With the NFL Combine just around the corner, it’s never too early to speculate where the Broncos will be looking come draft day. There are a few areas of immediate concern for Denver, but overall John Elway has put together a solid roster from top to bottom. That is what it takes to win a Super Bowl and the architect of the Broncos’ third championship team knows that as well as anyone.
Clearly there are still a lot of pieces in motion at this point in the offseason and what happens in the next two or three weeks could change the team’s needs dramatically. For the sake of this article, I will operate under a few assumptions. First, Peyton Manning will retire. This makes a difference because if he does not retire and the Broncos elect to release him (something I think is very likely if he does return for a 19th season) he will still count $2 million against the cap. Second, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan sign elsewhere in free agency. I have sensed a bit of cautious optimism surrounding Jackson’s possibility of re-signing with the Broncos, but I feel the pull of bigger money in free agency will be too much for the blossoming young defensive lineman. Denver simply does not have the money to hold onto all its young stars who are up for free agency this year and given the needs to re-sign Von Miller and Brock Osweiler, among others, Jackson and Trevathan end up being the odd men out. Which brings me to my last assumption, the Broncos re-sign Osweiler. There has been talk of letting the young quarterback test free agency because of Denver’s ability to win a Super Bowl on the back of a dominant defense, but this is still a quarterback-driven league and having a solid passer calling the shots gives you a more stable shot at winning games than depending on outstanding defense, something that will be difficult to duplicate two years in a row.
As of the writing of this article, and assuming the cap figure for 2016 is $154 million, the Broncos have $11.8 million in cap space, according to spotrac.com. That number balloons to $33.3 million with Manning’s contract off the books. That seems like a solid figure heading into free agency, but when you consider Miller would take up about $14 million if he is franchise tagged and Osweiler might require at least $12 million to keep him in Denver, that number looks a lot less appealing. This is where cuts and contract restructures will come in. Ryan Clady is a name that has been thrown around a bunch when it comes to getting cut, but given the struggles of Michael Schofield in pass protection this season I think Elway and co. will do what they can to keep Clady around. That may involve him taking a pay cut since he is due over $10 million in 2016 after coming off a torn ACL. It’s worth noting that Clady’s health will play a big role. He was originally drafted for a zone blocking scheme, so he fits well with the system, but after missing 2 of the last 3 seasons with injuries, the question will be can he stay on the field. If the Broncos feel confident he can, I expect him back next season. DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib also have large contracts with much less guaranteed money in 2016, but I have a hard time seeing either one of them being cut. A restructure for either or both is possible, particularly when you consider together they take up just under 14% of the total cap space. These restructured contracts would give the Broncos a little more room to work in free agency, but when you combine the tight cap restrictions with the relatively weak free agent class, I expect the team to be mostly quiet in the free agent market.
Now we get to the real issue. Where do the Broncos need the most help heading into next season? One obvious area is the offensive line. On the interior, guards Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez were the Broncos best linemen in 2015, but Mathis was on a one-year deal and Vasquez has just one year left on his contract. Vasquez is not an ideal fit in the zone blocking scheme and I would not anticipate him returning after 2016 unless he improves mightily in year two in this system. Max Garcia got his feet wet more as this season went on, but the overall depth on the line is in question. When you factor Clady’s injury history and the less-than-ideal progression of 2014 third-rounder Michael Schofield, the Broncos offensive line needs some work. Last year Denver drafted two linemen in the first four rounds, and I would not be surprised to see a similar situation unfold in this year’s draft. If Clady can come back healthy and Ty Sambrailo can continue his progression from before his shoulder injury, the depth at tackle looks a little better than the interior, with Schofield as the swing backup. If there is something we definitely do know about Elway’s draft strategy though, it’s that he will take the best player on the board, regardless of need.
It’s hard to imagine that just two years removed from the best offensive season the NFL has ever seen that the Broncos would be hurting for playmakers on offense, but that is exactly where they stand. The passing game in particular struggled mightily at times in 2015, a combination of the new offense Gary Kubiak brought in, changes at quarterback and some inconsistent performances from Demaryius Thomas. I would think Thomas comes back next season wanted badly to remind everyone that he is one of the best receivers in the game and put a rough 2015 season behind him. But the depth at receiver is still a problem. Cody Latimer has not taken the steps the team thought he would when they spent a second round pick on him in 2014, and in fact the undrafted Bennie Fowler seemed to outshine him often throughout the season. Kubiak’s offensive style may be predicated on the ability to run the football, but in today’s NFL you need to be able to beat teams through the air when the situation calls for it.
The lack of production from the tight ends was also a big issue in 2015. Owen Daniels is no longer a spring chicken, and the Vernon Davis experiment failed miserably. Even Virgil Green, who many thought could thrive in this offense, was largely absent all season long. The return of 2015 third-round pick Jeff Heuerman could help, but after missing all of last season with a torn ACL it is difficult to gauge how effective he will be. Regardless of when or where these players come from, Denver needs to become more explosive in 2016 if they want to compete for a sixth straight AFC West crown. The rest of the division continues to improve, especially on defense, and the more weapons the Broncos have at their disposal, the better their chances of exploiting an opponent’s weakness.
Speaking of defense, the Broncos enjoyed their best defensive season in their history last year. It was a unit that fans and players will look back at for years and marvel at their accomplishments, especially in the postseason. When your team is that good though, other teams take notice and begin poaching your players, as will surely be the case in the coming weeks. One area that could take a big hit is the safeties, with both Omar Bolden and David Bruton Jr. set to be free agents. By the end of the season both Bolden and Bruton Jr. were on injured reserve, but their contributions to the team were huge. Bolden became an ace return man for both kick offs and punts, bringing an explosive element to the return game the Broncos had missed for a long time. Bruton Jr. is one of the longest tenured Broncos and a fan favorite for his grinding style of play and willingness to take on any role the team asks of him. It is likely that at least one, if not both of these players will not be returning next year, which leaves nobody behind starters T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. While both Ward and Stewart played great last year, they both also dealt with injuries, especially in the second half. Having solid depth behind the starters is what made this Broncos team so dangerous and the absence of depth at safety is surely something that will need to be addressed if the No Fly Zone is to be at its best again in 2016.
The last area of need is again mostly a question of depth. The defensive line was terrifying for opposing teams last year, both in stuffing the run and getting after the quarterback. Derek Wolfe has been inked to an extension, keeping him in Denver through 2019, but Malik Jackson and Antonio Smith are both hitting the open market come March 9. Part of what made the defensive line so effective last year was their ability to rotate players often without losing much in terms of production. With two of the six linemen in that rotation leaving, they will need to be replaced. Vance Walker is under contract for next season, but should not be relied on to be an every-down player. The Broncos need at least one more three-technique defensive end to add to their rotation if they are going to be anywhere near the force they were in 2015. It will be nearly impossible to find someone to duplicate Jackson’s production, but finding another solid veteran on a one-year deal who can rotate with Walker and Wolfe could provide enough depth to keep everybody fresh.