The Denver Broncos, under the leadership of GM John Elway, are in uncharted waters. After winning the Super Bowl, the Broncos returned in 2016 and not only failed to win the AFC West for the first time in Elway's front office tenure, but they also missed the playoffs.
Things deteriorated quickly for the Broncos down the stretch. There were too many leaks to dam, and not enough fingers. Head coach Gary Kubiak stepped down, naming health concerns as the primary reason for his departure.
We learned after the fact that there was much more to Kubiak's resignation than met the eye. Still, Kubiak's short-lived tenure as Denver's head man was impactful. He got the Broncos over the Super Bowl hump, sending Peyton Manning off into the sunset of retirement as a World Champion.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1719434-get-si-subscription-with-... Elway, left to pick up the pieces, made youth one of the driving factors that informed his coaching search. The 44-year-old Vance Joseph was Elway's eventual answer as Kubiak's replacement.
Joseph's philosophies mirror Kubiak's in many ways, but there are some core differences. Namely, Joseph is not scheme dependent. Kubiak exalted scheme over personnel, while Joseph's approach is the other way around.
Clearly, that vision spoke to Elway and the subsequent hires to Joseph's coaching staff bolstered the youthful vision and a focus on tailoring scheme to personnel. Now, the Broncos head into the offseason fully believing that the Super Bowl window is still open.
So long as the defense continues to be a top unit, that window will stay open. But there are some key roster holes the Broncos have to fill. In this article, we'll (the royal) lay out the framework to determine what Denver's offseason will look like.
Like the offseasons of yore, John Elway is in a position to make a splash in free agency. According to Spotrac, the Broncos enter 2017 with $32.7M in salary cap space, which includes the $7,243,248 rolled over from 2016.
Denver will have the 18th-most cap space heading into free agency.
As Erick Trickel recently opined, league circles expect this year's annual salary cap raise to be between $11-15M. Even on the low end, that would increase Denver's war chest to around $45M. It could be closer to $50M.
Either way, Elway will have substantial cap room, and a more flush cash situation, to recruit top free agents from around the league. Elway has built a reputation as the NFL's top front office closer, finding ways to get blue-chip free agents to come to Denver on relatively team-friendly deals.
Don't expect that to change just because Peyton Manning is gone. Manning was one of those guys willing to take a step back financially to compete for World Championships.
Unrestricted Free Agents: The Broncos have 10 players currently set to hit the open waters of unrestricted free agency. They are as follows:
Analysis: Looking at that list, I see three, maybe four guys the Broncos will work to re-sign. I honestly don't see the Broncos putting much on the line to keep DeMarcus Ware. He's 34, can't stay healthy, and his production dropped off dramatically in 2016. But after his most recent back surgery, he reportedly feels like a "new man".
Sylvester Williams, despite being a 2013 first round pick, is gone — unless he's willing to take less money than the open market will offer to return. Justin Forsett was a solid emergency option late in the season, but with Kubiak gone, the Broncos aren't going to pursue a running back on the wrong side of 30. They'll draft a young one.
The guys I see Elway making a push to retain are Vance Walker — depending on how well he's recovered from his ACL — Kayvon Webster and Dekoda Watson. Webster is a 2013 third round pick and a special teams captain. Plus, he fits what the Broncos like to do at corner. Watson is also a special teams ace, can rush the passer, and can likely be re-signed on the cheap.
Restricted Free Agents: As for restricted free agents, the Broncos have just three this year.
Analysis: I don't expect the Broncos to attempt re-signing Sam Brenner. He suffered a scary head injury in training camp and spent the year on injured reserve. He's yet to play a meaningful snap for the Broncos.
Todd Davis and Brandon McManus are another story. The Broncos will tender them both. Davis is one of two incumbent starting off-ball linebackers and the Broncos value him. McManus has developed into one of the best kickers in the NFL and was absolutely clutch during Denver's 2015 postseason run.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: The Broncos have nine players whose rights are owned exclusively by the Broncos.
Analysis: There are some key names here. Because the Broncos have nothing to lose, I would expect them to bring back most of the names on this list. Kapri Bibbs, Matt Paradis, Shaq Barrett and Jordan Taylor are the key players, all young, who factor in to the Broncos long-term plans. As a why-the-heck-not type of decision, I would expect Casey Kreiter to return as well.
Bennie Fowler built up some equity in Denver, as a former undrafted receiver, but he struggled to stay healthy in 2016 and was largely ineffectual, with some key drops. Quentin Gause was a band-aid who saw a couple games on the active roster, and Taurean Nixon, I believe, will be given the opportunity to compete in camp, as an Elway seventh rounder in 2015. However, I expect the Broncos to partake in this cornerback-rich Draft, which likely eliminates Nixon's path to the roster.
Areas of Need
Defensive End: The Broncos were unsuccessful in filling the hole left by Malik Jackson's departure. They drafted Adam Gotsis, but he was too raw, and coming off an ACL tear in his final year at Georgia Tech, to make an impact.
The team had high hopes for Vance Walker, before he tore his ACL. Even still, Walker would have been a band-aid over a bullet hole. Billy Winn was solid, but nowhere near the difference maker the Broncos needed.
The team needs to re-draft at the position, and make a splash in the free agent market to hold down the fort while their homegrown talent develops, including Gotsis. This year's Draft class is also replete with impact players at 5-tech defensive end.
Nose Tackle: Again, I'll be surprised if Sly Williams is brought back. The Broncos exposed their opinion of Williams by not picking up his fifth-year option. And they don't really have anyone else on the roster, a true 3-4 nose tackle, who can step up.
I expect them to Draft at this position. But there are also some good options in the free agent market, the best of which will come with hefty price tags. Elway will have the money, though.
Inside Linebacker: Todd Davis may not have missed a single tackle in 2016, his first full year as a starter, but Denver's production at the position took a step backward sans Danny Trevathan. This Draft class is top-heavy at ILB and it wouldn't surprise me to see Denver take one in the top-3 rounds.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1746034-broncos-roster-holes-pote... Looking at the free agent market, there are a few good options, but it'll take some coin to bring the creme dela creme to the Mile High City. Sean Spence is one option I could see Elway recruiting on a team-friendly deal who could help hold down the fort while a rookie develops.
Running Back: The Broncos have a Pro Bowl-caliber player at the position in C.J. Anderson, but he's recovering from a torn meniscus and it remains to be seen how well he recovers. The Broncos are paying him as one of the best in the business, but he's yet to put in a full 16-game season of production.
Denver invested a fourth round pick in the beleaguered Devontae Booker, who showed flashes of bell-cow potential as a rookie. But he was mostly overwhelmed and gassed by the war of attrition that is the NFL regular season.
Kapri Bibbs will return, but the Broncos need to find an electric difference maker at the position. There are some decent options in the free agent market, but with three viable guys already in the fold, I doubt the Broncos make a splash in free agency, and instead invest in the position in the Draft.
Tight End: The Broncos need help at tight end, there's no getting around it. Virgil Green is the elder statesman, entering the final year of his deal. I wouldn't be surprised if the Broncos ask him to take a pay-cut to stick around. He's never blossomed in the receiving game and his blocking has taken a step backward.
A.J. Derby has long-term potential. He's athletic and smart, but he's still quite raw. And the same goes for 2015 third-rounder Jeff Heuerman. The free agent class is top-heavy with guys either knocking on the door, or on the wrong side of 30. Many of them are viable, but I don't see the fit in Denver.
This is another roster need I see Denver addressing primarily through the Draft. There are some good options early and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Broncos use a pick in the top-3 rounds on a tight end.
Jan. 2-May 3: During this period, the Broncos will have the opportunity to either pick up Bradley Roby's fifth-year option, or offer him an extension.
Feb 6: Waiver system begins for the 2017 NFL season.
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Feb 15-March 1: The Broncos can designate franchise or transition players. I don't expect them to use the franchise tag.
Feb 28-March 6: NFL Scouting Combine
March 7-9: NFL free agent negotiation period. The Broncos can begin to negotiate with unrestricted free agents.
March 9: NFL free agency and the new league year. The Broncos can openly recruit and sign free agents beginning at 2 p.m. MST. The Broncos can also open trade negotiations, should they wish to (Tony Romo).
March 9 is also the deadline to exercise left tackle Russell Okung's $1 million option for 2017. If the Broncos do pick it up, Okung’s $2 million base salary for 2017, $9.5 million base salary for 2018 and $8 million roster bonus all become fully guaranteed, for a payout of $19.5 million.
March 13: Offensive tackle Donald Stephenson's $4 million dollar base salary becomes fully guaranteed. The Broncos can save $3 million by cutting Stephenson before this date.
April 3: Teams with new head coaches (Denver) can open offseason work outs. Expect the Broncos to partake under Vance Joseph.
April 21: Deadline for the Broncos restricted free agents to sign their offer sheets.
April 27-29: 2017 NFL Draft. This year's Draft will take place in Philadelphia.
Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.