dan Williams
The Broncos face the very real possibility of Terrance Knighton leaving in free agency and will require a backup plan should that happen. They can't get much better than Dan Williams in this scenario. Williams is a better fit to play the 0-technique in a 3-4 than Knighton is. Knighton has not played in a 3-4 as a pro, whereas Williams has spent his entire career as a 0-tech nose tackle.
Verdict: Williams was a popular pick to Denver in 2010 when the team took quarterback Tim Tebow just one selection before the Arizona Cardinals drafted Williams. Since being drafted, Williams has been a consistent performer on one of the better defenses in the NFL. If the team misses on Knighton, don't be surprised if Williams is targeted as a potential replacement.
NT/DE B.J. Raji
Raji is another guy whose name is always popular during free agency. Let me just say it is unwarranted. Raji was instrumental in the Packers 2010 Super Bowl run, but hasn't contributed much since then.
Verdict: Raji is a underachiever of epic proportions. How he isn't considered a bust is beyond me. I doubt he is on Denver's radar.
DT/DE Ndamukong Suh
Suh is another popular name, as he has consistently been one of the more impactful defensive players in the league over the past few years. The question is whether Suh will have the same impact as a 3-4 DE as he has as a 4-3 DT.
Verdict: Suh would be fun to watch in a Broncos uniform, but sadly, the price tag will make any marriage highly unlikely.
DT/DE Nick Fairley
A poor man's Suh, Fairley was almost a Denver Bronco, as the team looked to trade back into the 2011 first round to draft Fairley, in addition to Von Miller. For his career, Fairley has been great at times, horrible at others and inconsistent throughout. He has also been overshadowed by Suh for the entirety of his career.
Verdict: Fairley would come at a much cheaper price than Suh, but there are questions regarding his work ethic and motivation -- questions that have dogged him since college. Could the Broncos take a chance on him? Sure. Should they? No.
DT/DE Kevin Vickerson
Big Vick did not want to leave Denver this past off-season. Ironically, he has more experience in a 3-4 than any lineman currently with the team.
Verdict: Reuniting team and player is a possibility here, but more than likely, Vickerson is at the end of his flag-filled career.
DT Terrence Cody
When Cody was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, the selection was vaunted as a great value pick -- a first round talent snagged in the second. Unfortunately for both parties, Cody has played more like a undrafted free agent.
Verdict: Could Mount Cody use a change of scenery? Absolutely. Can he realize his immense potential? Yes. Should the Broncos take a chance on him? Yes. Cody is only 26 years old and will come at a cheap rate. At worst, he can be depth at nose tackle.
OLB Brooks Reed
Verdict: The fit, schematically and with coaches, is clearly present. His price tag won't be ridiculous either. Reed would be a good fit for the team as a backup OLB at an affordable rate.
ILB David Harris
When Harris was last a free agent, his name was popular as a Broncos target fans pined for. This time around, his value is much lower, as his play has dropped off over the past few seasons. At 31 years old, age has caught up to him.
Verdict: Harris has remained somewhat consistent and could offer veteran leadership at a position of need. I do think he may follow Rex Ryan to Buffalo or stick with the Jets.
ILB Rolando McClain
When the Oakland Raiders took Roland McClain with the 8th pick overall in 2010, many Broncos fans were disappointed. McClain was an overwhelming favorite of the fan base to step in on defense and bring a presence that has been absent since Al Wilson suffered a career-ending neck injury.
Whether it was bound to happen, or as a result of being a Raider, McClain underwhelmed over two seasons with Oakland, before an off-season replete with run-ins with the law and between retiring a couple of times, McClain was finally labeled a bust. Then the Dallas Cowboys lost half of their defense during the preseason, which forced them into trading for McClain. All he did was go on to have the best year of his career.
Verdict: McClain is another fit, but one year of solid production makes me wary of a potential signing. While the story would be great, the move would be unlikely.
ILB D.J. Williams
Another homecoming move? Williams had one of the best seasons of his career as a 3-4 ILB when Josh McDaniels was the head man in Denver.
Verdict: Williams was cast aside, due to his legal issues. Denver won't soon forget that. He is a long-shot, at best.
FS Nate Allen
Verdict: Allen will warrant a larger contract than what Moore will likely garner and he is a better player.
If there is one player the team should pursue in a way reminiscent of the 2014 free agent pursuit, it is McCourty. He has consistently been one of the top free safeties in the NFL, since being moved there from corner.
Verdict: The team should use the full court press to sign McCourty. His instincts and measurables would be a huge upgrade on the back end and solidify the Broncos secondary.
There have been rumors of a few impact players that may be cut by their current teams. Those players are New England NT Vince Wilfork and San Francisco ILB Patrick Willis. If the Broncos were to pursue both, I believe Wilfork would be the most likely to sign, as his value is lower and he will be looking to add hardware to his trophy case. Willis would be a nice fit, but his price tag will likely remain high, making a move unlikely.