Evaluating The Broncos 2015 Free Agent Class

The Broncos have been comparatively quiet in free agency this year but that's not necessarily a bad thing. MHH Lead Analyst Chad Jensen grades the acquisitions made thus far.

Since NFL Free Agency opened on March 10th, the Denver Broncos have been relatively quiet, compared to recent offseason splurges. With a new head coach in Gary Kubiak, General Manager John Elway has taken a different approach to navigating the open waters of free agency.

Rather than chasing the top-dollar free agents atop the open market, Elway has instead chosen to make short-term value signings, which could end up being more impactful to the roster than the tens of millions of dollars he spent in 2014.

I’m not saying that Vance Walker is a better player than say, DeMarcus Ware. But Walker’s value to the team, relative to his cap hit, could be greater. While it’s true that Elway has been restrained from big free agent splashes, due to salary cap constraints, in the NFL, where there’s a will, there’s a way, so long as a GM is willing to mortgage his team’s future.

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Elway most certainly has not risked the future by grossly spending in 2015—quite the opposite. He has invested in second and third-tier players who can impact an already well-constructed roster now and he’s done it with short-term, team-friendly deals, which protect the organization.

In this article, I’m evaluating the Broncos free agent acquisitions made so far, which is done (admittedly) prematurely, since we won’t truly know the impact of these transactions until we’ve seen each player in action this upcoming season.

However, we can look at each player’s history, their scheme fit with the team and their salary cap hit, relative to roster needs, which will provide enough information to at least make a compendious judgment.

We must also consider that the Broncos aren’t likely done with free agency. We can expect to see some movement when teams trim their rosters, prior to the June 1st deadline and even in to training camp, when injuries tend to hit and roster needs become more apparent.

Owen Daniels, TE

Contract: Three years, $12.25M

Daniels is the first free agent acquisition made off-roster, who came to the Broncos by way of the Baltimore Ravens. After eight productive seasons with the Houston Texans, Daniels signed a one-year deal with the Ravens back in 2014.

He was coming off of an injury and had to play under a “prove-it” deal. And prove it he did. After starting tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a season-ending injury in September, Daniels was thrust to the forefront by then offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and the veteran tight end went on to provide quarterback Joe Flacco with a bona-fide redzone target and security blanket.

Daniels, a two-time Pro Bowler, played 832 snaps and finished 2014 with 48 receptions (on 79 targets) for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns. This earned him a -0.9 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus.

Fit with the Broncos: With the departure of Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas, Daniels steps in as a savvy veteran, experienced in Kubiak’s offense—an invaluable asset. Along with Virgil Green, the first Elway original draft pick to re-sign with the Broncos, Daniels could experience a huge numbers boost by way of the Peyton Manning effect.

Daniels isn’t the worst blocking tight end in the league, but he’s not the best either. Green has him beat in that category easily. However, Daniels makes his money as an athletic target over the middle and will come in handy in the redzone. His experience will likely net him a starting job in Kubiak’s offense. The only negative to the Daniels signing, and the only factor preventing the highest grade, is the fact that he’s 32 years old.

If he plays out his contract, that’ll put him at 35, which is no man’s land for NFL tight ends. However, we shouldn’t expect him to play out the entirety of his deal with the Broncos. His $3M signing bonus, according to Over the Cap, is the only guaranteed portion of his contract, making him expendable after 2015, if push comes to shove. That improves the grade.

Grade: B

Darian Stewart, S

Contract: Two years, $4.250M

Like Daniels, Stewart had a connection to the Broncos via Kubiak, as he played for the Ravens in 2014. And he played well. The Ravens signed him to a one-year deal, and he ended up starting 16 games for them (including playoffs).

Stewart went undrafted in 2010 out of South Carolina and initially cracked an NFL roster with the St. Louis Rams. He played four seasons with the Rams, before heading to Baltimore, where he truly shined. A versatile veteran, Stewart projects as the Broncos starting free safety, although there have been rumblings out of Dove Valley that Bradley Roby and Kayvon Webster could also be in competition for the gig.

Stewart can play both free and strong safety, as well as cover in the slot if needed. As a starter with the Ravens, Stewart racked up 53 combined tackles, 3 passes defensed and an interception. This earned him a +3.0 cumulative grade via PFF. He also added a postseason interception, when he picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs.

Fit with the Broncos: Like most of his undrafted brethren, Stewart plays with a chip on his shoulder and will fight for every opportunity given to him. In Wade Phillips’ defense, Stewart could shine playing next to T.J. Ward. From a cost perspective, only $2.25M of Stewart’s contract is fully guaranteed. This was a case-in-point value signing—an above average, high character player, on a short term team-friendly deal.

Grade: A-

Vance Walker, DE

Contract: Two years, $4M

The Broncos really needed depth on the defensive line, after losing Terrance Knighton and Mitch Unrein in free agency. John Elway took his first step to remedy that by signing Walker. Walker was a seventh round pick out of Georgia Tech of the Atlanta Falcons back in 2009. He spent the last two years in the AFC West, playing for the Oakland Raiders (2013) and Kansas City Chiefs (2014), respectively.

The Broncos make the third team in the Division Walker has called home. Last season, he saw 238 snaps (two starts) as part of the Chiefs defensive line rotation. He notched 19 combined tackles and 2 sacks, which earned him a +6.8 cumulative grade via PFF.

At 27 years old, Walker’s in the prime of his career. He’s a highly versatile player, able to line up anywhere on the D-line. He has a high motor and is stout against the run, earning a +6.8 grade in run defense. With the departure of Knighton, the Broncos need run-stuffers and Walker can get it done.

Fit with the Broncos: Walker will see a lot of snaps rotating in behind Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, the projected starters at defensive end in Phillips’ 3-4 scheme. If the Sylvester Williams experiment fails at nose guard, the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Walker has the experience and ability to step in and contribute—even start—as the anchor. With his low annual average and only $1.5M guaranteed, the Walker signing continues Elway’s trend of finding low-cost, high-value acquisitions in free agency.

Grade: B+

Shelley Smith, OG

Contract: Two years, $4.25M

Smith was drafted by Gary Kubiak and the Houston Texans in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of Colorado State and marks the third Broncos newcomer with previous ties to the coaching regime. He only stayed in Houston for two seasons, before washing out.

Since 2012, he’s bounced around the league, having played for the Miami Dolphins most recently in 2014. He started three games for the Dolphins in 2014, earning a -10.1 cumulative grade (372 snaps) for the season via PFF.

He was courted by several teams in free agency this year, including the Seattle Seahawks. But he ultimately chose to reunite with the coach who drafted him in the Mile High City.

Fit with the Broncos: At 6-foot-4, 312 pounds, Smith’s career can be best summed up as one of inconsistency. He has the athletic skill-set to thrive in the zone blocking scheme, but he’ll have to compete with Ben Garland (and possibly a rookie), to lock down the starting left guard job in Denver. With only $1M of his contract guaranteed, the Broncos could part ways with Smith following 2015 with little dead money ramifications.

However, the Smith signing is one that leaves me scratching my head some. Other than his experience with Kubiak, I don’t see the Smith attraction and have not been impressed by his tape. Perhaps a change in locker room culture and reuniting with Kubiak and Rick Dennison will make all the difference. His contractual value still makes this a solid addition, even if he ends up as a depth player.

Grade: C+

Reggie Walker, LB

Contract: One year, $795,000

The Broncos picked up another in-division veteran when they signed Walker. He spent the last two seasons in San Diego, mostly as a depth linebacker and special teams contributor. Here’s what we had to say about Walker when the Broncos announced his signing.

Last season, Walker saw 150 snaps for the Chargers, earning a -9.9 cumulative grade via PFF. They plugged him in on the inside and at outside linebacker. His snaps netted him just 7 combined tackles. He did, however, start 6 games for the Chargers in 2013.

Fit with the Broncos: Although I wouldn’t necessarily describe the Walker signing as “camp fodder”, it comes close. He’ll compete for reps at the bottom of the roster with Todd Davis, Corey Nelson, Lamin Barrow and Steven Johnson. The upshot is that Walker has experience at both inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and his cap hit is minimal, with only $50,000 fully guaranteed.

Grade: C-

Antonio Smith, DE

Contract: One year, $2M

After Smith was cut by the Raiders last Tuesday, the Broncos inked him two days later on Thursday. Drafted in 2004 by the Arizona Cardinals, Smith eventually found his way to Houston with Gary Kubiak, Wade Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar, where Smith had his best seasons as a pro.

At 33 years old, Smith is battling Father Time but last season in Oakland, he proved he still has a lot left in the tank. He’s not the best run defender, but on third down, he can get after the quarterback and provide the Broncos with interior pressure.

Fit with the Broncos: In his conference call with the media, the 33-year-old Smith revealed what the Broncos will expect from him in 2015.

“What Coach Kollar told me is that I’ll be basically doing the same thing: rushing the passer,” Smith said. “It’s predicated on rushing the passer, coming in on nickel downs and getting after the quarterback. He said he watched a lot of film from last year and checked me out to see if I still knew how to get to the passer. That is exactly what he wants me to do—get after the quarterback.”

The Broncos have been missing an interior pass rush. They boast two of the NFL’s elite edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but were unable to consistently pressure the quarterback in 2014. Smith, along with Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, will help to collapse the pocket from the inside on third down. And for a short-term contract worth only $2M, the Broncos are getting a lot of bang for their buck. If he was just a few years younger, we could be a lot more excited about Antonio Smith.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

Again, John Elway took a different path in free agency in 2015. He’s flown under the radar but the players he’s acquired could end up being more impactful to the team than the big dollar free agents the Broncos let walk, especially when contract values are factored in.

Elway brought in two players over 30 in Owen Daniels and Antonio Smith, but the Broncos are still one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. The team had no dearth of talent, even before free agency, having nine of last year’s ten Pro Bowlers still on-roster.

The theme for the Broncos free agency approach has been familiarity—and versatility. Elway bided his time and ultimately pursued guys he believed could be just as influential to the Broncos as the big names he allowed to walk.

The Duke of Denver rolled the dice in letting three of his original draft picks, and one of his most successful free agent acquisitions, walk. Whether or not it pays off, we won’t know for some time, but I like the direction Elway and the Broncos are headed and can say that on the surface, this free agent class might be just as impressive as last year's.

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

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FREE AGENCY POSITIONAL PREVIEWS


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DEFENSE: Defensive tackle | Defensive end | Outside linebacker
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