ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Vic Fangio and the Denver Broncos‘ new coaching staff have dissected the roster, and the team’s decision-makers have begun digging into a free-agency plan.
Throughout his tenure as the team’s general manager, John Elway — hired in 2011 — has said free agency “is a tool to take care of some things on your roster with specific players who you know will come in and fit a certain way.”
The Broncos have about $35.5 million worth of salary cap space if you take into account their expected draft pool and “dead money” (about $8 million in salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster).
Those numbers will be adjusted in the weeks to come, but here is an early look at their biggest needs:
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Quarterback: Man, just do the math here. Their returning starter, Case Keenum, has one year left on his contract and just finished 29th in the league in passer rating. The team doesn’t have a prospect on the roster they selected in the draft.
That creates a scenario in which the Broncos could pursue a QB hat trick of sorts — keep Keenum, sign a high-profile veteran and use a premium draft pick. It’s all just a matter of how big a swing Elway wants to take. Go as big as Nick Foles and that pushes the draft down the list, but keep Keenum and also sign a stopgap veteran, then that first- or second-round draft pick is most certainly in play.
Offensive line: The Broncos have four players in this position group who started games this past season and are poised to be unrestricted free agents: tackle Jared Veldheer, center Matt Paradis, guard Max Garcia and tackle/guard Billy Turner. One of the starters who is set to return — guard Ron Leary — is coming back from a torn Achilles.
The Broncos have used only four draft picks before the third round on offensive linemen during Elway’s time on the job and only once in the first round (Garett Bolles). With so many potential openings, they almost certainly will have to get the checkbook ready.
The Broncos had their eye on Bears right tackle Bobby Massie before Chicago recently re-signed Massie to a five-year deal that could be worth as much as $40 million. Beyond Massie and Veldheer, the tackle market is fairly thin. Paradis and the Chiefs’ Mitch Morse will be the two most sought-after prospective free agents at center leaguewide.
Cornerback: Chris Harris Jr. has a year remaining on a five-year deal he signed in 2015 that is now well below market. He would like to see a renegotiation, but whether that’s forthcoming is uncertain. Harris adjourned to the offseason saying any player on the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 roster “is pretty much a non-guaranteed contract now,” and he included himself on that list.
Cornerbacks Bradley Roby, Tramaine Brock and Jamar Taylor are all set to be unrestricted free agents. The available cornerbacks will include several proven players who are also 30-somethings (Kareem Jackson, Buster Skrine and Jason McCourty, among others) at a position where age is routinely the most unkind to players. A smattering of younger players such as Pierre Desir and Jason Verrett, who has played only five games in the past three seasons combined for the Chargers, are expected to be available as well.
Linebacker: At inside linebacker, Todd Davis, who wants to be back, is poised to be an unrestricted free agent, while Brandon Marshall, who also wants to be back, wondered as the season drew to a close if the Broncos considered him more of a role player than a starter. Marshall has two years left on his contract — $9 million against the cap in ’19 and $9.5 million against the cap in ’20 — but just a $4 million “dead money” charge if he’s released, and he has said he’s uncertain of his future.
At outside linebacker, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett are both poised to be unrestricted free agents and looking to move on. Ray, a former first-round pick, was a game-day inactive the final three weeks of the season and Barrett wants to find more playing time. But with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb already the starters, this doesn’t figure to be a high-profile position in free agency.
At inside linebacker, the Broncos believe Josey Jewell fits into their plans moving forward. C.J. Mosley and Jordan Hicks, who topped 100 and 90 tackles, respectively, this past season, figure to be two of the most productive players not yet 28 years old who are available.
Wide receiver/tight end: Any work the Broncos consider here probably hinges on the doctors’ reports for Jake Butt, Troy Fumagalli and Emmanuel Sanders. At tight end, Butt has spent most of his two years with the Broncos on injured reserve and is returning from another torn ACL, and Fumagalli just spent his rookie season on injured reserve after sports hernia surgery last March.
Sanders consistently has said he expected to be ready for the season, but he suffered a torn Achilles in December.
The Packers’ Randall Cobb might be the most notable soon-to-be free-agent wide receiver, but he missed six games in ’18 because of a hamstring injury and one game because of a concussion. And since his 12-touchdown season in 2014, Cobb has finished with six, four, four and two touchdowns in the four seasons that followed.