Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
The Denver Broncos season is over, and fans couldn't be more shocked. Still, this team has a lot to build on not only to win now, but to win down the road. Where should they go from here?
If you're as shocked as I am, it's probably by sheer disappointment and depression that you clicked on this article. Like many of you, I thought this was clearly the Broncos' year. The stars had aligned, the team won 11 straight games after a heart-breaking near-comeback against the New England Patriots, and we Broncos fans seemed to forget what it felt like to lose.
This loss is going to take some serious healing, at least for me and I'm sure many of you. In a game marred by turnovers, penalties, poor officiating, and an overall lack of safety help, I am in need of a pick-me-up.
Unfortunately, there won't be much if any activity from the Denver Broncos for another couple of months when free agency kicks off. The Broncos obviously cashed in a lot of their cap space this past year when they made the move of the decade, potentially the best free agent acquisition of all-time in the NFL when they reeled in Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
While Manning is taking a healthy chunk of change, the Broncos have to have enough room on their books to re-sign some key players, and first priority this offseason is bringing back left tackle Ryan Clady, who temporarily ended contract talks early in the season.
The Broncos will be picking 28th in the coming NFL Draft, and they will have all but one of their picks which is going to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Broderick Bunkley, who spent just one year in orange and blue. The terms of that pick have not been disclosed to my knowledge, but I can't imagine it's for any higher than a fifth round selection.
Let's take a look at the roster and see where the Broncos stand going forward and making moves this offseason:
The Broncos are set at the quarterback position for the present (Manning) and future (Brock Osweiler, 2nd round, 2012). I am excited to see what improvements the youngster has made in the coming pre-season, but I hope he doesn't have to come on to the field any more than he did in 2012.
Denver could save a roster spot and just carry two quarterbacks (Caleb Hanie did nothing all year) but if they insist on keeping a third, I think you have to get an upgrade over Hanie. Not that it really matters.
Spots locked down: 2
Free Agents: None
This is a murky situation for the Broncos, who have a bunch of names and a bunch of uncertainty. Willis McGahee is a Pro Bowl player when he's healthy, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and spent a lot of time trying to get back on the field rather than helping the Broncos out.
Knowshon Moreno was benched for an oddly long amount of time, especially given the Broncos' choice to go with Lance Ball for a stretch there, as well as Ronnie Hillman's rookie mistakes. Moreno is the Broncos' best receiver out of the backfield in my opinion and showed at the end of this year that he is more than worthy of a roster spot next year. Some may disagree there.
Obviously, Ronnie Hillman will be back. He is a change of pace and I'm excited to see what he can become when he gets more comfortable in his own skin as a runner. Holding the ball with two hands is okay when you're playing not to lose, and I'm not going to say I want Hillman to be reckless with the ball, but he is not going to be what we drafted him to be trying to hold the ball with two hands every time he touches it.
I think Lance Ball and Jacob Hester can probably be upgraded, but Ball's been on the team for a while. I don't think anyone of this group is guaranteed a roster spot next year besides Hillman.
I don't see any reason for Chris Gronkowski to be on the roster next year either. He was barely used at all.
Coming back from injury: Mario Fannin
Spots locked down: 1 (Hillman)
Free Agents: Lance Ball (RFA), Chris Gronkowski (RFA)
This position offers the Broncos a bright future at the top end, and not much for depth. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, AKA "Black and Decker" are two of the best wideouts in the league. They proved they can both be possession receivers, big play threats, and also clutch. They are going to be huge going forward.
Behind those guys, it gets a little choppy. I think Trindon Holliday has cemented a roster spot as a kick/punt returner. He is an absolute stud despite his potential to muff some balls or fumble on occasion. He was a huge pickup for the Broncos on special teams and maybe they can try to work him into the offensive gameplan going forward.
Brandon Stokley didn't show his age this year, and is still in great shape to play going forward. He said he wants to play next year, and if the Broncos are willing to have him back, he should solidify a roster spot immediately.
Matthew Willis is a solid special teams player, but his inability to contribute offensively is astounding given his speed and the fact that Peyton Manning is the quarterback.
Andre Caldwell had high expectations from me, and not only did he not meet them, he didn't even see the field. There must be something to that story but that was a bust of a signing.
The Broncos have also been developing 6'3" Greg Orton on the practice squad, a former star Arena league player, and they just signed Gerrell Robinson to a future deal. Those guys will compete in camp but expect the team to add at least two new receivers capable of earning some playing time or developing into starting caliber players.
Spots locked down: 3 (Thomas, Decker, Holliday)
Free Agents: Matt Willis (UFA), Brandon Stokley (UFA)
Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme were as good of pickups as we could have asked for. Tamme was the third most targeted player on the team with 85 targets and he finished third in receiving with two scores. Joel Dreessen continued to pile on TDs to his career total with five more in 2012, just one less than he had with Houston last season. He has had 15 TD catches in the last three seasons, and is a very valuable piece of the passing game.
Virgil Green was able to step up and make some plays this season, but in the passing game, they were few and far in between. He showed some great strides as a blocker though, and he gives the Broncos a very solid three-man rotation at the tight end position for now.
Julius Thomas, who looked great at his rookie camp two years ago, was non-existent this year--literally. Mitch Unrein had a touchdown catch, and Thomas didn't even see the field unless I missed something. Perhaps the Broncos are working him in slowly, but I worry he's not developing. Still, there is no reason for concern at the tight end position. The Broncos are loaded here for at least a couple of years.
Spots locked down: 3 (Tamme, Dreessen, Thomas)
Free Agents: None
The Broncos MUST re-sign Ryan Clady this offseason. Obviously he saw a dip in his production with Tim Tebow as QB, since he had to hold his blocks longer, but with Manning, he was nearly unbeatable again at left tackle as he was with Jay Cutler. He is among the best in the NFL at his position, if not the best overall.
Orlando Franklin is a pretty average to above average tackle, but he held his own this year and to be honest, I didn't notice many glaring mistakes. As far as I'm concerned, Franklin is entrenched as our starting right tackle for the next long while.
Chris Clark is the team's lone backup at tackle, which is a bit concerning to me, though he has been able to stick around for quite some time.
Stashed Away: The Broncos picked up a rookie named Paul Cornick out of North Dakota State this year, who stands at 6'6" 310 pounds. He was an FCS All-American at NDSU before being cut from the New York Jets practice squad. We'll see what he can do.
Spots locked down: 2 (Clady, Franklin)
Free Agents: Ryan Clady (UFA), Chris Clark (RFA)
This is a position of controversy among some fans. There is a large contingent that believes the Broncos must upgrade the interior offensive line immediately and with a high draft choice or two, and there are some who believe we're set. I tend to lean more on the side of we're set at the guard position, though we could certainly continue to look to upgrade.
Chris Kuper has been injury prone the last two years with some freak injuries. He needs to get right this offseason and continue living up to his contract--on the field. When he is healthy, I think Kuper is one of the best in the game. That is a tough call to use a high draft pick to replace a high-priced player who is more than effective when he's able to go.
Zane Beadles was an improved player in 2012, though there are still a lot of people who believe the jury is out. I think Beadles is a very good run blocker and an improving pass blocker. Is he the future at the position? The Broncos have to make that call but there's no doubt in my mind he'll be back next season.
Manny Ramirez was okay when he needed to come in, but certainly not a guy you'd want to start 16 games for ya, or maybe even four.
Coming back from injury: The Broncos drafted Philip Blake in the fourth round last year. He's going to be 27 next season. If they didn't draft him to be a starter or at least be capable of starting, it was a wasted selection. He needs to be part of the rotation next season in my opinion.
Stashed away: Lonnie Edwards, a tough guy out of Texas Tech, has spent some time on the Broncos' practice squad. He'll be brought to camp to compete.
Spots locked down: 3 (Kuper, Beadles, Blake)
Free Agents: None
Dan Koppen seemed like an upgrade over what we'd known from J.D. Walton, but I still have faith that the former third round pick can be a good center in the NFL. He's young, smart, and tough. Peyton Manning needs to get a lot of work in with him this offseason, and those two need to become best buds.
If the Broncos can save a roster spot and bring Koppen back to at least compete, I'd be really grateful.
Philip Blake can also play some center, and maybe that's where his future is with the Broncos.
The team also has Quinton Saulsberry stashed away and serving a suspension right now. He was a decent prospect coming out, so we'll see if he can develop.
Spots locked down: 1 (Walton)
Free Agents: Dan Koppen (UFA)
Elvis Dumervil is a Pro Bowl player who is still elite at his position. He finished this last season with 11 sacks and six forced fumbles.
I thought Robert Ayers had a really solid season as a reserve, but the Broncos need to look into whether or not he has a future with the team. He's certainly not an elite player by any means, but he's a good backup who can get pressure on the inside at times. Not exactly what you'd hope for from a former first round pick, but that's irrelevant at this point.
Derek Wolfe started every game this year, and I think he's in line to be a productive Bronco for quite some time. He looks like a steal where the Broncos got him as one of the best interior pass rushers in his class and a guy who can play multiple positions.
Malik Jackson can play defensive end or tackle, and while he didn't see a ton of action this year, I think he could be part of the rotation going forward for sure.
Coming back from injury: Jeremy Beal and Jason Hunter both spent the season on injured reserve, and can make an impact I think. Hunter is getting older but was in line to be a starter before his injury. We'll see what the future holds for Beal.
The Broncos also have Ben Garland stashed away on the practice squad, and he's been developing for a while. We'll see if his effort finally pays off this year.
Spots locked down: 2 (Wolfe, Dumervil)
Free Agents: Jason Hunter (UFA)
Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson played great this year against the run, and helped free up our top ranked pass rush to make plays in the backfield. I really liked the production we got from both of those guys, but how much longer can we count on it? Bannan can probably be effective for another year or two, and Vickerson can be as well but he has injury history. I'd love for those guys to come back strong again next year, but I'm not sure.
Mitch Unrein has probably locked in a defensive tackle slot for next year. He was able to do it all this year as a part of our rotation, kind of an unsung hero on our team. He didn't stand out in any statistical category, but the third year player out of Wyoming was certainly one of our most productive backup defensive linemen.
Sealver Siliga was a pretty consistently inactive this year, so the jury is still out on him. The coaching staff seems to like him and have confidence in him, though. I think he will have an edge going into training camp next year.
Coming back from injury: Ty Warren. I think Warren's days in the NFL are close to over. The poor guy just cannot stay healthy. He was able to notch one tackle this season before he went down with another season-ending injury. Warren's one tackle this year is his lone tackle since the 2009 season.
Shocker alert: All but one of the aforementioned players is a free agent in 2013. Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan are both UFAs, and Unrein is an exclusive rights free agent (meaning he's back in Denver, pretty much).
Spots locked down: 1 (Unrein)
Free Agents: Justin Bannan (UFA), Kevin Vickerson (UFA), Mitch Unrein (ERFA), Ty Warren (UFA)
Von Miller could be a future Hall of Famer blossoming before our eyes. He's not even scratched the surface of how dominant he can be in this league, if you ask me. He's incredible.
Wesley Woodyard is a revelation, and a hidden gem on this team. I think those two are going to be the leaders of this defense for years to come.
D.J. Williams could be a cap casualty. He played in just a handful of games this year, and unless he re-structures his deal (I don't see that happening) I think D.J. and his $6 million pay day coming in 2013 could be headed elsewhere.
Joe Mays signed a three-year, $12 million deal this past offseason, and that was a huge mistake that the Broncos need to rectify immediately. Mays is a liability defensively, and I hate to say it because I love his intensity.
Nate Irving has a couple more years to prove himself on this team, but I don't think he's guaranteed a roster spot next year. He is a former third round pick, so the front office has to be willing to see that pick play out.
Steven Johnson was a great pickup as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas, and could have an increased role next year.
The team picked up Keith Brooking, who wound up playing a huge role in our defense. Brooking finished the year with 54 tackles and will be a free agent in 2013. He's definitely getting up there in age, and while he may still be able to play, you have to wonder if he's ready to let the game go.
Danny Trevathan may have been the steal of our draft class in the sixth round out of Kentucky, playing big roles on special teams and getting in on the defensive rotation. He finished the season with 33 tackles and will be back next year.
Spots locked down: 4 (Miller, Woodyard, Irving, Trevathan)
Free Agents: Keith Brooking (UFA)
Champ Bailey will be back in 2013, even after getting beat like he stole something against Torrey Smith in the sad season finale. Chris Harris has been an incredible steal as an undrafted free agent, and will be a key piece to our defense moving forward.
Tony Carter is a free agent, but he started a majority of games and I'd love to see him come back. He made some big plays this past year, but sadly many will remember him for what he did on that last play against Baltimore at the end of regulation. Urgh...
Tracy Porter is a free agent, and with all his injury and/or health problems, I don't see the team bringing him back unless it's at a discounted price. Could've used him (anything) against the Ravens...
Omar Bolden was injured in the playoff game against Baltimore. He is still growing into his role but was a fourth round pick, so he should have a role on the team next year as well.
Spots locked down: 3 (Bailey, Harris, Bolden)
Free Agents: Tony Carter (UFA), Tracy Porter (UFA)
We'd prefer not to talk about this group after the way the season ended.
Mike Adams is due $1.75 million in 2013, which isn't a ton of money but may be more than the Broncos are willing to cough up for his services, even though he was second on the team with 80 tackles. I don't think he's a lock for the roster.
Rahim Moore--bless his heart--had a breakout season that was capped off by one of the most insanely inexplicable plays in the history of football. You can't blame him solely for the loss, but that play was incredibly bad. Still, Moore will be a starter next year, and I think he's a good one. He had 72 tackles, a pick, a sack, and a fumble recovery. He also had a few tackles for loss and showed good ability to close on receivers and crash down to the line of scrimmage.
Jim Leonhard and David Bruton made some significant contributions this year both defensively and on special teams. Bruton is such a gifted special teams player it's a wonder he's been so incapable of making an impact in the defensive rotation. He should be brought back because of his prowess on special teams.
Leonhard seemed to have a knack for picking off Philip Rivers, but that's about it. He was our best fair-catcher...? That was a move made to shore up depth, and he did just that for a year. I don't think he'll be back next year.
Back from injury: Quinton Carter. I fully expect Carter to be a starter by the time next season starts, but he's going to have to prove he can come back from injury. Overall, this is a position where the Broncos need to shore up depth and look for potential future starters.
Spots locked down: 2 (Moore, Carter)
Free Agents: Jim Leonhard (UFA), David Bruton (UFA)
I feel like the Broncos are set here for the next decade plus.
Free Agents: Britton Colquitt (RFA)
Free Agents in 2013
Lance Ball, RB (RFA)
Chris Gronkowski, FB (RFA)
Matt Willis, WR (UFA)
Brandon Stokley, WR (UFA)
Ryan Clady, OT (UFA)
Chris Clark, OT (RFA)
Dan Koppen, C (UFA)
Jason Hunter, DE (UFA)
Justin Bannan, DT (UFA)
Kevin Vickerson, DT (UFA)
Ty Warren, DT (UFA)
Mitch Unrein, DT (ERFA)
Keith Brooking, MLB (UFA)
Tony Carter, CB (UFA)
Tracy Porter, CB (UFA)
David Bruton, S (UFA)
Jim Leonhard, S (UFA)
Britton Colquitt, P (RFA)
Biggest Team Needs: DT, S, MLB, RB, slot WR
For further reference, here is a link to a depth chart that highlights all of our free agents and every player's contract situation.