Broncos Update Inside Slant 1/8

Denver's season no doubt will be viewed as a failure after Sunday's 41-10 humiliation at the hands of Indianapolis in an AFC wild-card game. But coach Mike Shanahan believes the core is intact for a run deep into the playoffs. Read about the plans for personnel in the off-season in today's Broncos Update Inside Slant

He was impressed with the progress made by quarterback Jake Plummer, the explosiveness of Clinton Portis, and the way so many unknowns stepped up on defense. That Denver was the only team ranked in the top 7 in both offense and defense showed that a total overhaul isn't the answer.

"You don't do what we did offensively and defensively, losing as many players as we did and not have a good football team," Shanahan said. "If we're luckier from a health standpoint next year, and get most of the guys signed back that are free agents, obviously pick up a few people here and there, we've got a chance to get better."

Most of the key free agents are on defense: Linebackers Al Wilson and Ian Gold, and defensive end Bert Berry. All three likely will be back, even if Denver has to slap the franchise tag on middle linebacker Wilson. Denver, however, will have to examine some contracts to make room under the cap.

Those who could be called upon to pare 2004 cap space included wide receiver Ed McCaffrey ($5.475 million), John Mobley ($5.15 million), wide receiver Rod Smith ($5.65 million), defensive end Trevor Pryce ($7.816 million), right tackle Matt Lepsis ($6.1 million) and center Tom Nalen ($5.1 million).

The Broncos also may be able to recoup a large portion of the $3 million signing bonus already given defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, if it decides it doesn't want him back on the team.

Other decisions await: Whether to give left tackle Ephraim Salaam a $5 million roster bonus (unlikely) and whether to renegotiate a new contract with Portis (more likely).

In his season-ending press conference, Shanahan made it clear that some players won't be back.

Deltha O'Neal, who failed at cornerback and has been moved to wide receiver, won't return unless he wants to play wideout. That appears unlikely, so a trade is inevitable.

There's no question other young players will have to make drastic improvements. The most notable is rookie first-round pick George Foster, who spent practically the entire season on the inactive list. Shanahan views him as another Trevor Pryce, in terms of blossoming in his second year. Shanahan, with a history of first-round busts, can only hope that's the case.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Safety Nick Ferguson wasn't sure what his future held when he suffered a broken left arm in Week 15. His agent was already trying to negotiate a new contract, but the injury raised questions.

The Broncos came through, however, signing him to a four-year deal believed worth about $4 million.

"I wasn't sure how the team would react to my injury but they showed the class that they've been known to have throughout the league," Ferguson said. "If the team shows that type of commitment to a player, he'll show the same to the team."

Ferguson, a New York Jets castoff who took over the starting job from Sam Brandon midway through the season, developed into one of Denver's best defensive players.

"I've been waiting for this and have been patient for so long. It's my time," he said.

--This was supposed to be a big year for second-year wide receiver Ashley Lelie. But Shanahan admitted that the speedy wideout didn't take a step forward as expected.

"I think Ashley probably played a little poorer than he did as a rookie. But I think the sky is the limit for him," Shanahan said.

The team wants Lelie to get stronger in the weight room in the off-season. He finished with 37 catches for 628 yards.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't want to look dumber than I do now." -- Shanahan when asked which teams he thought would do well in the postseason. The question came one day after his own team lost 41-10 to Indy, a team it had beaten 31-17 two weeks earlier.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Shanahan hasn't given Shannon Sharpe a deadline, but he'd probably like to know before the draft if the future Hall of Fame tight end wants to return for another year. Don't bet on it. All signs point toward Sharpe retiring.

The same might be true for veteran wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who had been plagued by injuries this year. Coaches may push him in that direction, especially since they don't want to pay a $4.5 million base salary.

COACHING CAROUSEL: Mike Shanahan, despite a dreadful end to the season, isn't going anywhere. He has several more years on his contract, and is very safe with Pat Bowlen's ownership, no matter how much fan unrest there is.

He hopes to keep his staff intact, and probably will do so for the most part. Assistant head coach/assistant lne coach Alex Gibbs likely is gone, as he wants to collect one more big paycheck and go back to coaching full-time. That likely won't happen in Denver, so don't be surprised to see him end up in Arizona, where he has a home.

Frank Bush has taken some heat as special teams coach but Shanahan defended him in his post-season press conference, so he may get another year to prove himself.

FREE-AGENT UPDATE: DE Bert Berry. He had 11.5 sacks -- a career high -- and will be looking to cash in. But he also knows the Broncos gave him a chance, and will show plenty of allegiance.

--LB Al Wilson is the heart and soul of the defense and even though he didn't play very well in the wild-card game, the Broncos clearly want to re-sign him. The question will be money, and while Wilson loves Denver, if he gets a bigger offer elsewhere, he'll take it. Looking at the Broncos history, however, suggests he'll be back.

--LB Ian Gold is ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, and the Broncos no doubt will re-sign him. The injury may cost him some money but they love his attitude and speed.

--FS Nick Ferguson worried about his future after breaking his arm against Indy two weeks ago but the Broncos came thru, rewarding him with a four-year deal that will pay him about $1 million per season.

--WR Chris Cole has had an injury-plagued career, and though the Broncos love his speed, he may not get another chance to be the impact player on special teams Denver is looking for.

FEELING A DRAFT: The Broncos are slated to draft no higher than No. 25, and despite qualifying for the playoffs, they have definite needs. The question is whether they would be reluctant to draft another cornerback after striking out on the past two first rounders, Deltha O'Neal and Willie Middlebrooks.

With Shannon Sharpe expected to retire, they could go that route. And as always, an impact defensive end would be a boost.

MEDICAL WATCH: LB Ian Gold is ahead of schedule and should be ready for workouts by the team's May mini-camp. He suffered a torn ACL but has proven he's a fast healer.

--LB John Mobley will require most of the offseason to heal from a spinal cord injury but he should be ready for training camp.

--WR Ed McCaffrey missed the wild-card game with post-concussion symptoms, but doctors said he should have been ready to go the following week had Denver won. Still there are plenty of health questions, and wonders if he'll return considering he will turn 36 this summer.

--S Nick Ferguson has another 3-4 weeks of recovery from a broken forearm, but he should be ready for Denver's off-season workout.

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