The Denver Broncos were one of the busiest teams in the NFL in free agency. While it's clear the Broncos are "all in" for 2014, they haven't mortgaged their future, either. Part of it was planned, and part of it was good fortune, as the league extended the cap at the 11th hour an additional $10 million, and the Broncos had a nice deal-sealer in Peyton Manning.
As John Elway said (via ESPN), "We had a bunch of cap space going into this year. ... We had plenty of cap space. That's why the misnomer of us winning now. Sure, we want to win now, but we also want to set ourselves up. ... There's no question we're trying to win this year, but we're also trying get good base for a good football team for a long time (sic)."
Below is our scorecard for the 2014 Broncos, one week into free agency.
Cap Space: $7.6 million
Amazing, isn't it? I would have thought the Broncos would be much tighter under the cap given the contracts they gave out this past week.
The Broncos achieved this by breaking down the guaranteed money in each of their big contracts into something manageable two years down the line. Each one of these deals, whether it's a three-year or five-year deal on paper, is really a two-year deal. The Broncos can get out of each of these contracts with a relatively minor cap hit in 2016. Kudos to John Elway and his caplogist, Matt Sullivan, on a job well done keeping the Broncos aggressive in the near-term and competitive in the long-term.
Re-signed WR Andre Caldwell for two years, $3.25 million
Caldwell's best asset is that he knows the system. He proved he could be productive in a three-game stint last winter, replacing Eric Decker's #2 position as Decker filled in for the injured Wes Welker in the slot. He boasted 11 catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns in those games, meaning he has the upper-hand as far as experience goes in battling Emmanuel Sanders for Denver's #2 WR spot this offseason. Still, I'm not sure Caldwell gets $2.5 million on the open market.
Signed S T.J. Ward for four years, $23 million
The Broncos' coup de gras of the offseason. John Elway identified this as Denver's biggest hole and addressed it aggressively. Of all the contracts the Broncos signed, this is the most likely to see the entire contract realized to completion. Ward could be a staple of the Broncos defense for many years to come.
Signed CB Aqib Talib for six years, $57 million
The Broncos had no choice but to play the cornerback market in their pursuit of Aqib Talib; they did a good job of staying disciplined and not letting Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie haggle them into a contract they might regret. Talib is a more physical corner than DRC, but he also comes with a bit more injury risk. However, the Broncos protected themselves with some super-sweet dead money figures: if they released Talib in 2015, 2016, or 2017, it would only cost them $4 million, $3 million, and $2 million respectively. That's pocket change on a contract nearing $60 mill.
Signed DE DeMarcus Ware for three years, $30 million
Pairing DeMarcus Ware with Von Miller was a beastly move by the Broncos (you heard me Marshawn Lynch), I only knock this grade down a peg because of the injury and scheme concerns I have with Ware. If healthy, and if he can learn to adjust to a 4-3 better than he did in 2013, this will be the biggest move the Broncos make of the offseason. But those concerns, combined with Ware's age of 31, just has me feeling a splinter of skepticism. I'm cautiously optimistic about Ware, but not as excited about him as I am with Talib or Ward. Here's hoping I'm wrong (like I was about Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last year).
Signed WR Emmanuel Sanders for three years, $18 million
Take a receiver who gets 750 yards a season, give him Peyton Manning, and watch his value increase three-fold. Sanders will make the most of his 2014 season with Peyton given that Manning's future beyond this season is unclear. I expect him to beat Caldwell out as Denver's #2, and I expect him to add a less-fumbling element to the Broncos' return game. It's important to note that $3 million of that 18 is purely incentive-driven.
Departures I like: G Zane Beadles, WR Eric Decker, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, KR/PR Trindon Holliday
Zane Beadles got paid way more than the Broncos were willing to shell out (good for him)... Decker just wasn't in the Broncos' long-term plans; they'll use that money to re-sign Demaryius Thomas next year... Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had his chance. I would have liked to see him come back, but he overplayed his hand. Kudos to John the Car Dealer for standing firm... While he was exciting to watch, my heart and my doctor thank Holliday for leaving Denver.
Departures I don't like: DE Jeremy Mincey, LB Wesley Woodyard
I feel like the Broncos gave up too quickly on Woodyard. The stinger he suffered in 2013 was truly unfortunate, as he was having a productive season at middle linebacker to that point. They invested seven seasons into this undrafted safety who emerged as a special teams captain in his rookie year and dominated at linebacker in 2012. I think they could have gotten him back at a slightly lower price than he got in Tennessee, and I think an extremely high-character guy is worth keeping around. ... Mincey is a guy who showed flashes in his brief stint in Denver I would have liked to see the Broncos retain.
Offensive Line (Center or Guard)
The Broncos visited with C Will Montgomery, but the former Redskins center left Dove Valley without a contract. They may still pursue o-line depth this week and next as they look to fill their left guard spot vacated by Zane Beadles. If they don't find anyone of starting caliber, the Broncos may opt to move right tackle Orlando Franklin to left guard and backup Chris Clark, who played in phenomenal fashion for Ryan Clady in 2013, to right tackle.
Right now the Broncos' only plans at this position would be Nate Irving, who had a decent end of the year replacing Von Miller outside. Maybe they saw enough to believe he could fill this role.
Overall Grade: A+
I don't think any of us could have "Been the Broncos GM" better than John Elway and Matt Sullivan did this past week. The true grades of this free agency period won't be known until 2016 or so, but the Broncos bolstered their defense to make another run at the Super Bowl in 2014. They filled every major hole in one week of free agency, and they still have the cap space to make a few adjustments and address their minor remaining needs before the draft. They also did it without mortgaging their future.
How would you grade the Broncos' first week of free agency?