What We Learned From John Elway Today

John Elway met with the media at the NFL Scouting Combine today. MHH Lead Analyst Chad Jensen shares his gleanings from the Broncos top football executive.

Indianapolis, IN – Denver Broncos Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager John Elway met with the press today at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine. The first question he was hit with, of course, was regarding Peyton Manning.

“We’re hopeful that Peyton comes back and we want him back,” Elway said. “As I said after the season, we wanted him back--and we still want him back. He has not given me a definitive answer exactly what he wants to do but we’re hopeful he is going to come back.”

Based on Elway and Gary Kubiak’s pressers in Indy, it’s clear that the team wants Manning back in orange and blue. Manning met with Elway last Thursday at team headquarters in Dove Valley and made it clear that he’s ready to return and play at a “significant” level in 2015.

The feelings are mutual. Both sides seem to want the same thing. So what’s the delay? Why has there been no official statement proclaiming Manning’s return to the Broncos? It might have something to do with his $19M salary that will be guaranteed, should he pass his physical and remain on the roster on March 9th.

“The bottom line is I don’t like to get into anybody’s contract,” Elway opined, “or discuss anything about contracts, but just know that, as I said, I believe he will be back and I believe that he will be our quarterback next year.”

After all that Manning has accomplished in his time in the NFL, some might wonder why he’d even want to return, especially after he finished last season so banged up. Elway put his finger on exhibit A.

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"I think with Peyton, obviously there is not much he can add to his legacy. I do think that the one thing he can add is another Super Bowl Championship. I think with where Peyton is, as I told him in our meeting, I said, ‘You don’t have to throw for another yard and you don’t need to throw for another touchdown pass because your legacy is going to be one of the all-time greats as it is as we sit here now.’ Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl. I think that’s our goal as it is for 31 other teams but we feel like we’ve got a real good football team and Peyton Manning is the best player for us.”

The most optimistic projections put the Broncos between $27-30M in available salary cap space, heading into free agency. With wide receiver Demaryius Thomas likely to consume half of that space, whether it’s via the franchise tag or an extension, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to sign the team's other 18 free agents, and whichever players the team might want to target on the open market.

It very likely could be that the Broncos and Manning are discussing a restructuring of his contract, which is delaying the reciprocal desire for Manning to return. Manning had another career season in 2014, from a statistical perspective, and he did lead the Broncos to another AFC West divisional crown and a playoff bye (third consecutive on both counts, respectively).

With the general consensus being that if Manning returns, it’ll be for just one year, despite being under contract through 2016, it would make it hard for the Broncos to backload a new contract.

As MHH Analyst Jake Marsing put it on Twitter, we’re talking about Manning taking a pay cut. Manning earned every nickel of his contract last season and from a rational perspective, he doesn’t deserve to take a pay cut in 2015. And for a guy with the perceived business acumen that Manning has, that’s a tall order, asking him to take a step back financially, especially with him coming off the heels of yet another Pro Bowl season.

We’ll know soon enough whether Manning returns and under what conditions. In his presser today, Elway also talked about running back C.J. Anderson and that he believes the 2014 Pro Bowler will be a great fit in Kubiak’s new offensive system.

“I think it fits great,” Elway beamed. “I think we saw what C.J. could do last year, especially halfway on through the end of the year. He came in and had a tremendous year for us. He’s a one-cut guy and he’s a north and south runner. That’s what style of an offense this is. I think C.J. will be a perfect fit for it so I’m thrilled we still have him.”

Regarding Montee Ball, the Broncos second round pick in 2013, Elway expressed regret that Ball’s 2014 season was so compromised and cut short by the injury bug. Ball suffered a groin injury that caused him to miss most of the season. However, Elway still envisions a role for Ball moving forward.

“Montee just had a tough year with injuries last year,” Elway pointed out. “He had that groin injury that he could never really come back [from]. I still think that Montee is a very good running back. It’s just a matter of getting him in the right spot—the right position—and having him be healthy and having him get some confidence. In this offense we’re going to use more than one back and I believe Montee can be very helpful to our football team and do good things for us.”

Elway also talked about second-year wide receiver Cody Latimer. As a rookie, the ultra-talented Latimer was buried on the Broncos depth chart in 2014, which is easy to understand when the top-3 guys ahead of him have all been to a Pro Bowl. However, Elway still clearly believes in Latimer and sees big things for him on the horizion.

“I think Cody had a good year,” Elway said. “Obviously with the offense we had it’s tough to adjust out of college and come into the offense that we ran last year and there’s a lot to that. And Cody worked his tail off and had a very good year. We have high expectations for Cody and he’s a big, fast, strong wide receiver that we really believe is going to be helpful to us and help us win because he’s got the ability now to catch the ball and get open, but also he does a great job on fourth down and has the ability to run after the catch. So we have high expectations for Cody. Obviously he didn’t have the production that I’m sure he would have liked to have, as well as us, but he took advantage of all the opportunities he got last year and he’ll get a lot more opportunities this year.”

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Regarding free agency, which officially begins on the afternoon of March 10th, Elway was about as general as he could be. The one morsel we could glean is that he plans on upgrading the offensive line.

“We are looking at our whole football team right now,” Elway said, “and setting our priorities as far as what we want to go into in free agency as well as the draft. Is the offensive line one of them? Yeah, we would like to get better. But we would like to get better in a lot of other places too. We’re going through all the options that we have and we’re really looking at the best way to use the dollars that we have in our budget through free agency.”

When asked about his new head coach, Elway was glowing and made it clear that it was a like-minded similarity and a shared history that drew him to tap his old backup to become the head man in Denver.

“If you look at just what Gary did,” Elway pointed out, “and I don’t know exactly what they all are, but they (Baltimore) broke a lot of records offensively with Gary and ‘Rico’ (Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison) and [Tight Ends Coach] Brian [Pariani] being there last year. But really what I knew came from my history of Gary, having played with Gary, having played for Gary when he coached me and just remaining friends and [I] watched him over time. He’s got a tremendous amount of knowledge and we think—we’re like-minded thinkers and I think that’s what makes it even more exciting for me that he’s here, because of the fact that the way that he goes about things, whether he does things. He’s the guy, as I’ve said, he’s got three championship rings and he knows what it takes. Hopefully we can use that knowledge and take that next step.”

When asked about the team’s switch from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, Elway echoed what Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips have already said. The Broncos already have most of the personnel pieces in place to make the switch, with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware being the cornerstones.

"I think it’s going to be a smooth transition,” Elway said. “You look at [LB] DeMarcus [Ware] and [LB] Von Miller on the outside and what we have as far as defensive linemen that can make that transition. I’m looking forward to it. Everywhere Wade’s been, he’s been very successful and always had a highly-rated defense. We had that last year and I expect we’re going to be that much better this year.”

One thing I picked up on from Elway’s presser today is that there seems to be a new energy emanating from the Broncos organization – an excitement that is palpable. Whether Peyton Manning returns or not, it feels like there are big things on the horizon for the Denver Broncos.

Chad Jensen is the Publisher and Lead Analyst for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen and on Google+.

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