Offseason Outlook: Denver Broncos

Pending free agents:

Top 10 2015 cap hits:

  1. Peyton Manning, QB: $21,500,000
  2. Ryan Clady, LT: $10,600,000
  3. Von Miller, OLB: $9,754,000
  4. DeMarcus Ware, DE: $8,666,666
  5. T.J. Ward, S: $7,750,000
  6. Aqib Talib, CB: $6,968,750
  7. Louis Vasquez, G/T: $6,250,000
  8. Emmanuel Sanders, WR: $5,850,000
  9. Britton Colquitt, P: $3,750,000
  10. Manuel Ramirez, C/G: $3,166,668

Notable Coaching Changes:




The Broncos’ window to capture their first Super Bowl title since 1998 may still be open should Peyton Manning indeed return for an 18th season, but that window has undergone some significant alterations. The Broncos entered last season with probably their best roster since ’98, but endured a divisional-round exit for the second time in three seasons. Despite a 12-4 record that gave Denver 38 regular-season wins since 2012 — matching the 1996-98 Broncos squads for the most conquests in a three-year span — the 24-13 loss to the Colts resulted in John Fox‘s firing after four straight AFC West titles. Coordinators Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio moved on as well, Gase following Fox to Chicago and Del Rio becoming the second straight Broncos defensive coordinator (after Dennis Allen) to take the Raiders’ reins. These moves prompted a reunion of sorts to fix a team that suddenly has more questions than it’s faced in years. Each a former Broncos assistant or head coach, Gary Kubiak and coordinators Rick Dennison and Wade Phillips are the result of a rare performance-induced sideline overhaul of a team that played in the Super Bowl a season ago.NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

Determining whether a return to a Super Bowl is a feasible reality still depends on Manning’s status. Likely due back and already discussing a restructuring of his deal, Manning tossed 39 touchdown passes — the third-most he’s thrown in a season — and 4,727 yards last year. On the back of Manning and C.J. Anderson, the Broncos finished third in offensive DVOA last season, which was a bit off 2013’s historic mark. But Manning’s prodigious play ceased toward the end of the regular season, and a franchise-altering swoon followed, culminating with the 38-year-old QB averaging just 4.59 yards per attempt in the playoff defeat. That represented Manning’s second-lowest such figure in his 24-game playoff career and raised questions about his future. Manning and the Broncos have until March 9, when the signal-caller’s 2015 contract becomes guaranteed with a $19MM salary, to decide on another year together. But it’s clear the future Hall of Famer will need at least as much help as he’s been receiving the past three years to keep the Broncos in dominant form. Defensively, the Broncos’ 2014 impact additions of Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware helped result in Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 collective unit (subscription required), but the sum of the defense’s parts bested the group’s overall work. Although the unit ranked fourth in DVOA, the Broncos’ 22.6 points per game yielded were 16th last season despite re-deploying starters Chris Harris, Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and Rahim Moore after season-ending injuries that restrained the defense in 2013.

As of right now, more than a third of the Broncos’ starting lineup are free agents, and other than promising to apply the franchise tag to Demaryius Thomas, the statuses of the rest of Denver’s key contract-year players (Julius Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Orlando Franklin) are murky. Both Demaryius and Julius Thomas reportedly turned down extensions, and Knighton has alerted media he’s unsatisfied with the Broncos’ effort to bring him back. Still a good bet for 12-win seasons, with a QB-record 11 of them, Manning probably returns to make the Broncos AFC West favorites again, but whether they take care of their own will shape this offseason. Manning’s presence triggered spending sprees for a Broncos team that relied on mostly second-tier free agents for years prior to his arrival. But now that one or possibly two years remain in Manning’s career, Denver may not be the marquee free agency destination it was.

Coaching Changes:

Counting the Broncos’ 2011 wild card conquest and their AFC title in 2013, Fox won 49 games in four years. That total trails only Bill Belichick (56) and Pete Carroll (50) during that span. But it couldn’t coax GM John Elway to grant Fox, who received a three-year contract extension last April, a fifth season in the Mile High City. After allowing a risky switch from a pro-style attack to a read-option approach for Tim Tebow, Fox’s degree of difficulty lessened with Manning’s arrival. But higher stakes came with that, and Denver lost three times as a playoff point-spread favorite, ultimately re-routing the conservative 60-year-old coach to the Bears.

The working relationship there between he and John Elway, it wasn’t the greatest working relationship. It started off great, but then it started not working out,” Jay Glazer said during a Fox Sports 1 segment in January. “… John Elway looked at this season as, ‘This is all or nothing. With what we spent, you’ve got to go win us a Super Bowl.'”

Elway’s replacement hires were somewhat conservative.

Kubiak didn’t join Dan Quinn, Todd Bowles or even Gase among the hot-candidates list in January, but his relationship with Elway provided the trump card for the 53-year-old who spent 20 years as a player and coordinator in Denver. Unlike Gase, who interviewed for the Broncos’ and four other HC spots, Kubiak only took one meeting after elevating the Ravens’ offense last year. Although Kubiak’s eight-year tenure as Texans head coach brought just two playoff berths and concluded with a 2-14 campaign and late-season firing in 2013, his rushing offenses ranked in the top 10 in four of the past five seasons with the most recent on the back of journeyman Justin Forsett‘s 1,266 yards. The zone-blocking scheme Kubiak will use again in Denver may have peaked in the NFL during his first coaching stint there. Five Broncos runners, including Olandis Gary and Reuben Droughns, totaled 1,000-yard seasons from 1995-05.

Although Kubiak is still expected to call plays, something he didn’t do until 2005 under Mike Shanahan in his previous Broncos stint, this will be Dennison’s eighth year as an offensive coordinator. A longtime Broncos assistant prior to taking over as Denver’s OC in 2006, Dennison followed Kubiak to Houston and Baltimore. Joe Flacco established career highs in passing yards and TDs under Dennison’s watch as QBs coach last season. Despite his familiarity with Kubiak’s play action-heavy system, Dennison won’t have the same opportunities Gase did. The sideline architect calling the shots for the Broncos’ accelerated attack that set numerous NFL records in 2013, Gase could be missed as the Broncos transition away from an offense that thrived on creating short- and mid-range space for Manning’s targets to an older model with fewer formations and nuances.

The most notable aspect of Phillips’ return to Denver is the return of a 3-4 defense. Aside from the two Josh McDaniels years, the Broncos have deployed a 4-3 look as their base since Phillips’ last stint with the franchise — as their DC from 1989-92 and head coach in the two successive seasons. Fired three times as a head coach, the 67-year-old has supervised seven teams’ defenses dating back to 1981 and enjoyed success revitalizing units. Phillips won’t have to reshape as much in his new gig with personnel that should be able to adjust to role shifts. Larger defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson make for better 5-technique candidates than ends from most 4-3 teams. Two speed-rushers (Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware) with experience pursuing from two-point stances and outside linebackers who led the team in tackles the past two years: Danny Trevathan in 2013 and Brandon Marshall last season, respectively, are also due back.

Key Free Agents

The variable in that scenario and a key component in the Broncos’ offseason matrix is whether they want to pay up to keep the fulcrum of their formidable run defenses the past two years. Knighton has the size to play nose in a 3-4 set but not the experience, and although he was an active force in the Broncos finishing seventh and second in run stoppage in his two seasons, he logged 528 snaps last year — 32nd-most among defensive tackles. Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the gregarious lineman is his reported demand of $7.5MM per season, a figure that would rank second among 3-4 DTs in the league. Even with Demaryius Thomas’ presumed franchise tag salary taking up almost half of the Broncos’ cap room, Knighton returning at $7.5MM per season makes more sense if Denver still planned to play a 4-3. Twenty 4-3 defensive tackle contracts exceed the value of the third-highest 3-4 NT’s deal, according to OverTheCap. Knighton’s two-year, $4.5MM pact turned out to be a bargain for the Broncos, but the odds of the team meeting his new asking price are slim.

That decision becomes more complicated with multiyear starters Julius Thomas, Franklin and Moore, as well as several lower-value starters, up for new deals. Assuming the Broncos don’t reach a long-term accord with Demaryius Thomas, his franchise tag of approximately $12.8MM will make re-ups for the aforementioned players difficult. If the Broncos follow through on not re-signing Knighton or the aforementioned trio of 2011 draftees, they’ll continue a thrifty trend when it comes to keeping their own picks. The Broncos currently have just two of their own draft choices on second contracts — Ryan Clady and David Bruton — although Harris and Britton Colquitt were undrafted players they re-signed.

Using the method of bringing in outside help the past two years by signing big names like Ware, Talib, Ward and Wes Welker, the Broncos effectively allowed the players from previous regimes’ drafts to leave, and excluding Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, none were above-average starters. With that being the case this year with Julius Thomas, Franklin (PFF’s 13th-best guard last season; subscription required) or Virgil Green, who based on his run-blocking prowess outranked Thomas in PFF’s tight end hierarchy, permitting the bulk of a class chosen by this front office to depart may send a bad message to the locker room.

Keeping Julius Thomas would go a long way to the passing game staying in high gear, but the 26-year-old tight end appears set on an exit strategy. Beyond Knighton, Green could then be the No. 3 priority for the Broncos considering his productive stretch once ground gains became more prudent after Thomas re-injured his ankle. Of the unrestricted FAs, center Will Montgomery, who worked in Shanahan’s zone scheme in Washington prior to signing a one-year deal last season, could slot just behind Green on the Broncos’ itinerary. He wouldn’t cost much to retain. Aiming to return for his age-34 season, Welker will play elsewhere after an inconsistent and punishing Broncos tenure.

Positions Of Need

Of the quarterbacks who started all 16 games last season, Manning was the least-sacked at just 16. Although his accuracy against the blitz waned considerably, Manning’s 2.22 seconds per release makes official sacks tricky. But the Broncos used three players at right tackle last season, made changes at center and right guard and scrapped some of the aggressive elements offensively after the Patriots, Raiders, and Rams regularly pressured Manning in midseason games. Beyond Clady and Louis Vasquez, the group will see more reconfiguration.

With Franklin, who often struggled to match up with quicker pass-rushers at right tackle but adapted his power game well at left guard, likely moving on, Manuel Ramirez being a better fit in a man-blocking scheme and Montgomery more of a stop-gap fix than multiyear solution, the Broncos will need at least three linemen in free agency or the draft. They drafted Michael Schofield in the third round last year to work at right tackle, but undrafted FA Paul Cornick saw game reps instead; Schofield didn’t dress for a game as a rookie. Kubiak’s most recent right tackle in Houston, 27-year-old Derek Newton, would be a fit with former Broncos draft choices Ryan Harris and Tyler Polumbus serving as lower-end options at Denver’s most troublesome position. Miami’s Ereck Flowers or LSU’s La’el Collins could still be on the board at No. 28 if the Broncos fail to land a proven tackle in free agency.

The Broncos will likely draft at least one interior lineman in the early-to-mid rounds while signing another. Vasquez’s move back to right guard, where he was a first-team All-Pro in 2013, will help this transition. But a veteran will join as well with not much in the way of existing depth here, although 2014 sixth-round pick Matt Paradis had a year to develop behind Montgomery and Ramirez last season.

Not utilized much in pass-rush situations, Knighton remained the Broncos’ only proven run-stopper inside with 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams regressing after a promising finish as a rookie. A four-year starter in a 3-4 defense, Cardinals run-stopping NT Dan Williams would be a good consolation prize here with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Knighton dominating the market’s defensive tackle hype.

If the Broncos whiff on re-signing Green as well, they’ll have to start over at tight end with Jacob Tamme also a free agent and relegated to special teams duty the last two years. Green does not have the separation ability Julius Thomas does, so even if the Broncos can convince him to stay, they’ll need to add a move tight end. Jordan Cameron seems bound to leave Cleveland with the quarterback position in shambles and offers good receiving skills, but he may draw an offer in the neighborhood of Thomas’ despite his injury-marred contract year. Considering how much the Broncos have relied on familiarity in their offseason hires, Owen Daniels (Kubiak’s tight end for nine straight seasons) seems like the realistic backup option to Thomas. Denver’s passing game would take a hit in that event with an clear athletic chasm residing between those two players.

Once the Broncos traded up to take Cody Latimer in the second round last year, their 2015 plan appeared clear: move Emmanuel Sanders back to the slot where the Steelers used him and align Latimer outside after Welker’s contract expires. But Latimer, who displayed an elite catch radius at Indiana, received sparse reps behind the Broncos’ top three while Jarvis Landry and Donte Moncrief became regulars despite being selected later. It would be difficult to imagine Denver turning to Andre Caldwell here despite the veteran being under contract; he had a rough year. But in an offense that relies more on double-tight end sets, there won’t be as much onus on Latimer than in Gase’s three-wide looks.

Ward and Moore in a way complemented each other well, with both safeties exhibiting a clear strength. Moore rebounded from his infamous playoff misplay and a life-threatening injury in 2013 with a steadier coverage campaign. That facet helped justify his weakness against the run, which isn’t as big of an issue for a free safety. Working often as a sub-package linebacker, Ward finished with the seventh-worst coverage grade among the 87 safeties PFF graded. With Ward signed long-term, the Broncos will need to place a premium on coverage skills in the likely event they replace Moore. Depth-wise, David Bruton serves as a key special teamer and physical-type safety, and Quinton Carter will be allowed to leave after missing two full seasons due to injury. The Bills’ Da’Norris Searcy and Chiefs’ Ron Parker, who began the year as a cornerback, are possible contingency plans to team with Ward.

The impending James Casey visit could fulfill the Broncos’ quest for their first fullback slot in three years. The new regime will sign one, leaving fewer opportunities for Manning to work in his preferred three-WR set.

Extension Candidates:

The Broncos’ best draft since at least 2006, which produced Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Elvis Dumervil and Chris Kuper, started with Miller. The second pick in what became the first draft under the new collective bargaining agreement, Miller is perhaps the NFL’s second-best all-around defensive talent to J.J. Watt. Unlike Watt, selected nine spots later in 2011, Miller does not have a long-term agreement and will enter the final season of his rookie contract after the Broncos picked up his fifth-year option. Legal and substance-abuse issues notwithstanding, Miller is primed to be the premier defensive player in the 2016 free agent class should the Broncos not work out a deal or use the franchise tag on him.

Unless Miller finds himself in off-the-field trouble again, it’s unlikely he’ll hit that market. Ranking as PFF’s best 4-3 outside linebacker by a substantial margin from 2011-13 (subscription required) and second-best in 2014, he’s paired a dynamic pass-rushing skill set (49 sacks) with elite run-containing ability. His second contract should eclipse Clay Matthews’ total value of $66MM. Seeing what the Chiefs do with Justin Houston will help set a price for the Broncos’ more well-rounded linebacker. A move back to the 3-4 he starred in at Texas A&M, Miller and his already-diverse repertoire of edge maneuvers could be further on display this season, making the Broncos’ decision easier.

Another PFF wunderkind as the third-best 4-3 end last year, Jackson looks to finally be given a starting role in his contract year after outperforming starting end Wolfe the past two seasons. Denver’s fifth-round selection in 2012’s flashed consistently as a reserve end and tackle with the size to remain up front in a 3-4. Similar to the Ravens’ Pernell McPhee, Jackson could see his value rise out of his team’s price range with another good year. The Broncos would be wise to discuss a plan for the future with their versatile 25-year-old utility talent before this happens, but with big deals for Ware and likely Miller and the three pricey long-term contracts in the secondary, there may not be enough space to make a substantial offer.

Without factoring in any money that could be allocated to Demaryius Thomas, Miller and any free agents this year, the Broncos have $51.7MM of cap room in 2016, which is among the NFL’s lower third, according to OverTheCap.

Overall Outlook:

The Broncos still possess more talent than most teams, but the Super Bowl-or-bust mantra they used the past two seasons doesn’t seem as appropriate now. Those rosters had clear identities and, at least coming into the season, Manning in peak form. Without certainty on either matter at present, pressure looms for the Broncos in the coming weeks to retain the right players and continue to generate good value from the outsiders they sign. The first part of that equation wasn’t as big of an issue for them in recent years with no free agents of this caliber potentially leaving. Having to replace several quality starters and produce a better result may be asking too much. If the Broncos can’t stay on their current level after they cleared out the coaching staff, then Elway will face real criticism for the first time in his tenure. Manning regressing much further likely ensures that reality.

Information from Over The Cap was used in the creation of this post. Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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