Saturday, February 8, 2014

What's Next for the Denver Broncos?


What's next for the Denver Broncos?


By Joel Corry (amended at end by +Clinton Haws)

While the Seattle Seahawks bask in the glow of their decisive Super Bowl XLVIII victory, here’s a preview of things to come for the other team that took the field last Sunday, the Denver Broncos.

Salary Cap

Denver has a little more than $10.25 million of salary cap room once tenders for restricted free agents (which includes cornerback Chris Harris) and exclusive rights players with expiring contracts are factored in, in addition to the cap space gained from the voiding of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and running back Knowshon Moreno’s 2014 contract years.

A decision must be made regarding cornerback, Champ Bailey, since he wants to play a 16th NFL season. The 35-year-old will be entering the last year of a four-year, $43 million contract (worth a maximum of $46.75 million through base salary escalators) after a season in which he was limited to five regular season games because of a left foot sprain that occurred in a pre-season matchup against the Seattle Seahawks and didn’t have an interception, a career first. Bailey is slated to make $10 million next season and will carry a $10 million salary cap number. $1 million of Bailey’s salary is a roster bonus payable on the fifth day of the 2014 league year (March 15). His cap number (and total salary) will increase to $10.5 million with satisfactory participation in Denver’s off-season workout program. The Broncos will gain $10 million of cap space if they part ways with Bailey.

Champ Bailey's cap number may be
too much for the Broncos to carry in 2014.
Assuming the Broncos want Bailey to return next season, a significant pay cut could be in order because his 2014 salary doesn’t reflect the market for older defensive backs. Ronde Barber’s last two contracts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both one-year deals in 2011 and 2012 when he was 36 and 37-years-old, were worth $3 million (with an additional $1 million for making the Pro Bowl) and $4 million apiece. Charles Woodson, signed a one-year, $1.8 million deal (plus an additional $2.5 million in incentives) with the Oakland Raiders for this season as a 36-year-old. Woodson earned $1.5 million of his incentive package to bring his total compensation to $3.3 million.

The Broncos have also established a salary range for one-year deals with cornerbacks that are expected to make significant contributions. Tracy Porter signed a fully guaranteed one-year, $4 million deal in 2012 to start opposite Bailey. Rodgers-Cromartie has replaced Porter this season with his fully guaranteed one-year, $5 million contract.

Tight end Joel Dreessen could be a cap casualty, as he was inactive for Denver’s playoff games. Dreessen has a $3,166,668 2014 cap number and releasing him will create $2.5 million of cap room. Guard Chris Kuper ($5,195,166 2014 cap number) took a massive pay cut in 2013 as he attempted to battle back from injury. If he isn’t given that option again, $4,084,830 of cap room can be created by letting him go.

Free Agency

The Broncos have 17 unrestricted free agents, including Rodgers-Cromartie, Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, guard Zane Beadles, defensive end/linebacker Shaun Phillips and linebacker Wesley Woodyard.

According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Denver is comfortable letting Decker test the open market because he is viewed as a number two wide receiver by the team. Although Decker has been one of the NFL’s most productive wide receivers over the last two seasons with 172 receptions (11th in the NFL), 2,352 receiving yards (ninth in the NFL) and 24 touchdowns (tied for third in the NFL), there’s a sentiment that he is the beneficiary of playing with Peyton Manning and a talented receiving corps. He should be the top wide receiver in free agency despite the perception.

Decker could find out the grass is
greener on the other side during free agency
.
The top deals for wide receivers that have switched teams in free agency over the last two years range from $8.5 million per year with $20.5 million in guarantees (Pierre Garcon-Washington Redskins) to $12 million per year and $30 million in guarantees (Mike Wallace-Miami Dolphins). If a team is willing to pay Decker in this range, his days in Denver are probably over.

Rodgers-Cromartie has put himself in a position to reap the benefits of his one-year deal. Surprisingly, he hinted at retirement early during Super Bowl week, but wisely did some damage control at Media Day. The free agent cornerback market was soft last year. Things could be different this time around because better cornerbacks will be available (Brent Grimes, Aqib Talib, Alterraun Verner, etc.). It wouldn’t be a surprise if a majority of the best free agent cornerbacks topped the five-year deal averaging $7.5 million per year (with $15 million in guarantees) Eric Wright received from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012 as a free agent.

Moreno had a career year as he went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time, was fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,586 yards) and had 13 touchdowns. Since 2013 second round pick Montee Ball appears ready to become Denver’s featured running back, Moreno isn’t expected back. Moreno is younger and more productive than Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson, who got the best deals at $4 million per year in last year’s free agent running back market.

Phillips helped the Broncos overcome the loss of defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who was released because of a paperwork snafu on his renegotiated contract that reduced his 2013 salary from $12 million to $8 million. Phillips posted 10 sacks in the regular season after signing a one-year, $1 million contract with an additional $2 million in incentives based on sacks. A deal similar to Dwight Freeney’s two-year, $8.75 million contract (worth a maximum of $13.35 million through escalators and incentives) from the San Diego Chargers or the two-year, $8.5 million contract (with an additional $3.75 million in escalators) Osi Umenyiora received from the Atlanta Falcons shouldn’t be out of the question for the 32-year-old to return to the fold.

All-Pro linebacker Von Miller’s four-year rookie contract expires after the 2014 season. The Broncos have an option for a fifth contract year with him, which must be exercised by May 3, because he was a first round pick (second overall in 2011). The fifth year is guaranteed for injury upon exercise. It becomes fully guaranteed if Miller is on the team’s roster at the start of the 2015 league year. Miller’s option year salary will be the transition tag number (average of the ten highest salaries) at linebacker this year, which is expected to be around $9.3 million. The Broncos may take a wait and see approach before making a long term commitment to Miller because of the six game suspension he served to start the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and the ACL tear he suffered late in the season.

2010 first round pick Demaryius Thomas is entering his contract year. He has been more productive than Decker over the last two seasons with 186 receptions (sixth in the NFL), 2,864 receiving yards (third in the NFL) and 24 touchdowns (tied for third in the NFL). As one of the NFL’s top young wide receivers, Thomas’ next contract should exceed Mike Wallace’s deal. His contract leverage will increase significantly if Decker leaves.

Team Needs

The secondary could use an upgrade regardless of what happens with Rodgers-Cromartie. Bailey is in the twilight of his career if he returns and Chris Harris may not be ready for the season opener after tearing an ACL against the San Diego Chargers in the AFC divisional playoff round.

The Broncos had a hard time generating a consistent pass rush despite Phillips’ efforts. Having Miller for more than nine games will be beneficial, but another player (linebacker or defensive end) that can pressure the quarterback is necessary.

The receiving corps will also need to be retooled without Decker. Fourth wide receiver Andre Caldwell is also a free agent. The offensive line will get a big boost from All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady’s return. Clady was lost for the season after two games with a Lisfranc foot injury.

Outlook

As long as Manning continues to play at a high level, the Broncos should be Super Bowl contenders. Manning’s contract expires after the 2016 season. However, history doesn’t favor the Broncos in their Super Bowl quest during the 2014 season. A team hasn’t won the Super Bowl after losing it the year before since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The 1993 Buffalo Bills are the last losing team to return to the Super Bowl after being in the game during the previous season. The last five Super Bowl losers have made the playoffs the following season, but the 2012 New England Patriots and 2013 San Francisco 49ers are the only teams to go back to the conference championship game following a Super Bowl loss since the 1993 Bills. The Broncos will have a hard time matching 2013’s 13-3 record because the teams in the NFL’s toughest division, the NFC West, along with the Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts are on the schedule.

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This in consideration for +BRONCOS CR3W the fact they managed 13-3 seasons in their first two seasons with Mr. Peyton Manning and much of their roster still quite young, this team has certainly been the target of teams week in and week out. So a repeat in regards to their record is feasible. The NFL is tough to foresee and who know what teams might be their usual tough selves of last season or not. +Seattle Seahawks will find out how being that target feels. Also, how success equals paying more for your roster. We feel the +Denver Broncos will notice just the slightest perhaps of not being approached and treated like defending Super Bowl champs. Seahawks have one more window until they really have to face their salary cap and what players they simply won't keep. +San Francisco 49ers has a contract looming for Kaepernick and Boldin is a free agent. We actually, very early obviously, think Arizona could be NFC West Champions next year. Entirely depends on Patrick Peterson and the play of Carson Palmer. They've got a defense that no one acknowledges but can flat out play. If Stl Louis can strike with a QB, their defense is exceptional on the D-Line as well. That still doesn't phase our feelings and how the Broncos will be better on the defensive side and special teams. Their offense should be able to move on anyone really, especially at home. They probably can be marked for a loss at Seattle and a toss up for at New England/Cincinnati. So repeating their record is not as monumental as many would claim in Broncos CR3W opinion.

The one element that we certainly know from this squad is that they're battle-tested now and experienced the upmost pressure of being as successful as they have. A record setting offense in NFL history that has blocks to build on and pieces to replace. As with every single year, the team changes like every team in the league. The fact that what appears to be the case, almost all assistants and coordinators are returning lends to help with continuity in the off-season for the system and their players. Who knows how up and down teams are til they hit the field. One thing that is for certain, Peyton Manning is one of the greatest winners in football history and Demaryius, Julius Thomas entering their prime with +Wes Welker returning as well. We love Decker and would not want to see him go, but the fact of the matter is that the Broncos may be unable to match what some teams offer. The city, franchise love him and no doubt Decker enjoys being there as much. Same goes for Moreno. 

One example we would like to leave with is that nobody expected the Broncos to bring Dumervil, Clady back last year (all of this was before Welker, DRC, and Phillips were all brought on board. Granted, #FaxGate ended up with Dumervil elsewhere, but by technicality, Elway had created cap room to keep him on board if not for one of the oddest stories in sports' contracts history. The Broncos had a very successful first three rounds of the draft last year. All becoming very big part of the team in their perspective roles. Growth for those three. K. Webster was a welcome addition to the secondary especially with the loss of Bailey and Harris Jr. during the season. He proved to be very intelligent, up to the physical aspect and grind of the NFL season. Von Miller will remain a question as to his effectiveness, coming off an ACL repair and the questionable future of Derek Wolfe makes depth at DE a priority. Trevathan came on as a linebacker for the Broncos and adding depth to the linebacker corps will be an issue unless they feel Irving has grown into it and perhaps a healthy Steven Johnson. Moore will be back and VERY WELCOME to the back end of the secondary. That being said, the secondary can be very very good, but if the defensive line can't get consistent QB pressure, it won't matter. Phillips helped, and he stepped up for Miller's absence but Miller makes all of their jobs so much easier by the attention he garners. For us personally (if they don't move up to go after a standout LB or an explosive DE (like Barr from +UCLA Bruins) to mitigate Von's need to return but also play alongside Von and get reps for the rotation. Malik Jackson has really entered his prime as an interior pass rusher and can play the edge. If Wolfe looks good to come back, that position is much more fortified entering a third season. Time will tell.

Broncos face question marks, but question marks like the +Cincinnati Bengals QB, offensive line, +New England Patriots have to address the health of Gronkowski and expect to sign and draft some players to catch some balls from Brady. Patriots have to resign Talib or they've got more holes to address than most in the secondary and defensive side along with the offense. Trusting the Patriots to be in the thick of things and if the Dolphins can get a few things going they could maybe finally make the AFC East a little tough for the Patriots. Lots to remain. We'll monitor the NFL combine and moving forward. The team being successful and quite deep, it is tough to foresee 7 draftees making the team just like this last season. Elway not only managed cap space for Clady and Dumervil, something no 'expert' expected. Elway probably had a vision in place before the season on what would ideally work with the cap this off-season and he certainly has a very good idea on the direction he hopes to go. Knowhson is one of the more admirable players on this team, and it would break our hearts to see him go after becoming such a great piece and leader for this franchise. Hopefully, some contract incentive-based keeps some of them around. We will name 3 players that we feel is a the top three priorities to keep in Dove Valley. Restructure Champ's contract and keep him in Denver (he wants a ring, he should have plenty of money saved away). Bringing Chris Harris and DRC to longer term extensions. And also keeping the best interior offensive line and screen line in the game in tact with +UTES CR3W alum, Zane Beadles. 

#BroncosUp, #BroncosCR3W Believe, In John we Trust !!