Denver also could add a piece or two on offense, but defense is by far the team's most pressing need. The team cut five defensive starters from last year's team and needs to find players that can step in and fill those spots right away.
TOP THREE TEAM NEEDS
1. Defensive line: Defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson was cut, which wasn't surprising but it leaves Denver with very little at defensive tackle. Finding some quality ends is another challenge for the front office. Top defensive linemen usually get top dollar in free agency, so the Broncos will have to be smart with their choices. A lack of talent on the defensive line was a main reason Denver ranked near the bottom of the NFL in defense last season.
2. Secondary: Safety was a big concern, and then cornerback became a priority when Dre Bly was released. The Broncos don't have any surefire candidates to start opposite Champ Bailey. Denver also needs to add a couple of safeties. Rookie Josh Barrett is probably the best safety remaining, and he started only a few games last year after spending most of the season on the practice squad and made some costly mistakes. There isn't too much available in free agency or the draft at safety but the Broncos will look at the best of what is available.
3. Linebacker: The Broncos found two promising linebackers last year, rookies Spencer Larsen and Wesley Woodyard. But with a possible conversion to a 3-4 and the release of Jamie Winborn, Denver needs to stock up. Drafting a true inside linebacker with the 12th pick of April's draft can't be discounted. D.J. Williams could play any linebacker position and might be moved around depending on what Denver acquires in free agency and the draft.
Denver doesn't have many of its own free agents who will be back. Quarterback Patrick Ramsey might be the top priority. Linebacker Nate Webster and defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban will probably leave. Most of the Broncos' other free agents are expendable. The team took care of its biggest potential free-agent issue when it signed linebacker D.J. Williams to an extension just before last season started. Pursuing an elite free agent, such as defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, is possible under the cap but the Broncos have many holes to fill on defense. Only four full-time defensive starters - cornerback Champ Bailey, Williams, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas - remain from last year's team. There are some backups that can fill the gaps, but multiple starters need to be acquired.
--TE Nate Jackson was among the seven veterans released by Denver. He was a favorite of the old coaching staff, because of his receiving ability. Jackson had been injury prone - he ended last season on injured reserve with a torn hamstring - and the new coaching staff didn't have the same loyalty to him, so he was let go.
--The release of Nate Jackson could help tight end Tony Scheffler, the talented 2006 second-round pick. Because the old coaching staff liked Jackson, he often took playing time away from Scheffler. Last year, Jackson spent the entire training camp as the No. 2 tight end, ahead of Scheffler. If Scheffler can get the confidence of the new coaching staff, he could have a more regular and defined role, which could help his numbers.
--LB Niko Koutouvides wasn't a big-money free agent - he signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract - but he was a mistake for the Broncos. Signed to be the team's starting middle linebacker, he was challenged by Nate Webster in training camp and lost the competition.
He was a stellar special-teams player for Seattle and played decently on special teams for Denver, but not enough to keep his job. He was released by the team as part of an offseason purge.
--The Broncos traveled to the scouting combine in Indianapolis with many needs but a lighter than usual front office. With the firings of Jim and Jeff Goodman, two of the top three front-office managers, new general manager Brian Xanders and coach Josh McDaniels will have plenty of responsibility in preparing for the draft. Jim Goodman's strength was college scouting and the Broncos were coming off a stellar 2008 draft.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I am confident (Brian Xanders) will work in tandem with head coach Josh McDaniels to re-establish our football team at the level we desire." -- Broncos owner Pat Bowlen upon naming Xanders the team's new general manager.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Broncos don't have many of their own free agents that will be a high priority to re-sign. The team took care of its biggest potential issue, re-signing linebacker D.J. Williams, when they got him to agree to a new deal before the 2008 season started.
Denver released seven veterans shortly before free agency began, including five players that started on defense last season. The Broncos will need to fill holes on defense in the draft and free agency.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--RB Tatum Bell finished the season with a good game against San Diego, but with a lot of tailbacks on the roster he is no sure bet to return.
--DE Ebenezer Ekuban played well in 2008 but it remains to be seen how he fits into the new staff's plans.
--WR Darrell Jackson didn't contribute much in 2008 and appears unlikely to return.
--S Marlon McCree didn't play in the final eight games of the season, remaining inactive even after recovering from a high ankle sprain. He doesn't appear to be in Denver's plans.
--C Tom Nalen is likely on his way to retirement after sitting out 2008 with a knee injury.
--CB Karl Paymah was demoted a couple of times during the season and will likely hit the open market.
--DT Kenny Peterson provided some depth along the line for the Broncos, although the Broncos will try to upgrade their line.
--RB Michael Pittman played pretty well before a neck injury sidelined him, but he said he feels good and wants to play in Denver again. The new coaching staff will make a decision whether to bring him back.
--TE Jeb Putzier.
--QB Patrick Ramsey is a solid backup for Jay Cutler and despite finishing on injured reserve with an arm injury last year, could be re-signed.
--WR Edell Shepherd was out all last year with a knee injury.
--LB Nate Webster started last year and played well at times. The new staff will have to decide how he fits in their defense.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OT Erik Pears finished the season on physically unable to perform because of an appendectomy. He has experience at both tackle spots and could provide depth.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--RB Andre Hall has played well at times and should get a shot to make the team in training camp.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.
--OG Matt McChesney: FA Dolphins; terms unknown.
--RB Anthony Alridge (released).
--CB Dre' Bly (released).
--DE John Engelberger (released).
--RB Alex Haynes (released).
--TE Nate Jackson (released).
--LB Niko Koutouvides (released).
--S Marquand Manuel (released).
--TE Chad Mustard (released).
--RB P.J. Pope (released).
--DT Dewayne Robertson (released).
--WR Cliff Russell (released/failed physical).
--DT Josh Shaw (released).
--LB Jamie Winborn (released).
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