Hello, Bronco fans! We’ve got a lot of reasons to feel good about the season overall (hey, who wouldn’t feel good about winning the Super Bowl?) but, as everyone knows by now, there will be a lot of tough decisions the Broncos will have to make as they try to remain Super Bowl favorites next season.
I’m going to do a series of offseason primers in which I specifically look at the Broncos’ needs, although there will be times when I’ll examine what other teams are like to give you examples of what to do, or not to do, when utilizing free agency.
We’ll start this with a look at each position and how high a priority it is to address (keeping in mind a priority could increase depending on roster cuts) and then I’ll examine the players who are set to become free agents (exclusive rights, restricted and unrestricted) and what to do with each of them.
In future installments, I’ll address specific players and their contract situations. As time permits, I’ll talk about what other teams may need to do to illustrate examples of roster management (good or bad) and some of the unrestricted free agents the Broncos could consider.
Positions and priorities
Quarterback: It’s likely that Peyton Manning is calling it a career. Thus, it will be important to get Brock Osweiler extended and find a veteran in free agency who can push him. High priority
Running back: CJ Anderson is a restricted free agent who should be tendered. Ronnie Hillman is an unrestricted free agent. The Broncos still have Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs, but neither appears to be in the long-term plans. Expect the Broncos to look at street free agents and the draft for help. Medium priority
Wide receiver: Andre Caldwell and Jordan Norwood are unrestricted free agents, but even if both depart, the Broncos have plenty of younger receivers who are more than capable of filling roles. Low priority
Tight end: The Broncos are in good shape with Owen Daniels and Virgil Green for another year and, if all goes well, Jeff Heuerman will be ready to go after missing 2015 with a torn ACL. Lots of pundits will say this is a major need, but they forget the Broncos drafted Heuerman and aren’t giving up on him. Low priority
Offensive tackle: The biggest question to ask is whether or not the Broncos retain Ryan Clady. Then it’s a matter of figuring out what to do with Ty Sambrailo and Michael Schofield. Do the Broncos let them compete for the right tackle spot, do they prefer to test free agency or would it be better to draft somebody? How much the Broncos need to do depends a lot on what happens with Clady, though. Medium priority, becoming high priority if Clady is gone
Offensive guard: Evan Mathis is a free agent and Louis Vasquez is in the final year of his contract. Max Garcia should enter the starting lineup next season, but the Broncos will need to consider the draft to find a guard to develop behind Vasquez, or they may have to explore free agency if they opt to let Vasquez go and not re-sign Mathis. Medium priority, becoming high priority if both Mathis and Vasquez are gone
Center: Matt Paradis and James Ferentz are present and accounted for. The Broncos don’t need to worry about finding help here. Low priority
Defensive end: Re-signing Derek Wolfe addressed this in part. Malik Jackson, though, is probably playing elsewhere, as much as I’m sure the Broncos would like to keep him. They could bring back Antonio Smith, but I am expecting the Broncos to at least draft a defensive end because I don’t see them retaining Jackson. If Smith is gone, the Broncos need somebody for a rotational role, too. Medium priority, becoming high priority if Jackson and Smith are both gone
Defensive tackle: With Sylvester Williams and Darius Kilgo in the fold, and Vance Walker able to play defensive tackle, the Broncos are in good shape here. Low priority
Inside linebacker: Danny Trevathan is an unrestricted free agent. The Broncos will have an opening to fill if he goes elsewhere. Medium priority
Outside linebacker: The Broncos aren’t about to let Von Miller get away. As for the rest, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett give the Broncos two quality young players. The question, though, is what to do with DeMarcus Ware. If he is released, the Broncos will likely need to sign a street free agent. Low priority, becoming medium priority if Ware is gone
Cornerback: Everybody who was on the roster this year is likely returning for 2017, so there’s little need to pursue anyone at this position. Low priority
Safety: T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart are quality starters, but depth players David Bruton Jr., Omar Bolden, Josh Bush and Shiloh Keo are unrestricted free agents. At least one of them should be retained, possibly two, but the Broncos do need to find somebody who can be groomed into a starting role, given that Ward and Stewart enter the final years of their deals. (ETA: A correction that Ward is signed through 2017.) Medium priority
Kicker, punter and long snapper: Brandon McManus and Aaron Brewer will stick around but Britton Colquitt is a likely cut given that his cap number is too high, even though he improved his play from 2014. Punter a priority
Exclusive rights free agents
Sam Brenner, C/G
Todd Davis, ILB
Bennie Fowler, WR
Brandon McManus, K
Matt Paradis, C
An easy decision to tender all five. Low-cost players who you want for depth at least, but if they become quality starters, you have a bargain. If they don’t make the final roster, there’s nothing lost at all.
Restricted free agents
CJ Anderson, RB
Josh Bush, S
Brandon Marshall, ILB
Lerentee McCray, OLB
I have advocated for tendering Marshall at the first-round level because he’s too good of a player to tender at the second-round level. You have several teams who would happily give up a second-round pick for him and would be able to structure a contract so that he not only gets a lot of money up front, but pour it into the 2016 base salary while keeping the signing bonus low. That would prevent the Broncos from matching the offer as they use their cap space for other players.
Anderson should be fine under the second-round tender because most teams aren’t going to risk overpaying for a back who, while talented, hasn’t proven he can truly transform an offense. McCray and Bush are not worth the original-round tender, which comes out to more than $1.3M, but I would be fine with giving them one-year deals at the minimum.
Unrestricted free agents to allow to depart
Andre Caldwell, WR
Vernon Davis, TE
Ronnie Hillman, RB
Malik Jackson, DE
Evan Mathis, OG
Tyler Polumbus, OT
Antonio Smith, DE
Kyle Williams, WR
A couple of these free agents will be tough to say goodbye to, but the Broncos may not have a choice. The toughest one for me to say goodbye to will be Malik Jackson. He’s going to demand a contract the Broncos really can’t afford, even if they had the cap space to accommodate it. They would be tying up too much money for the defensive line when they could get production from a defensive end from the draft (and the draft class is deep) and from a lower-cost option in free agency. I don’t want to let Jackson walk, but too much works against the Broncos to keep him around.
Losing Mathis won’t be easy, either, but he’s not getting any younger and it makes more sense to let him walk and get younger at the guard position. Jackson and Mathis should each net the Broncos a compensatory draft pick in 2017.
Caldwell, Davis, Hillman and Smith are players who might net a comp pick as well. I’m not down on Caldwell as some people are, but the Broncos have younger receivers who can fill his role. Davis didn’t work out as expected and the Broncos should be able to find an upgrade over Hillman, who struggled down the stretch. Smith was a tough call for me, but there are defensive ends in free agency who are younger than Smith and would not command large deals – these are the players who would likely have to take a deal similar to the one the Broncos gave to Vance Walker last year. Polumbus was fine to fill in when other players were injured or struggling but he’s no longer needed, while Williams missed too much time with injuries and the Broncos have other receivers who could take his place.
Unrestricted free agents not to re-sign right away, but perhaps bring back later if they don’t sign elsewhere
Omar Bolden, S
Ryan Harris, OT
Jordan Norwood, WR
Shiloh Keo, S
Bolden is the perfect example of somebody you allow to test the market and, if he finds nothing to his liking, bring him back on a low-cost deal. Having him back would fill the returner role, but even if he doesn’t return, the Broncos should be able to find somebody else who can help, either through the draft or from a street free agent. What happens with Harris depends largely on what the Broncos do with Ryan Clady – if they keep Clady, they can wait on bringing him back, then do so if they can’t find a free agent right tackle they want. I wasn’t sure at first if I would want to keep Norwood at all, but his postseason performance makes him worth consideration if he doesn’t find another team and the Broncos think they need an experienced return man on the roster. Keo is somebody the Broncos can wait on until after the draft to see if they want him for competition in training camp.
Unrestricted free agents I’m on the fence about
Danny Trevathan, ILB
I would like to see Trevathan stay with the Broncos but I have my doubts that will happen. He’s one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL, but the question is how much salary he is going to command. I wouldn’t pay him at the level of Luke Kuechly, but Trevathan could get something close to that, especially with several teams needing inside linebacker help who have cap space available. At this point, I believe he will be gone, though I agree with Nick that some effort should be made to re-sign him. If he departs, he should net the Broncos a 2017 compensatory pick.
Unrestricted free agents I would extend
David Bruton Jr., S
Von Miller, OLB
Brock Osweiler, QB
These are the priorities among Broncos free agents who should be extended or, in Miller’s case, given the franchise tag. I believe the Broncos will get a deal done with Bruton, given that he excelled in Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme and because he likes the city of Denver. Extending him partly addresses the safety depth. Getting back to Miller, we know he will get the tag but the Broncos will keep working to get a long-term deal done with him.
I do believe the Broncos will get a deal done with Osweiler, given that Elway has stated he wants to have him around for a while, and they’ll get it done before free agency starts. Every team who has had a quarterback it wanted to keep got a deal done. The only reason we haven’t seen it yet with Osweiler is because of the presence of Peyton Manning, and if the Broncos had extended Osweiler with Peyton still around, it could have been a distraction. But I would expect the Broncos to get it done as soon as Peyton lets the Broncos know about his intentions for 2017. I’ll talk more about Osweiler in another post, but I am certain the Broncos have already exchanged numbers with Osweiler’s agent and the only thing keeping them from going public is they want to let Peyton make his decision before announcing anything with Osweiler. Once Peyton makes that decision, or the Broncos announce they are letting him go because he’s taking too much time, they can turn their attentions to announcing their decision with Osweiler.
Players who are most likely gone
Britton Colquitt, P
Peyton Manning, QB
I believe Manning will call it a career, but if he doesn’t, the Broncos need to move forward without him. If Manning makes no announcement in the next week or so, the Broncos need to cut him and move forward. Colquitt took a pay cut in 2015 but I doubt he will do that again, especially after he played better in 2015 than he did in 2014 and a sharp performance in the postseason. It’s best to let him go and allow him the chance to explore free agency rather than try to negotiate another pay cut.
Players whose status is in doubt
Ryan Clady, OT
DeMarcus Ware, OLB
Louis Vasquez, OG
I think the Broncos can find a way to restructure Clady’s deal so that he takes less money in 2016, but gets it fully guaranteed, and perhaps takes a little less money in 2017 on a team option, but it would become fully guaranteed if the team exercises the option. Another possibility is to extend the contract through 2018, again with Clady taking less money in 2016, but part of the money rolled into a small signing bonus. I will talk more about specifics for Clady in another post.
Ware is somebody who could possibly be extended a year or simply asked to take a salary reduction. The Broncos will need to do that before his $3M roster bonus kicks in. I do believe that, if he doesn’t agree to something to reduce his cap number, he will be released.
Vasquez is somebody to consider letting go if the Broncos find somebody else that can replace him. It’s possible the Broncos could explore free agency to find a guard who is a better fit for the offense, then either cut or trade Vasquez. I would not let him go without a good option already in place, though.
He’s not going anywhere, folks
Demaryius Thomas, WR
There are several people who think the Broncos should trade Thomas. But that isn’t going to help the Broncos from a cap standpoint. Trading him frees up just $2.4M in cap space with a $12.8M dead money hit. It doesn’t matter how much of the guaranteed money another team picks up; the cap space freed and dead money hit will not change. And it makes no sense to consider that sunk costs when Thomas didn’t have a bad season. He may not have been top five among WRs this season, but it’s not like he was at DeMarco Murray levels, either. People need to settle down and realize that trading Thomas doesn’t give the Broncos flexibility to improve their position in terms of getting other FAs extended, plus it forces them to use an early draft pick on a WR or find help in free agency, when they need to use those avenues to address other positions.
For anyone who wants to see what the cap space freed and dead money hits are for the Broncos still under contract, you can find Over the Cap salary cap calculator here.