The Broncos are expected to aggressive and active once the signings formally begin on March 11th. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need and the draft is then the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.
Plenty of folks in the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial waves of signings have passed. It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.
Today: Defensive back
But no fewer than six players at the position will be either restricted or unrestricted free agents this week, including cornerback Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Mike Adams while the Broncos have already released Bailey after a decade with the team. And on a defense where there is plenty of uncertainty about who will play where, the secondary is potentially where things are most in flux.
Chris Harris Jr., who was down to down, game to game, the Broncos' best defensive back last season, is also coming back from surgery to repair his ACL. The ligament was not torn all the way through in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers and he suffered no cartilage damage, so the Broncos are confident his return will come as quickly as possible.
But until he is back in the lineup it is yet another question among many the team faces at this spot on the depth chart.
The Broncos have tried to get Rodgers-Cromartie back in the fold since they met with his agent at the scouting combine last month, but because he is one of the more experienced starters at the position while stil one of the youngest available -- at 27 years old -- he will have some demand in the open market.
The best out there: Overall, the feeling among many personnel evaluators around the league is there are some potential starters at both safety and cornerback set to hit the market with the potential of a Pro Bowl selection or two available as well. But, as always, to get the top-tier players it will take top-tier money early in the bidding, sometimes even a little more than expected.
For the Broncos Antoine Bethea, Chris Clemons, T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd are the best safeties set to be on the market. While Bethea is the best of the group, Clemons is a fairly under-the-radar player compared to the others. He is versatile and has played every bit as well at times as the others on the list.
Ward is a player Broncos' pro personnel director Tom Heckert knows well from Heckert's time as Browns' general manager. Byrd wants double-take money and turned down what was believed to be a three-year offer from the Buffalo Bills.
Byrd also has had some foot issues -- he missed five games this past season with plantar fasciitis in both feet -- that would need a look for any team willing to dive in for the kind of contract Byrd hopes to receive.
At cornerback Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the better players available. Rodgers-Cromartie played at a far higher level for the Broncos than he did for the Eagles in the previous two seasons, but he still suffered some concentration lapses and took himself off the field too many times. These are two things he has to address before he can be considered a no-question No. 1 player at the position.
Among the other cornerbacks available, Tarell Brown (49ers), Aqib Talib (Patriots), Vontae Davis (Colts), Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers), Alterraun Verner (Titans), Sam Shields (Packers) and the Seahawks' Walter Thurmond lead the way.
Munnerlyn played for Broncos head coach John Fox in Carolina, but projects more as a slot cornerback than a full-time option on the outside, as does Thurmond. Brown, however, is a three-year starter for the 49ers who missed some time this past season with a rib injury.
Brown is also 29 and would fit the Broncos defense. Verner just finished the contract he signed as a rookie so is one of the younger options expected to be in the market – he's just 25 – and coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Shields is just 26 and the Green Bay Packers had tried to get a deal in recent weeks, but Shields and his representatives looked determined to see what his value would be on the open market. Shields played this past season on a one-year, $2.1 million tender he signed as a restricted free agent.
Talib's is an experienced starter, injury history will concern some.
Bottom line: It will be a stunner if the Broncos don't dive in at this position with possible signings at both safety and cornerback if they get a chance at the right combination.
Harris Jr. will have a one-year deal worth $2.187 million in 2014. Other teams can still sign him to an offer sheet, but the Broncos have the right to match any offers. If Denver did not match any offers for Harris Jr., the Broncos would receive a second-round pick in return from the team that signed him.
Harris Jr. is recovering from ACL surgery -- the ligament was not completely torn, however -- and the Broncos are optimistic he will contribute in the 2014 season. A player who originally made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2011, Harris Jr. has progressed into the most versatile defensive back on the roster, having played both in the slot and on the outside.
His coaches consistently laud his competitiveness and ability match up with both speed receivers and the bigger, more physical receivers as well. And if his recovery stays on track the Broncos are expected to work toward a longer-term deal for Harris Jr. after next season when he will be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent.
If Harris Jr. was not coming off knee surgery and was unquestionably going to be ready for the entire 2014 season the Broncos would have likely had to consider using the highest tender on him -- a one-year deal worth $3.113 million that carries a first-round pick as compensation.
The Broncos also placed a one-year, $1.431 million tender on defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who is a restricted free agent as well. That tender comes with “original-round'' compensation, but since Unrein signed as an undrafted rookie when he entered the NFL the Broncos would not receive any compensation if they did not match any offer sheets Unrein were to receive.
The Broncos have also filed the paperwork on a one-year, $730,000 deal for cornerback Tony Carter for the '14 season.
The Broncos did not place a tender on kickoff returner Trindon Holliday as an exclusive rights free agent, so Holliday will free to sign with other teams when free agency opens Tuesday. It also means the Broncos are formally on the hunt for kickoff and punt returners.
Holliday had a roller-coaster ride in just under two seasons with the Broncos. He had six touchdown returns in 29 games with the Broncos, playoffs included. He had two kickoff returns and two punt returns for scores in regular-season games. In the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season he had a punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns.
But he also struggled to handle the ball at times. He muffed seven kickoffs or punts combined this past season and had limited impact down the stretch.
Key free agents: WR Eric Decker, RB Knowshon Moreno, LB Wesley Woodyard, G Zane Beadles, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, S Mike Adams, LB Paris Lenon, CB Quentin Jammer.
Where they stand: The Broncos have significant issues on defense. They have six defensive backs who are unrestricted or restricted free agents; they have told Champ Bailey, who had a year left on his deal, they will release him; they don’t have a middle linebacker who started any games in 2013 on the roster; and two of their top three players in sacks in 2013 (Phillips and Ayers) are free agents. That’s an awful of uncertainty on the depth chart with starters at defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety now on the open market. They also have two of the four wide receivers who were on the 53-man roster last season -- Decker and Andre Caldwell -- as free agents.
What to expect: Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said he believes that free agency is where a team should target “glaring needs," so the draft can be a best-player-available affair. So, with some cap room to work with, the Broncos will be aggressive with a few targeted deals -- as they have done in both 2012 and 2013 with Elway calling the shots -- before they back out and then wait for the first waves to pass. But they lean defense early in the checkbook frenzy because they need pass-rush help, have already worked out linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu -- Jackson eventually signed in Indianapolis -- and likely will sign a veteran receiver as well. The Broncos are selling a potential Super Bowl shot with Peyton Manning back at quarterback, so they figure to be a popular stop for players looking for a run at a ring.
The Broncos are expected to aggressive and active once the signings formally begin on March 11. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes teams should shop for need in free agency and take the best player available in the draft.
Plenty of folks in the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals after the initial waves of signings have passed. It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players such as Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.
Saturday: Defensive backs
Why it’s an issue: The Broncos are a half-and-half affair at the position at the moment. As in two of the top four wide receivers the team had on its 53-man roster this past season will be unrestricted free agents in the coming days.
Eric Decker and Andre Caldwell are each headed to the open market, leaving Demaryius Thomas and Welker as the only two players at the position on the current roster who caught passes in games in 2013. Kick returner Trindon Holliday does practice with the receivers during the week, but had just one catch for seven yards this past season.
Decker has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback and has 24 touchdowns receptions in the past two seasons combined. Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green are the only wide receivers in the league to have had at least 10 touchdown catches in both 2012 and 2013.
But the Broncos see Decker as a No. 2 receiver who likely sees himself as a No. 1 with the desire for the paycheck to go with it. And the Broncos believe they need to plan for next year’s free-agency season when Demaryius Thomas and Broncos tight end Julius Thomas are both slated to be unrestricted free agents. Caldwell was a rotational player -- 16 catches this past season to go with three touchdowns -- but with Welker having suffered two more concussions this past season it is a spot on the depth chart that needs some attention.
The biggest hurdle, however, in the Broncos’ search for replacements, whether it be in the draft or in free agency, is the fact they need players who think quickly and can work through a complicated playbook without mistakes in game-day situations. Manning calls plenty of the game at the line of scrimmage and the receivers have to make the changes with him. The offense is built on timing and moving quickly and not everybody is a fit in that situation.
The best out there: Seattle’s Golden Tate is not quite as big as Decker physically, but he's a productive player who would flourish with a quarterback like Manning if he could get up to speed quickly in the call-it-on-the-fly work the Broncos do at the line of scrimmage. Tate could also play on the outside and offer something in the return game.
The Patriots’ Julian Edelman does a job similar to Welker's in the slot, but he’s a proven player who could move to other spots in the formation and help in the return game. However, his injury history is cause for at least some pause. The Broncos know Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones all too well and Jones would offer some potential special-teams pop as well.
Carolina’s Brandon LaFell is seen as a rotational player with some upside still remaining, but he’s had just 13 touchdown catches in his career.
Bottom line: The talent pool in free agency is fairly shallow, which only enhances Decker’s ability to get a bigger deal elsewhere. The Broncos will take a look with checkbook in hand, but with a deep class waiting in the draft, there is no reason for them to overreach on a player at this point in the offseason -- especially considering Julius Thomas will be ready for more next fall.
If we learned anything from last year's offseason, the humbling of Champ Bailey has only just begun.
The Denver Broncos started the process by releasing the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback on Thursday, basically because he is coming off the worst season of his career. The next shoe to drop will come when he starts waiting for the phone to ring from other teams. Given his age -- he will be 36 by the time next season begins -- and the way this league now operates, he had better be an extremely patient man.
As phenomenal as Bailey has been during the vast majority of his career -- he's a surefire Hall of Famer -- there are no guarantees he will find anybody eager to sign him just because of his past accomplishments or even his willingness to move to safety.
Last year, we saw a slew of similarly accomplished veterans searching for lucrative deals on the open market because they thought they could still play at a high level. Less than a handful of those players found situations that seemed worth their while. Most vanished from the league, fully content to call it a career instead of playing for what they considered substandard contracts.
McShay has the Broncos, at No. 31, selecting Misouri defensive Kony Ealy, a pass-rusher who carries a first-round grade through the pre-draft season. McShay had the Broncos selecting TCU cornerback Jason Verrett in his second mock draft.
Here's Todd's latest first round :
Ealy measured in at 6-foot-4 and weighed 274 pounds at the league’s scouting combine last month. He also, with a 34 ½-inch arm, had one of the biggest armspans among the pass-rushers invited to Indy, something Broncos head coach John Fox has consistently said is an important piece of the pass-rush puzzle given the size of offensive tackles in the NFL.
Ealy’s 40-yard dash of 4.92 seconds wasn’t one of the best, but he consistently shows up on game video as quick off the ball and finished with eight sacks this past season in the speed-first Southeastern Conference.
The Broncos certainly have openings with Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and Jeremy Mincey all free agents who are expected to test the open market.
In an NFL locker room, where there will always be far fewer nameplates than people who would like them, there might be no higher standing, no more significant sign of respect than the double locker -- two lockers, side by side, assigned to one player.
Not just some extra room for dirty laundry, or to store another box of shoes from a zealous sneaker-company rep, or because a roster move was made on the player with the locker next to you. No, two lockers, awarded for service and standing.
This past season the Broncos had two players with two lockers. QB Peyton Manning and CB Champ Bailey. Membership in the future Hall of Fame club, it seems, has its privileges.
Yet Denver executive vice president John Elway and coach John Fox looked one of those players in the eye -- Bailey -- and told him his services were no longer needed. The Broncos confirmed the move Thursday after league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Wednesday that it was imminent. The end is almost never neat and tidy in the NFL, even if you’ve done what Bailey has done in his career.
The 35-year-old, just four weeks after his first appearance in a Super Bowl, was told he no longer fit in the Broncos plans. Not a little, not a lot, just not at all.
No doubt it was a grueling decision for the Broncos. Fox is a former defensive backs coach who has routinely lauded Bailey with all-time status at the position. And Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, has routinely said Bailey will have a gold jacket of his own someday.
But a Super Bowl was lost, by 35 points no less, and the march of time is merciless, no matter how much talent has been involved along the way.
Elway has always promised that tough decisions would be made in pursuit of a third Lombardi trophy for the Denver franchise. Decisions made in the “best interest of the Denver Broncos."
The Broncos did not need the salary-cap space that moving Bailey’s $10 million cap figure off the books will provide. They had no legitimate financial pressure to make the move, no immediate, pressing need to talk to Bailey about a contract reduction with the threat of his release hanging over the proceedings, not with the cap having settled in at $133 million per team.
Even Bailey’s $1 million roster bonus -- due March 15, and smaller than his $4.5 million bonus in 2011, his $3 million bonus in 2012, and his $1.25 million bonus last season -- did not offer any real incentive to make a move.
No, this was a football decision, made about one of the greatest players to wear the franchise’s uniform, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who is headed for the team’s Ring of Fame after his 10 seasons in Denver.
Bailey played a career-low five regular-season games this past season because of a foot injury. In a balky return to the lineup against the Chiefs in early December, he said he didn’t have confidence in his foot or his play. And Bailey without confidence was unheard of, unseen, really, before that.
Confidence was always as big a part of Bailey's football life as the air in his lungs. He respected the best players he faced, played without the constant on-field, me-first soundtrack. Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith once said, "Champ doesn't say anything because he doesn't have to. He knows you know you already didn't get the ball." Bailey mentored the young players around him and prepared -- even with the injury that kept him out of the lineup most of this past season -- the same way in his last season as he did in his first.
Former Denver coach Mike Shanahan, after he sent running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins in 2004 for Bailey and a draft pick, said Bailey would be a franchise changer for the Broncos. That Portis was good, very good, but that Bailey was great, as in forever great.
Bailey will certainly want to play next season -- he has said as much in recent days -- unless he has a change of heart or the league’s other 31 teams force him into a change of heart.
The Broncos should have made the Super Bowl in 2005, and he should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. The Broncos should have played far better in last month’s Super Bowl, and there should be some other way for a run like Bailey’s to end.
But life’s tapestry is full of all kinds of things, good and bad. Bailey has routinely shrugged off the bad, much like opponents' touchdowns, as things that happen. His position? You prepare, put yourself in the best position and hope for the best.
Even with the pile of Pro Bowls and a decade largely filled with on-field excellence, Bailey has always been a pragmatist when it came to how things worked in the league. He had seen too many players come and go, played for too many defensive coordinators -- a double-digit total, with seven in Denver alone -- to believe anything was forever for anybody.
Even during this past season, Bailey offered this on a Friday afternoon: “When they’re done with you, they’re going to be done with you; when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. For them and for you. That’s how it is in this league. It’s business when you come in to a team, it’s business when you go. You just try to make the part in between go as long as you can and be as good as it can be."
Bailey did that, did all of that.
Offensively, wide receiver is the only position I could see them using the 31st overall pick on, if Eric Decker signs elsewhere, but overall, this pick is likely to be on defense. As McShay predicted in his last mock, cornerback could be a logical selection here, but they could really look in any direction on the defensive side of the ball.
Whom does McShay have the Broncos drafting at No. 31? Let’s take a look:
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The Broncos are expected to aggressive and active once the signings formally begin on March 11th. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need and the draft is the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.
Expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial waves of signings have passed.
It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.
Today: Defensive end
Friday: Wide receiver
Why it's an issue: Two words -- Von Miller.
Miller is recovering from ACL surgery and even with the most optimistic of projections in his recovery doesn't figure to be full speed by the time training camp closes out and the regular season begins. The Broncos were forced to mix and match in the pass rush for most of this past season because of issues around Miller.
He missed the last game and a half of the regular season to go with all three playoff games after injuring his knee. Miller also missed the first six games of the season because of a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. And even in the games in between, you would be hard-pressed to find a personnel evaluator in the league who believed Miller consistently played with the same explosiveness as he did in 2012 even before his injury.
The Broncos also have players who finished No. 1 and No. 3 in sacks this past season who are unrestricted free agents. Phillips led the team with 10 while Robert Ayers had 5.5. Jeremy Mincey, who was immediately moved into the rotation at defensive end after signing in December, is also a free agent.
Denver got every bit out of Phillips than could be expected, but the veteran wore down as the season went on as Derek Wolfe's illness and Miller's inury/suspension forced him to play more snaps than the Broncos would have preferred. By the end of the season Phillips had played 770 snaps -- 68 percent of the defensive plays, including penalty plays.
Ayers, who had 4.5 of his sacks in the games Miller missed with a suspension, had just one sack over the last 10 games of the regular season to go with one in the three preseason games. Mincey played at least 28 snaps in each of the last two games of the regular season to go with at least 18 snaps in every playoff game.
It all means the Broncos will be on the hunt for an edge presence in free agency.
The best out there: The Broncos were hoping to take a recruiting swing at Brian Orakpo, but the former Pro Bowl selection was tagged as a franchise player -- a one-year deal for $11.46 million that is fully guaranteed as soon as Orakpo signs it.
Jared Allen will be a free agent, but he turns 32 in April and may be at the point in his career, despite 23.5 sacks in last two seasons combined, a situational player looking for every-down money.
Allen's teammate in Minnesota, Everson Griffen, has been a rotation player and started just one game in his career, but he won't turn 27 until December and had 5.5 sacks this past season in 673 snaps. By contrast Allen had 11.5 sacks in just over 1,000 snaps of work.
Colorado Springs native Lamarr Houston is worth a long look as well for the Broncos. Houston isn't the proto-typical edge player, but his versatility would certainly fit into Jack Del Rio's defense with his ability to play both the weak- and strong-side end position, to stand up in a two-point stance at times and play down inside at defensive tackle in some specialty looks as well.
If the Broncos are willing to dive in for the bigger money, they will certainly take a look at the Bengals Michael Johnson and the Seahawks Michael Bennett. But any top-shelf contract handed out this March could impact March '15 at the position when Miller is poised for free agency.
O'Brien Schofield has a long injury history. He had ACL surgery after a Senior Bowl injury even before he entered the draft. The 2010 and 2012 seasons ended because of injuries. But he also has potential to get the passer. For the right price -- he made $1.323 million with the Seahawks last season -- he will get a look from some teams.
Bottom line: The Broncos will be looking to spend at this position right out of the gate, even though there are some buyer-beware players in the mix.
League sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Wednesday that the Broncos were on the verge of cutting Bailey.
The Broncos save $10 million in cap space with the move.
"This was a difficult decision for our team with everything that Champ Bailey has meant to the Denver Broncos and this community over the last 10 years," said John Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations/general manager. "Without question, he's among the best cornerbacks to ever play the game and one of the finest players in the history of the Broncos. You couldn't ask for more in a player than what Champ brought to this team. His combination of elite talent, class, leadership and competitiveness made him one of the all-time greats.
"On behalf of everyone with the Broncos, I wish Champ all the best and thank him for everything he did for this franchise. Champ will always be a Bronco. We look forward to his Ring of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame election in the years ahead."
Bailey, 36, was entering the final year of his deal after playing in a career-low five regular-season games this past season because of a Lisfranc foot injury. Some thought he should have been placed on injured reserve, but he played through it and returned for the playoffs, making his first Super Bowl appearance at Super Bowl XLVIII.
Despite his release, Bailey is not interested in retiring, according to a source close to the player.
Bailey played 10 seasons for the Broncos since the 2004 trade that brought him from the Redskins for running back Clinton Portis.
Former Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Browner will be suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season as part of his reinstatement after a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, the NFL and NFL Players Association jointly announced Wednesday.
Browner, an unrestricted free agent who played in eight games for the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 before being suspended by the league, will be eligible to sign with any team and participate in offseason workouts and preseason activities, the league said in a statement.
If he complies with terms of the substance-abuse policy, the league's statement said, "he will be fully reinstated after serving a four-game suspension without pay at the start of the 2014 regular season and forfeiting an additional four weeks of pay."
That means Browner, in total, will miss 13 weeks of pay due to the suspension -- five games in 2013 and eight games in '14.
Browner had tweeted Tuesday night that he has been reinstated by the league after serving more than 2½ months of a one-year suspension for marijuana use.
I received wonderful news today. The NFL has reinstated me, and I now have the opportunity to (cont) http://t.co/AG0Zbpxpgo
- Brandon Browner (@bbrowner27) March 5, 2014
News of the reinstatement of Browner, a Pro Bowl selection in 2011, comes just days before teams can make offers to players. Teams can enter into negotiations with players and their agents on Saturday, and contracts can be signed as early as Tuesday.