by Greg DePalma
The last time the Broncos finished in last place was following the 2010 season, which also happened to be the last season the Broncos were not being run by Executive V.P. of Football Operations and G.M. John Elway. Elway was hired shortly after that season and proceeded to guide the franchise to two Super Bowl appearances in his first five seasons of control including a Super Bowl 50 win. Over the years though, Denver’s offense has crippled any chance of continued and lasting success, forcing Elway to start taking major steps over these next few months. And with many members of the media crowing over the talent that works behind those front office walls in Denver, one would believe the Broncos will find a way to get things right. Yet under Elway’s guidance, the Broncos have failed to acquire enough difference-makers through the draft, which is the primary reason they find themselves in the critical position they’re in today, because nothing builds a franchise better, stronger and more lasting than good old fashion talent evaluation. Sure, the Elway-led front office has succeeded greatly in acquiring key pieces through free agency over the years. In other words, they’ve mastered a way to acquire the ‘quick-fix’ types. You know who I mean. TE Owen Daniels, DL Malik Jackson, QB Peyton Manning, WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Aqib Talib and OLB DeMarcus Ware. Most of those players are not meant to last though. That’s why the pressure needs to be turned on to begin drafting quality college personnel, or it’s time to build a new college scouting department all together.
Before the draft process can fully begin though, Elway will be very busy with difficult salary cap decisions as he tries to free up more space to allow the team to continue to add impact veteran players including a deal for a potential soon-to-be free agent QB, Kirk Cousins.
Key salary cap/trade casualties could include RB CJ Anderson, WR Emmanuel Sanders, QB Trevor Siemian, CB Aqib Talib, WR Demaryius Thomas and RT Menelik Watson. Elway also needs to find some money to pay some of his own free agents. And don’t forget, Elway cut a team leader and former Pro-Bowl safety, TJ Ward, just before last season started. So when several of the top name players mentioned here get the axe in the coming weeks, remember we warned you.
Key Free Agents
C Matt Paradis (RFA)
ILB Todd Davis
OLB Shaquil Barrett (RFA)
WR Bennie Fowler (RFA)
WR Cody Latimer
Cap space ranking/amount
Click here for an off-season preview of the Cleveland Browns.
QB…No doubt the top priority for the Broncos this off-season will be to find a franchise quarterback either through free agency or the draft. Trevor Siemian is an over-achiever and will make a top-rate backup somewhere, but he’s not a starter. I expect either Siemian to hang around or Brock Osweiler will be re-signed as veteran insurance. Former first-round pick Paxton Lynch is another possible trade candidate, while last year’s 7th-round pick Chad Kelly will get a long look as a developmental starter. No matter how they scramble this position around, the starting quarterback for Week 1 is not currently on the roster.
RB…Since making the roster in 2013 as an undrafted free agent, CJ Anderson has started 35 of 58 games with the Broncos. He’s coming off a career-year with 1,007 yards rushing and has 103 career receptions. But Anderson was a more effective rusher as a rotation player during his first two seasons and unless he restructures his final two years of which $9 million counts against the Broncos cap, he might very well be let go. Two cheaper options can make that a real possibility thanks to Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson. No matter what Elway decides, expect the Broncos to add a new shiny rookie piece to this unit.
TE…The Broncos will keep their fingers crossed that last year’s 5th-round pick, Jake Butt, will be able to fully recover from a serious knee injury sustained during the Orange Bowl last year that forced him to miss his rookie season. Before the injury, Butt was an early round talent with elite ability for the position, so he needs the reps to get acquainted with the offense which is why re-signing underwhelming Virgil Green appears unlikely. Green started 27 of 32 games the past two seasons, but did little to impress and adds nothing as a blocker. That role is left to backup Jeff Heuerman.
WR…Big decisions need to made here as both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have seen their production dip since they both experienced career years in 2014. The Broncos would have to eat some dead cap space if they were to move on from either player, but there’s little doubt that Sanders is going to be the odd man out. He’s coming off a horrible year that included being nearly charged with sexual assault, his catch percentage was a career-low (51%) and he missed four games with an ankle injury.
The player to watch is 2014 2nd-round pick Cody Latimer. After showing no signs of life during his first three years in the league, Latimer started to make an impact around mid-season after he returned from a knee injury that forced him to miss three games. Now a free agent, I can’t see Elway giving up on Latimer just as he’s finally starting to live up to his over-drafted value. I expect he’ll be a priority over fellow free agent Bennie Fowler, who’s also coming off a career-year after breaking into the league as an undrafted player in 2015.
I think it’s time to give Jordan Taylor more snaps. Taylor had the best catch percentage (65%) on the team last season in limited targets and has the size to make some plays. He was a star receiver at Rice before going undrafted in 2015. 5th-round pick Isaiah McKenzie had a season to forget. Another receiver who was over-drafted because of his workout numbers, McKenzie was a non-factor in the passing game and awful as a punt returner after he fumbled six times. 3rd-round pick Carlos Henderson also had a rookie year to forget after never picking up the offense in camp and then injuring his thumb early in preseason which forced him to injured reserve.
If Elway is serious about making wholesale changes, this unit needs to be near the top of the shopping list. It might not be a bad idea to figure out a way to rid himself of both Thomas and Sanders while he shops for younger, cheaper options.
OL…This is another area of concern for the Denver offense, especially in pass protection. Elway needs to find two starting caliber players here. Allen Barbre, who played guard and right tackle as well as left guard Max Garcia, both struggled and can’t be counted on to start for any significant length of time. Right tackles Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson weren’t any better. Watson injured his foot and was placed on IR at the midway point, while Stephenson missed some time with a calf injury before filling in late. Watson is a sure-fire cap casualty since he’ll save the team $10 million over the next two years and don’t expect either free agent Stephenson or Barbre to return unless the Broncos are desperate. The best options for inexpensive back-up duties should go to former Buffalo 2nd-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio and 2016 5th-round pick, Connor McGovern. Kouandjio has talent, but the questions that were there prior to the 2014 NFL Draft should have been a warning about his ability to put it all together. He did get a chance to start at right tackle in Week 17 and now it’s up to new line coach Sean Kugler to get the most out of him. McGovern is an intriguing player who has a good combination of strength and athleticism. He received valuable playing time late last season with five starts at right guard.
It’s not completely bad up front, as the Broncos have several starters they can count on including last year’s top pick, left tackle Garett Bolles. Bolles had a typical up and down rookie campaign and there’s optimism he can grow into a solid player. Former 6th-round pick Matt Paradis has turned into a reliable pivot-man and is a priority restricted free agent while right guard Ron Leary was another successful free agent acquisition after being acquired last March. Leary did miss the final five games of the season due to a back injury, so his health becomes something to monitor during training camp.
Click here for an off-season preview of the New York Giants.
DL…Once again, Elway and his minions spent their cash wisely in free agency by adding a pair of nondescript players to help regenerate a weak run defense. NT Domata Peko had struggled over his final few seasons in Cincinnati, so no one outside the Denver organization thought anything of this signing. But Peko had other ideas and thrived in the Broncos attack scheme where his size actually makes a difference compared to the read and react scheme he played in with the Bengals. DE Zach Kerr did not start making a difference himself until late in the year following a pre-season knee injury, but once playing time opened up he also contributed exceptionally well and helped Denver’s run defense rise from 28th in the league to 5th.
Kerr’s playing time increased when the top dog of the unit, DE Derek Wolfe, sustained a serious neck injury forcing him to miss the final five games of the season. Wolfe is the team’s best all-around defensive lineman who’s expected to make a full recovery in time for next season. Another player along the defensive line who surprised many with a breakout campaign after being signed to a reserve/futures contract was journeyman DE Shelby Harris. Harris is a former 7th-round pick from Oakland who’s played on four different teams while being cut six times. He ended up being a big part of the unit while adding 5 ½ sacks, second-most on the team. 2016 2nd-round pick DE Adam Gotsis made huge strides in year two and also provided top run defense from his position. Gotsis is another player who was selected much higher in the draft than anticipated based on his limited experience and lack of overall weight strength. He still needs to bring more pass rushing to the table for a player chosen as high as he was in order to justify the selection, but so far he’s heading in the right direction.
The one common denominator for all of these overachievers is Defensive Line coach Bill Kollar. Kollar’s been through the wars as a former 1st-round pick himself back in 1974. He has 30 years of coaching experience following his playing days and is a major reason why this unit has been such a valuable aspect of the defense following his hire in 2015.
Keep in mind that DE Jared Crick, who was a full-time starter in 2016, missed the season with a back injury and is now a free agent. I would also keep an eye on 2nd-round pick DeMarcus Walker, who was miscast as a linebacker during off-season workouts due to injuries at the position and never made an impact as a rookie. Once he settles in on the line of scrimmage where he belongs, Walker can turn into a major asset.
LB…OLB Von Miller is still in his prime as an elite level defender. His impact for the Broncos should be measured as equally as any star quarterback. But Miller can’t do it all. With the defensive line not providing enough of a pass rush on passing downs and with 2015 1st-round pick Shane Ray out following three wrist surgeries over the past four months that kept him from playing half the season, Elway and Co. need to find at least one more player to give Miller some help in that department. Ray had a productive year two with eight sacks and Shaquil Barrett has been a revelation the last few seasons as an undrafted player, so there is potential that both edge rushers can pick things up again in 2018. But at this point they can’t count on Ray while Barrett needs to get paid and that means there’s still work to be done here.
On the inside, four-year starter Brandon Marshall and second-year starter Todd Davis are both decent players with limited game changing skills. If the Broncos want to add an impact player here in the draft, look for them to let Davis walk in free agency.
CB…Chris Harris remains one of the best corners in the league and 2014 1st-round pick Bradley Roby is next in line to join him. With Aqib Talib on his way out of town, Roby is more than ready to take over as the team’s future No. 1 following his strongest season yet. Talib is still a good player, but he’ll be 32 next season and is coming off career low’s in interceptions (1) and pass defensed (7) while totaling his lowest number of tackles since his rookie season. Most important, he’ll save the team $19 million in cap space if he’s gone.
I know it’s a broken record by now, but another player who was over-drafted, 3rd-round pick Brendan Langley, is a developmental player who needs more time before the team can count on him to take Talib’s snaps.
S…Many were surprised when SS TJ Ward was cut by Elway just days before the season started, but after the way 2016 3rd-round pick Justin Simmons performed as his replacement, it was easy to see why Elway made the move. Simmons has a promising future with the team and will soon line up with fellow 2016 NFL Draft class member, FS Will Parks. Parks is doing a fine job in a variety of roles including on special teams.
Chances are the Broncos will eventually move on from incumbent free safety starter Darian Stewart, unless he agrees to restructure his contract following the 2018 season. He just doesn’t warrant the amount he’s owed over the next three years as a coverage safety. It would be a good idea for Elway to add another player here on draft day in case Parks takes a step back. You can also keep an eye on rookie free agent Jamal Carter from Miami. He received limited playing time but played a lot on special teams and is a sleeper to keep an eye on in camp.
Speaking of taking a step back, place-kicker Brandon McManus must have been personally distracted after signing a three-year extension before the season started because his production took a serious dip soon after. McManus would go on to miss eight kicks this past season including three from 20-39 yards. Touted by Elway and Head Coach Vance Joseph as a ‘weapon’, McManus has one year to justify the deal and get back to being a ‘weapon’ before his deal becomes team friendly. McManus started the season as the franchise all-time leader in conversion rate (84.8%) and was a huge part of the team’s Super Bowl 50 success when he connected on 10 of 10 kicks during their playoff run. Punter Riley Dixon needs competition in camp following a below average season. His net punting dipped from 9th (41.3) in the league to 22nd (40.2) and he ranked 27th in punts inside the 20 (23 of 73).
And did I mention how bad the kick return game was? It was no surprise to see Joseph fire coordinator Brock Olivo and replace him with former Colts coordinator, Tom McMahon.
If I were the Broncos G.M.
It’s time to start building through the draft. Just imagine how good this franchise would be if they could combine their skills in free agency with the draft? I know there’s a lot of talk concerning Kirk Cousins being targeted here and I wouldn’t completely rule that out myself if I knew what the long-term game plan was and it all made sense. If Cousins were to land here, I would hope to heaven that Saquon Barkley were still on the board at No. 5, because he would clearly make the most sense. If Cousins weren’t part of this team though, then the decision would come down do either Barkley or a QB. If Barkley were off the board, then the decision is much easier. But if I could draft Barkley I would, then I would make sure to land a signal-caller next like Mason Rudolph, even if I had to move up from No. 40 to get him. If I really wanted to roll the dice, and as long as I had my hands on Barkley, I might wait a bit later and take a chance on one of the two Senior Bowl standouts, Mike White or Kyle Lauletta.
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For the record
The Broncos finished in last place for the first time since 2010, which was former HC Josh McDaniel’s final season in Denver.