Unlike the last few off-seasons, the Denver Broncos won’t have a whole lot of salary cap room to spend in free agency. On paper, today, they have a projected $26-27M in available cap space, but star wide-out Demaryius Thomas will consume $12.8M of that capital via the franchise tag and the team will have to budget around $6M to sign their rookie draft class.
That leaves somewhere around $8M to play with when the NFL free agency period opens on the afternoon of March 10th. With the Broncos in talks with Peyton Manning to restructure his contract, it’s probable that a little more room will be chipped away from the cap, but even then, I wouldn’t expect the team to have much more than $12M to target veterans on the open market.
The biggest areas of need on the roster are on the offensive line—center, right tackle and left guard. The team will also have to address needs on the defensive line and at safety. They believe in their two projected starters at inside linebacker this upcoming season—Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall—but they could use some more depth at the position, with Nate Irving hitting the free agent market unrestricted and two inexperienced second-year guys, Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson, as depth.
Mike Klis of the Denver Post believes that the Broncos will almost certainly sign a center in free agency. They’ll likely look for their 2015 starting right tackle at pick No. 28 in the upcoming draft. We’ve talked a lot about possible fits at right tackle out of the 2015 draft class, but we haven’t dialogued much about options at center in free agency.
Of course, the team could choose to re-sign last season’s starting center, Will Montgomery, and there have been reports that the Broncos have an interest in doing so. Although Montgomery is on the wrong side of 30, he has two things going for him that make him attractive to the new coaching administration—experience in the zone blocking scheme and a history with Peyton Manning, albeit a limited one.
Those are powerful factors that favor Montgomery’s odds of returning, but due to his age (32), the team might want to get younger and more athletic at the position. Scout.com’s top two centers in this year’s free agent class are Rodney Hudson, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Stefen Wisniewski, formerly of the Oakland Raiders. Hudson is likely to cost a pretty penny, because at just 25 years old, he emerged in 2014 as one of the NFL’s top young centers.
Hudson started all 16 games last season for the Chiefs, playing 1,031 snaps, and earned a +13.0 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus. He helped open holes for one of the league’s top rushing weapons, Jamaal Charles. As a 2011 second round pick of the Chiefs, it would stand to reason that the team who drafted him would strive to re-sign him, but the Chiefs are in a really tough situation with regard to their salary cap. They have a lot of tough decisions to make in 2015 and they won’t be able to bring all of their stars back.
There is sure to be a hot market for Hudson’s services, which might push the Broncos out of position. But he is unquestionably the best center available. Wisniewski, another former divisional foe, was also a second round pick in 2011, and is also just 25 years old and entering the prime of his career. He has 61 starts under his belt, to Hudson’s 19. Over the last three seasons, Wisniewski has started every game at center for the Raiders. His best year came in 2013, when he earned a +11.4 cumulative grade via PFF.
Hudson measures in at 6-foot-2, 299 pounds, while Wisniewski sits at 6-foot-3, 307 pounds. Both players are suited for the zone blocking scheme, although Hudson would be more natural and proficient. Wisniewski brings a longer track record to evaluate, and the versatility and experience of having started games at left guard in the NFL, but Hudson’s star is burning brighter, due to a higher talent level.
The highest paid centers in the NFL earn between $8-9M per year. Neither of these young players are likely to net a new contract that high, but Hudson could land in the same ballpark. One factor that could help John Elway and other interested General Managers, is that neither player has ever been elected to the Pro Bowl, or earned All-Pro honors, unlike the top-paid guys, like Cleveland’s Alex Mack, Carolina’s Ryan Kalil and Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey.
With so many perceived holes to fill on the roster, it doesn’t make much sense for Elway and the Broncos to spend big on a new center. But on the other hand, they need to stabilize the position, which has been the definition of transient over the last four seasons. While it may be true that they will sign a center in free agency, I find it more likely that that the Broncos will bring back Will Montgomery on a team-friendly deal, and draft their center of the future somewhere between the second and fourth round.