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Horse Tracks: Important decisions loom for Broncos' front office

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It may be the offseason, but that's when the work begins...at least in the front office. While players are taking a break, GM John Elway and his new coaching staff are busy studying, reviewing, planning, negotiating, dealing.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, Broncos Country!

What better thing to do on a Monday morning than update your iCal (or Google calendar or your planners or - gah! - an actual calendar that hangs on the wall!?) with important Broncos dates.

So get out your pencils and mark these down because with a new coach and some major looming Free Agency and Draft decisions for the Broncos, you're going to want to keep up.

Franchise Tag - Feb. 16-March 2

Next week teams can designate their franchise player. It is anticipated that Demaryius Thomas will be tagged, guaranteeing him a one-year deal and a salary based on some sort of formula involving origami (OK, actually it is a formula based on a certain percentage of the overall cap number designated to each position group but until the cap is stated, it's only speculation.)  Last year the franchise money for wide receivers was $12.32 million, and it will be higher this year.

There is some speculation GM John Elway may let DT test free agency but the prevailing view is that he stays...at least for one more year. And most Broncos fans would like to see that.

Oh, if only there would be some way to know right now!

Nope, sorry...have to wait anywhere from 24 to 374 hours once it opens - and teams rarely do it on the first day.

NFL Combine, Feb. 17-23

The scouting combine in Indianapolis will be the Broncos' first official team event since the new personnel were added last month. With Free Agency just around the corner, it will be interesting to see what Gary Kubiak, Rick Dennison and Wade Phillips may possibly find in Indy and how that impacts their goals for free agency, which begins March 10.

General Manager John Elway has indicated the Broncos will not necessarily be as aggressive with free agency spending outside the organization as last year, but if Elway is anything, he is crafty during Free Agency, so who knows.

And at the very least, the combine always provides one of my favorite fun moments in the NFL every year - Rich Eisen running the 40 (something he earned a personal best in last year!)

Love that guy.

It is likely JT and Pot Roast get some big offers - possibly from AFC West rival Raiders - and Broncos will have to determine if a big paycheck is worth keeping any/all of them (go ahead, debate this...I know you want to!)

If there's a man who knows how to use his salary cap dollars, it's Elway.

End of the current NFL year - March 9

This is important because contracts for some players stipulate guaranteed money if the player is still on the roster. Ryan Clady, DeMarcus WareAqib Talib and T.J. Ward each have all or part of their base salaries guaranteed if still on the team.

Of course, the biggest contract in this category belongs to Peyton Manning, whose $19 million base will be guaranteed if he announces his return to the Broncos. That highly anticipated - and slightly overhyped - decision is likely to come around his annual physical, which contractually must happen at least 10 days before the end of the league year.

Sources have indicated Manning will make his decision by the end of the month, so it is likely to coincide with his annual trip to the doctor. Hope he's been eating his apples! (Don't even think about debating this one...we've done that enough, haven't we? :) )

Offseason conditioning - April 6

Since the Broncos have a new coaching staff, the team is allowed to begin offseason conditioning on this date. Teams (such the New England Patriots, whose head coach may be there forever) can begin April 20.

Though in this first phase, only the strength and conditioning coaches can meet with the team, I imagine Kubiak would like players to get a start as early as possible. If so, Broncos fans could be in luck for at least some practice news early spring.

NFL Draft - April 30-May 2

Although Elway has not been graded as high for his draft prospects as for his free agency grabs, the three-day event in Chicago is always very exciting and makes for months of incredible speculation as to how rookies may contribute to the team. Last year's draft yielded only one real contributing rookie in Bradley Roby but that wasn't necessarily a surprise.

Since the Broncos focused heavily on defensive pickups in free agency and the draft last year, both events look to go the offensive route this time around.

There has been a lot of talk around the Broncos moving to a 3-4 defense, but it's the Broncos offense that should have the most questions surrounding it next year (and I'm not even talking about the quarterback situation here).

That's absolutely 100 percent correct, three new starters minimum.   -Former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth on O-Line needs for Denver

Many analysts expect the Broncos to change the offensive line and use FA and possibly the Draft to fill some holes there. And what holes exist, depends on who is talking. Among the most notable is ESPN analyst and former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth (who also criticized Denver's O-line quite publicly last season, calling it "horrendous").

Schlereth sees the Broncos moving Louis Vasquez back to right guard and Ryan Clady back to left tackle and finding three new players for the O-Line.

"Yes, that's absolutely, 100 percent correct, three new starters minimum," said Schlereth, who played six seasons at guard for the Broncos with Kubiak as the offensive coordinator. "And let's face it, even with that, Clady has to be better than he was [in 2014]. Whether that's the injuries, that he's broken, or not, we'll see."

Two current O-linemen, Orlando Franklin and Will Montgomery, are free agents, so it will be interesting to see if they stay. There are also some young guys who may presumably be ready to move up the depth chart, including Ben Garland (who saw some playing time last season) as well as rookies Michael Schofield and Matt Paradis.

Here is a list from Spotrac of all O-Line free agents. People much more in the know than I can decide if any of these could work here or if our own unknowns might have more to offer.

Rookie Mini Camp - May 8-11

The earliest possible three-day option for a rookie mini camp. While this isn't required, many teams including the Broncos, often have one.

And finally, a mere seven months later...Opening Weekend - Thursday, Sept. 10

Sadly, opening weekend is a week later than usual this year, making the offseason longer (is that even possible?) If you're counting, that's about 7 months away.

But luckily for Broncos fans, our offseason is rarely boring.

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