Many pundits expect the Denver Broncos front office to take a conservative approach to this up-coming offseason, and maybe rightfully so.
The Broncos have just south of $20 million in cap space, and as has been explained numerous times on this site, offensive tackle Ryan Clady is due a Pro Bowl pay day. Clady finished out his rookie contract without really any hint of a holdout or any whining whatsoever, and he deserves to be paid like one of the top left tackles in the NFL.
No matter what happens this offseason, I definitely believe that Ryan Clady will be back in orange and blue. If the Broncos have to franchise tag him, or if they are able to re-sign him, I think he is back either way.
John Elway also has some really tough decisions to make. Inside linebacker Joe Mays made enough of an impression on the Denver brass that they may still have bruises on their faces from handing him a knee-jerk contract worth about $12 million over three seasons. Mays finished the season on injured reserve and was one of the worst players on Denver's defense when he went down. Four million dollars per season is far too high for a guy who strictly contributes in positive ways on special teams.
Mays is a good player to have in the locker room, and is a hard hitter and solid against the run at times, but he constantly looks lost in coverage and struggles in space. The Broncos either have to convince Mays to come back at a greatly reduced price and provide depth, or they will be forced to part ways this offseason.
Denver is also likely to take a very serious look at the contract situation of D.J. Williams. Has the first round pick in 2004 played his last down as a member of the Broncos? Among other off-field distractions, such as DUIs and taking photos of himself smoking Hookah--whatever that stuff is--Williams is owed $6 million dollars in the final year of his contract. Williams is one of the longest tenured Broncos and has led the team in tackles on occasion, but he visibly wasn't the same player when he came back from injury. In fact, the Broncos kept him in a pretty limited role thanks to the emergence of Wesley Woodyard, and the fact that Keith Brooking was simply the better option most downs.
Maybe the toughest situation yet is that of guard Chris Kuper, who is 30 years old, injury prone, and set to receive $4.5 million in 2013. Kuper was selected to the Pro Bowl as an alternate this past season, and for good reason. He is probably one of the best guards in the league when he's healthy, but that seems to be sparingly lately. The Broncos shouldn't overpay for a guy who isn't healthy on a consistent basis, but they also shouldn't cut a guy who is only 30 and a Pro Bowl player. This is a situation where Denver may look to add some playing time incentives to Kuper's contract in a re-structure, and make him earn the $4.5 million instead of guaranteeing it.
Safety Mike Adams is also set to make just under $2 million in 2013, and the Broncos need to see if that figure is worth the money either. Adams was solid last season but clearly had trouble playing the deep ball at times. That is going to be an area where teams look to exploit the Broncos early next season to see if they've improved. I think Denver could upgrade over Adams in the offseason, be it through the draft or free agency, but they may choose to see him through for one more season at his current going rate.
What To Expect
It's clear that the Broncos are going to make re-signing Ryan Clady a top priority. Joe Thomas, who is widely regarded as the best left tackle in the NFL, signed a massive contract with the Browns that totals $92 million over eight years with $44 million guaranteed. He will make an average of $10.5 million over the next two seasons, and then about 8.5 million on average from 2015-2018.
I don't know that I expect Clady to quite earn himself a $44 million pay day, but I think he could wind up making himself between $35-40 million in guarantees if he signs a lengthy deal like Thomas did. Let's just assume for the sake of assuming that Clady is on the books for about $8 million in 2013 after signing a new deal, and that might be guessing a tad high.
With roughly $18 million currently in cap space, that would leave the Broncos with about $10 million to continue to re-sign players and add to the roster. That's where I think cutting D.J. Williams and Joe Mays comes into play. It's just not financially responsible to keep them around next season at their current prices.
Getting those two players off the books would give the Broncos an additional $10 million in cap space, bumping them up to $20 million (hypothetically) and giving them even more than they started with before bringing Clady back on a long term deal.
The Broncos can't afford to be irresponsible with that $20 million due to the fact that Eric Decker is entering a contract year, and he needs to be taken care of, but they do have some room to play around a bit.
I don't know that Chris Kuper will be willing to re-negotiate his contract. From the Broncos perspective it's a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it's also a no-brainer for Kuper to decline because he is injury prone. Because of that fact, why would he be willing to take less money than he's guaranteed? Plus, the Broncos don't have a lot of leverage in terms of depth at the position on the roster.
Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno are set to make a combined $4.2 million in 2013, which seems pretty reasonable for a running back tandem. Both have injury problems, but what running back in the NFL doesnt?
I don't see those guys getting cut, but that's certainly within the realm of possibility.
Caleb Hanie is on the books for $1.25 million. Chalk that up as both a mistake and $1.25 million saved going into free agency. The Broncos will not be keeping him around and if they do, we have some problems.
Andre Caldwell is due $900,000 in 2013, and he wasn't even able to sniff the field in 2012. He is as good as gone.
By cutting Some dead weight, the Broncos can manage to get their funds to around $20-25 million, or more if they choose to part ways with Chris Kuper (unwise, in my opinion).
If they get to that number, there are some really intriguing possibilities, maybe even some probabilities.
An Intriguing Possibility
Not everyone is going to agree with me, and that's okay. However, I believe in the power of leadership and the power of experience. I was a huge proponent of bringing in Peyton Manning last year, though I had my doubts and my obvious love for Tim Tebow.
As much as people thought Manning was too banged up, too old, and not what he used to be, John Elway saw what many of us wanted to believe, and that was that Manning could still be a star in this league.
One team is going through similar transition to that of the Colts from a year ago, though their team is not nearly as bad. The Chicago Bears finished 10-6 and still managed to miss out on the playoffs in 2012. Head coach Lovie Smith was fired, and their division is suddenly probably the best in the NFL.
Inside linebacker Brian Urlacher is not the player he once was, has suffered some bad injuries, and likely is done fooling around with his career. Urlacher has been a Bear for life, and likely will go to Canton as a Chicago Bear. That doesn't mean he has to play his final seasons in Chicago.
Urlacher is a free agent in 2013, and would give the Broncos some heart and soul in the middle of their defense. Keith Brooking was able to come out of basically nowhere in 2012 and be one of Denver's best linebackers, and I see no reason why a healthy Urlacher can't be that and then some.
One of the all-time greats at linebacker in NFL history, Urlacher is coming off of one of the worst seasons in his career but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt since he has been battling injuries and playing through some pretty nasty ones.
I don't know that Urlacher can come in and be a Pro Bowl defender again, but I think he can be a solid starter which is something the Broncos desperately need. Plus, Urlacher could help bridge the gap for a new inside linebacker the Broncos bring in via the draft, as well as continue the development of second year player Steven Johnson.
Urlacher is obviously a big name, and let me be clear and repeat myself--he is not the player he once was--but I think he could be a really nice addition for the Broncos at a reduced price to start for a year or two at the inside linebacker position.
An Intriguing Probability...?
The Broncos have a big recruiting piece in Peyton Manning, and that could come in handy as they potentially pursue some pass rush depth this offseason. 33-year old defensive end Dwight Freeney is Manning's former teammate in Indianapolis, and has likely played his last down as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
Freeney was mis-cast in Indy's new 3-4 defensive look, and while he's a great player, we know that sometimes that transition just doesn't work out for guys. Freeney is at his best rushing the passer in a four man front, and imagine him--even at an older age--on a line with Elvis Dumervil, sharing the pass rush opportunities with Von Miller and Derek Wolfe.
This is not the Freeney who has been a constant double-digit sack guy, but I think in Denver's defense with the players around him, he could be a guy who would get double-digit sacks once again and help open up some lanes for Von Miller and company.
The Broncos were arguably the best pass rushing team in the NFL in 2012, but were stymied in the AFC Divisional round against Baltimore, coming up with almost no pass rush on Joe Flacco, who personally knit Ray Lewis a retirement sweater in that game.
Okay, all joking aside, this is a financially responsible move I'd love to see the Broncos make. They wouldn't have to break the bank to get him, he has ties to the team, and he fills a need. Denver needs to strongly consider moving Derek Wolfe to defensive tackle full-time, and if not, they need a more reliable edge rusher. The Broncos have basically conceded to that strong-side defensive end spot occupying a blocker as opposed to getting around the edge, which is typically okay because that's where Von Miller is.
I still think this would be a really good move.
To add even more old bones to the Denver defense, how about free agent safety Ed Reed? The Broncos were once able to lure Brian Dawkins out of Philadelphia, a place where he became legendary and there was seemingly no way he'd ever get out of there.
Somehow, with Kyle Orton as the starting QB and Josh McDaniels as the head coach, the Broncos' front office was able to lure Dawkins out of Philly, and he gave the Broncos a couple of really solid seasons.
Ed Reed is getting old, but he's still incredibly effective at the safety position. He was able to witness first-hand our woes at the position, so maybe he'd be willing to join the retirement home I'm hypothetically putting together in the Mile High City.
Brian Urlacher, Dwight Freeney, and Ed Reed--a dream team in 2005, not bad in 2013.
Bust a Move
It recently became public knowledge that Darrelle Revis is going to be shopped this offseason. If that's the case, the Broncos need to look into it. I wouldn't break the bank for Revis, who's had some bad injury problems and is entering the final year of his contract. He's going to want big money, but he's 27 years of age and a shut down cornerback in the NFL.
If Revis is willing to accept a reasonable deal, and the Broncos were willing to sign some really, really cheap alternatives at other positions, they could pretty easily afford to trade for/re-sign Revis and still keep Clady while saving funds for 2014 free agent Eric Decker.
Anyway, those are just some bigger names that would be on my list for the Broncos to pick up. You know you aren't getting anything spectacular individually, but collectively, I think these guys could have a huge impact on Denver's defense for a year or two and keep this team in the thick of things for a Super Bowl title.