Uprade or Downgrade? Assessing The Denver Broncos 2017 Free Agent Haul

With the early returns on Denver's 2017 free agent haul in the books, Publisher Chad Jensen analyzes each new signing to determine whether John Elway upgraded or downgraded the roster.

With the exception of one other possibility, the Denver Broncos have made their big moves in free agency, signing four starting quality players and one rotational backup. GM John Elway mostly stuck to his penchant for "value" signings. 

2017 hasn't produced a watershed free agency moment for the Broncos, like we saw in 2012 with the recruitment of Peyton Manning, or 2014's influx of Pro Bowl talent on the defensive side of the ball. But that doesn't mean the players who now call Denver home can't make a similar impact. 

There's still the chance Denver could look to add quarterback Tony Romo. In such an eventuality, Romo could prove to be as much of a landmark signing as Manning was five years ago. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1764088-winning-from-now-on-quart... But so long as Romo remains under contract in Dallas, he's out of Denver's reach. All indications out of Dove Valley are that Elway will continue to call Jerry Jones' bluff and will not trade to acquire Romo. 

Elway spent money to bolster the offensive and defensive line, which were clearly his priorities this offseason. Denver finished 27th in rushing in 2016, averaging a paltry 92.8 yards per game, while on the other side of the ball, Denver relinquished an average of 130.3 yards per game on the ground, good for 28th in the league. 

If you wonder why Denver missed the playoffs, there you have it. It's easy to blame the quarterback, but to make noise in the postseason, teams must be able to run the ball and stop the run. Even with how inconsistent Denver's offense was in 2015, the running game clicked down the stretch and into the playoffs and Wade Phillips' defense finished third against the run. 

One week ago, Elway intimated that Denver is not done in free agency, and ostensibly, he's right. Until the Broncos get to 90 players, they won't be done adding talent via free agency, whether it's through the veteran pool or the college ranks post-draft. 

Today, I'm going to grade Denver's 2017 free agent haul. I'm not going to use an arbitrary grading system. No A's or F's today. 

I'll look at the talent signed and where applicable, compare it to the talent that departed, to determine whether the Broncos upgraded, downgraded or pushed at the position. 


2016 StartersMax GarciaMichael Schofield

If Denver overspent anywhere this year, it was on Ron Leary. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Elway doesn't always target tier-one free agents, but when it came to the offensive line, he was willing to open up the pocket book to ensure that Denver got a difference maker at guard. 

Leary can be just that for the Broncos. Denver lacked physicality on the offensive line last year, and if there's one thing Leary brings to the table, it's the bully mentality. 

"We're absolutely thrilled that we've got Ron here," Elway said. "He's the type of player that we're looking for with the mentality on the offensive line. He's physical and tough and plays with the demeanor that makes us tough on the offensive line. That was one of our goals. We got that in Ronald."

Denver signed Leary to a four-year, $36 million contract, with $18.65 million fully guaranteed. That's a significant investment, but its not unlike the one Elway made in Louis Vasquez back in 2013. Vasquez went on to earn first-team All-Pro honors as a Bronco and was a key cog on their Super Bowl 50 championship team. 

The hope is that Leary's "mentality" will trickle down to the rest of Denver's O-line. At 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds, Leary is a beast on the interior. And since arriving in the NFL back in 2012, he's started 47 games on arguably the most dominant O-line in football. 

Last year, Denver's starting guards were Max Garcia (LG) and Michael Schofield (RG). With the arrival of Leary, Schofield will be the odd man out. Your starting guard tandem for 2017 will be Leary and Garcia, although, we shouldn't completely rule out Connor McGovern as a darkhorse. 

Assessment: Upgrade


OutRussell Okung, OT

Not long before free agency opened, Elway made a big-time gamble, choosing to pass on picking up starting left tackle Russell Okung's option. Okung hit the open waters of a weak tackle market. 

It didn't take long for Okung to find a new NFL home, signing a four-year, $53 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers. Meanwhile, as the Broncos pursued Ronald Leary, and tried to make sense of Tony Romo's situation, all of the best tackles on the market signed elsewhere. 

With the tackle pool drying up, Denver targeted one of Bill Musgrave's guys during his time in Oakland — Menelik Watson. Denver inked Watson to a three-year, $18.75 million contract, with $5.5 million guaranteed. 

On paper, Watson looks like a true blessing for the Broncos. Unfortunately, after having been selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Watson started just 17 games for the Raiders due to nagging bouts with the injury bug. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1763665-where-will-the-broncos-go... The good news? Denver's strength and conditioning staff, led by Luke Richesson, is considered to be among the very best in professional sports. If anyone can keep Watson healthy and contributing on the field, it's Richesson. 

When healthy, Watson fits the same bill that Leary does in terms of physicality and mentality. Although Watson has some experience on the left side, he's primarily been a right tackle, which makes it a little more complex trying to compare him to Okung. 

Nevertheless, Denver is only on the hook for $5.5 million with Watson. If he struggles to stay healthy in 2017, the Broncos can move on relatively pain free. The same cannot be said for the Chargers and Okung, whose $25 million in guarantees make it much more prohibitive to part ways. 

From a value perspective, there's little doubt that Denver came out ahead in signing Watson and letting Okung walk. Both Watson and Okung come with very serious injury concerns, but Denver is on the hook for much less with Watson.

Although Okung was far from Denver's biggest problem on the O-line last year, his performance didn't justify what his cap hit would have been over the next two years, had Denver held onto him. 

The Broncos will consider Watson, Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo at left tackle in 2017. But it's entirely possible that Denver's starting left tackle this year isn't on the roster yet. 

If we view Watson strictly as a right tackle solution, and compare him to Denver's situation at the position last year, with the Stephenson/Sambrailo combo, one could argue that Elway upgraded the position. But that's not saying much.  

Assessment: Push


OutSylvester Williams, NT

The writing was on the wall a year ago when Denver chose not to exercise Sylvester Williams' fifth-year option. In a contract year, Williams did little to make Elway regret his decision. 

As a 2013 first round pick, Williams never quite lived up to the lofty expectations Denver had for him. He was a solid starter, but certainly nothing to write home about. At the same time, we must acknowledge that Williams was miscast as a 3-4 nose tackle, which is where Denver played him in the last two years. 

Williams was meant to be a two-gapping 3-technique in a 4-3 system, which makes his landing in Tennessee that much more questionable. Williams signed a three-year, $17.5 million contract with the Titans, with $9.5 million guaranteed. Tennessee is paying him an average annual salary of $5,833,333. 

Elway was interested in bringing "Sly" back but not anywhere close to that cost. Instead, Elway's solution was to target a proven veteran with some real chops in stuffing the run. Enter Domata Peko. 

Heading into his 12th year as a pro, there's no question Peko is getting long in the tooth. But Denver signed him to a two-year, $7.5 million deal, with $3.8 million guaranteed. Like the Menelik Watson signing, the Broncos are only tied down to Peko for one year, in the event that his play declines dramatically. 

But Peko has shown no lasting signs of slowing down. He started all 16 games for for the Cincinnati Bengals in nine of his 11 years as a pro, including 2016. 

Denver will swap Williams for Peko. Peko has played on a quality defense in Cincy for the last several years and knows what it takes to stop the run. Comparing value to production, acquiring Peko, while losing Williams, will be a net gain for the Broncos. 

Peko can hold down the fort at nose tackle in the short term, while Denver grooms a long-term replacement acquired via the Draft. This year's D-line class is as deep as it's ever been. Don't expect Elway to turn a blind eye to one of the strengths of this year's class and miss the opportunity to find another difference maker in the trenches. 

Assessment: Upgrade


2016 Starter: Jared Crick

Again, Elway made a move to bolster what the front office believed was one of Denver's glaring weaknesses in 2016 — the defensive line. Losing Malik Jackson in free agency a year ago hurt, but when Vance Walker went down with a torn ACL, it was most literally adding insult to injury. 

Opposite of Derek Wolfe, the Broncos were forced to get by at defensive end with the newly-signed Jared Crick, an ill-prepared rookie Adam Gotsis and journeyman stop-gap Billy Winn. Factoring in Wolfe's two missed starts due to injury, Denver's D-line was put to the test and found wanting. 

D-line coach Bill Kollar did the best he could with the group, but Crick was signed to be a rotational player, Gotsis was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in October of the year before and Winn was also a meant to be a depth player. Add it all up and it's not difficult to see why the Broncos struggled so badly to stop the run. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1763185-do-peko-kerr-really-upgra... With Peko signed, Elway targeted Zach Kerr, whom the Indianapolis Colts inexplicably chose not to tender as a restricted free agent. The Broncos liked Kerr when he was coming out of Delaware in 2014. They tried to sign him as a college free agent, but lost out to the Colts. 

Since then, the Broncos have kept a close eye on Kerr, but when he dominated the Broncos in Week 2 this past season, notching five solo tackles, a QB hit and a sack — in just 40 snaps — he exploded on their radar. 

The Broncos signed Kerr to a two-year, $3 million contract. The value is absolutely ridiculous. At 6-foot-2, 334 pounds, Kerr doesn't offer a lot from a pass-rushing perspective — although the Broncos would beg to differ — but he is a behemoth run-stuffer. 

Assessment: Upgrade


OutDekoda Watson

The Broncos lost a key cog to their championship defense when DeMarcus Ware retired. But the odds were slim that Ware would return to Denver, even if he would have chosen to keep playing. 

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Even though he was injured for much of the 2016 season, the Broncos will miss Ware's ability and leadership. When the team signed veteran edge rusher Kasim Edebali, however, it was not in an effort to replace Ware's production, but rather, Dekoda Watson's. 

Denver was interested in bringing Watson back, but John Lynch was willing to pay Watson $2 million per season to come to San Francisco. With Von MillerShane Ray, and Shaquil Barrett locked down, it didn't make sense to invest that kind of money in Watson. 

Instead, Denver signed Edebali to a one-year, $1.2 million contract. Only $200K is guaranteed. Edebali is a former college free agent out of Boston College who caught on with the New Orleans Saints back in 2014.

In three seasons as a rotational pass rusher at the NFL level, Edebali has posted eight sacks. In seven seasons, Watson has posted just four sacks, but he spent a lot of time at off-ball linebacker, so comparing him to Edebali is apples to oranges. 

The Broncos like Edebali's ability as a pass rusher and compared to Watson's skill-set, it's probably a push. But after losing special teams captain Kayvon Webster, the Broncos now have a hole in the third phase, and Watson was much better equipped to fill it than Edebali. 

If there was any reason to pay Watson the money he received from the Niners, it was this. 

Assessment: Downgrade

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Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.

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