AFC West: Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After all of the back and forth, all of the work done between the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning, to go with all of the hand-wringing across the Front Range about his return, the Broncos and Manning are all-in once again to chase a Super Bowl trip.

It's touchy business, this negotiating with a future Hall of Famer about taking less salary than you agreed to give him a few years before. But this is what the Broncos did at a meeting last month.

Manning arrived at the Broncos' suburban Denver complex to tell team officials, including executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, he was ready physically and mentally to come back for the 2015 season. That he was ready to work with the team's new coaching staff, that he believed he could still contribute at the level he needs to in the chase for his second Super Bowl ring and the Broncos' third.

And the Broncos told him they certainly want him back. But the Broncos, with a long list of free agents and plenty of cash commitments -- in terms of bonuses due and guaranteed salaries that had to be accounted for in escrow in the first week of free agency -- were also hoping for some relief.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning took a pay cut that he can earn back by winning another Super Bowl.
Often in the latin of NFL contract negotiations, "relief" usually means payus cutus, and when you're talking about one of the best to wear an NFL uniform, that can bring the potential for hard feelings and stepped-on toes on all sides.

Manning had his base salary trimmed from $19 million to $15 million and will have the chance to make that $4 million back with incentives if the Broncos go on to win the Super Bowl -- a $2 million incentive for a win in the AFC Championship Game to go with a $2 million incentive for a win in the Super Bowl.

In these matters it's always important to remember not so much the monetary total -- it's a lot of money either way -- but the player's perspective. And most players have heard teams talk of the importance and pledge of a signed contract when a player wants to renegotiate.

Players see other players throughout the league sent on their way with years left on a deal, no matter their stature in the game. Manning was, after all, released by the Indianapolis Colts before the Broncos could sign him in 2012.

So, any adjustment -- i.e., cut -- takes discussion, it takes negotiation, it takes some patience and some deliberate work on both sides. That work was done, deliberately and with a meeting somewhere in the middle.

Was it all sunshine and rainbows along the way? Probably not, but it's done because the Broncos believe Manning is still the guy to get them to the trophy the team desperately wants to present to owner Pat Bowlen, who is battling Alzheimer's disease.

Elway said as much at the scouting combine when he offered, "I think with Peyton, obviously, there is not much he can add to his legacy. I do think that the one thing he can add is another Super Bowl championship. … Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl. I think that's our goal, as it is for 31 other teams, but we feel like we've got a real good football team and Peyton Manning is the best player for us."

And Manning shows he believes, believes in the kind of team the Broncos have, the kind of coach Gary Kubiak is, the kind of offense the Broncos will run and believes the depth chart around him is good right now and will be better when the Broncos are finished with the draft and free agency.

He believes it all enough to invest $4 million.

On Kubiak, Manning has said, "Great respect for him as a football coach and a human being and looking forward to getting to know him a little better."

So pending a physical that all involved believe is only ornamental to go with Manning's signature on the contract -- both will come Thursday on a brief visit for Manning to the Denver area -- it is done.

The Broncos asked for help, Manning gave his blessing and a compromise was found. Now, they will all get down to the business of making sure everybody closes the deal next February the way they want to.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have enough salary-cap room at the moment to participate in the early hours of free agency when the biggest checks get written. But they do have to keep an eye on the bottom line as they have plenty of cash already spoken for in the first five days of the new league year.

According to the NFL Players Association, the Broncos have an adjusted salary-cap figure of $150,066,980 for the 2015 season. That includes the salary cap released by the NFL Monday -- $143.28 million per team -- to go with some cap rollover the Broncos have from last season and some other adjustments. With cap commitments of $120.72 million for their top 51 contracts -- teams count the top 51 until final roster cuts are made to start regular season -- to go with $1.813 million in “dead money’’ for salary-cap charges for players who are no longer on the roster, the Broncos opened Monday with about $27.5 million worth of cap space.

With the Broncos using the franchise player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and the $12.823 million cap charge it carries, the Broncos, at the moment, have about $14.715 million worth of workable cap space even as that will have to include enough room for the team's draft picks.

With a week to go until free agency officially opens, the Broncos can still make some additional room with some contract adjustments, including quarterback Peyton Manning’s deal, to go with any players they may release as they work through their plan. One contract that may also get a look is tackle Ryan Clady's, which currently carries the third-highest cap figure on the team at $10.6 million, behind only Manning and Thomas’ franchise tag.

Clady also has a $1.5 million roster bonus due on March 14 and his $8.5 million base salary is also guaranteed on March 14.

The Broncos have several other players whose base salaries are guaranteed within the first week of the new league year, which means when those guarantees take effect the Broncos, by league rule, must put the cash to cover those guarantees into escrow. Manning’s current contract calls for his $19 million base salary to be guaranteed on March 9 while cornerback Aqib Talib has $5.5 million guaranteed on March 10, defensive end DeMarcus Ware has $3.5 million of his $7 million base salary guaranteed on March 14, the same day safety T.J. Ward is slated to receive a $2.5 million roster bonus as his $4 million salary is guaranteed.

All of that together, with Manning’s deal considered before any tweaks that are on the way, would constitute as much as $44.5 million in guaranteed money, in cash, that has to be accounted for by the Broncos within the first week of free agency, outside of any signing bonuses to new additions they bring in during those opening days.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever a name from the Denver Broncos' hefty list of prospective free agents has been tossed toward John Elway, the team’s executive vice president of football operations/general manager has almost always answered the same way.

Something on the order of, "Sure, we want (insert free agent’s name here) back," but then Elway added -- every time -- something about how the open market would set the price tag for the player.

He would then add something about how difficult it is to sign a player before the market value for the player has been established, and how difficult it is for a player to sign before he knows how much he can get. In short, he has characterized it as: How much you want? I don’t know, how much you got? I don’t know.

He has said that about every prospective Broncos' free agent except one -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas isn't going anywhere, and the franchise player tag is proof. The Broncos know what they have in Thomas, they know what he means in their offense, and they want him to stay.

Now, they have to close the deal. The franchise player tag essentially keeps Thomas on the roster.

It’s a one-year deal for $12.797 million guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it. And there is the rub.

A player, especially an elite player like Thomas, would always prefer a long-term deal with guaranteed money.

A franchise player tender is a hefty bag of change, but it’s not a long-term deal. And long-term deals for a player like Thomas look like the seven-year, $113 million deal Calvin Johnson signed in 2012 that is significantly back-loaded and includes $48.8 million in guaranteed money.

Or the seven-year, $67.8 million deal that Andre Johnson signed in 2010, or Mike Wallace's five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) signed in 2013.

Elway has said he could easily see a scenario where the Broncos used the franchise player tag, then the sides agree to a long-term deal after free agency opens.

After free agency opens the market will dictate what the likes of Randall Cobb. Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree receive, and those would only be handy reference points for where the Broncos will have to go on Thomas.

For Thomas, the team has tinkered with a five-year deal. So, start at the $12.787 million of the tag (UPDATE: the actual amount based on the confirmed 2015 salary cap is $12.823 million) -- the Broncos have already shown they believe Thomas is worth that -- and multiply by the years on any prospective deal, and bump it a bit.

So, the Broncos are likely looking at a deal averaging more per year than the recent deals for elite wide receivers, save for Calvin Johnson's $16 million per-year average.

Despite the temporary relief the Broncos get from the franchise player tag, at least in terms of keeping Thomas off the open market, it’s still eats a little less than half their current available salary-cap space, and it's still best for all involved to get a long-term deal done.

They have spent the past few weeks outlining to quarterback Peyton Manning how a new offense, with a new playbook and at least some new terminology, would be of benefit to him. And they have also likely outlined what they could do if they were to get some salary-cap relief by tweaking his contract.

Thomas is Manning’s No. 1 receiver, and as a quarterback who has long extolled the virtues of repetition in developing the on-field chemistry, Manning wants to throw to that No. 1 receiver -- a lot.

Thomas doesn’t have to sign the franchise tender any time soon, until Week 10 of the regular season in the most extreme of cases. The Broncos have until July 15, roughly two weeks before training camp opens, to sign Thomas to a long-term deal. If that deadline passes, they'd have to wait until they’ve played their last regular-season game in ’15 to try again.

Most players who receive the franchise tag don’t sign the tender early because they want time to work on a long-term deal. And those players usually, at minimum, take a pass on the team’s offseason work if no new deal is done.

That’s not something Manning would be excited about; that’s not something a team trying to put in a new offense should be excited about; and it’s not something that would help anyone on any side of the equation. The Broncos have had success in this position before, having used the franchise tag on tackle Ryan Clady and kicker Matt Prater in previous years before signing each to long-term deals before the start of training camp.

So, it means when free agency opens, the Broncos will really need to get down to the business of signing the guy they’ve already shown is their top priority.
John Elway said it on Feb. 19 and the Denver Broncos will follow through with it on Monday when the team is expected to formally place the franchise player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

The designation will mean the Broncos' captain will get a one-year, guaranteed deal for the average of the top five salaries at his position. This year that figure will be just less than $12.8 million. The salary cap charge would be $12.797 million and the deal would be fully guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it.

Teams could use the franchise player or transition player tags beginning on Feb. 16 and the deadline to file the paperwork to the league to use the tag is 4 p.m. ET on Monday.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJohn Elway has repeatedly said his goal is to work out a long-term deal with Demaryius Thomas.
"If we can't get something done, yeah, we'll tag Demaryius," Elway said in Indianapolis at the scouting combine. "Our goal is to get something done with Demaryius ... that market is changing, that wide receiver market is changing, too, but the bottom line is we want Demaryius to be a Bronco."

The Broncos and Thomas' representatives have had the framework of a five-year deal on the table at times over the past year. Elway said he expected Thomas, as well as the Broncos' other potential free agents, to see what the price tags would be at their respective positions once free agency opened. Thomas would command a contract worthy of his status at the position.

Calvin Johnson has the largest contract for any wide receiver in the league, a seven-year, $113 million deal he signed in 2012 that is significantly back-loaded and includes $48.8 million in guaranteed money. Andre Johnson signed a seven-year, $67.8 million deal in 2010, while Percy Harvin signed a six-year, $64.2 million deal ($14.5 million guaranteed) in 2013 and Mike Wallace signed a five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) in 2013.

Free agency officially begins March 10, and teams can begin to negotiate with prospective free agents on March 7. Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are the Broncos' highest-profile players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

When the Broncos file the paperwork to the league, it is expected Demaryius Thomas will get the “non-exclusive'' franchise player tag. That means Demaryius Thomas could solicit offers from other teams and the Broncos would then have the right to match.

The Broncos would almost certainly match any offer Thomas would receive. And any team that would potentially sign Thomas would have to make a contract big enough to deter the Broncos, a tall order, and also have to send the Broncos their next two first-round picks.

Most players who receive the franchise tag would prefer a long-term deal, that would include more guaranteed money. They often do not sign the franchise player tender until the deadline, which by league rules this year is July 15.

After July 15 teams cannot sign those designated as franchise players to multi-year extensions until after the last regular-season game of the upcoming season. So, it is expected Thomas would miss the team's offseason program until he either signs a multi-year extension or July 15 arrives since his attendance, and the team's desire to have him working in what is a new playbook, constitutes his most significant leverage.

Elway has said he could see a scenario where Demaryius Thomas got the franchise player tag and then the two sides reached an agreement at some point after free agency when the contracts started to come in.

The other free agent, marquee receiver who has had comparable production is Dez Bryant. The Dallas Cowboys are also expected to use the franchise player tag on him . Other notable receivers set to hit the open market are Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree and Randall Cobb.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Demaryius Thomas is second in the NFL with 28 100-yard receiving games in the regular season and postseason combined, including 10 100-yard games this past season. Seven of those came in consecutive weeks. His 226 yards in the Broncos' Oct. 5 win over the Arizona Cardinals is a single-game franchise record and his 1,619 yards receiving this past season also set a single-season franchise record.

Demaryius Thomas has had three consecutive seasons with at least 92 receptions, 1,430 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. He is also only the third player in league history to have three consecutive seasons of at least 1,400 yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns. Marvin Harrison and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice are the others.

Hypothetically the Broncos could also use a franchise player tag on Thomas in 2016 as well if no long-term deal were to be worked out. And with the salary cap having taken an expected jump from $133 million per team in 2014 to an expected $143 million in the coming season, teams would be more inclined to look at that as an option.

But Elway has repeatedly said; “We want to get something done with Demaryius and we would like to get that worked out as soon as we can so it makes sense for everybody.''
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As teams around the league continue to jettison veteran players to take some contracts off the books in advance of the formal opening of free agency, the Denver Broncos will always take a look at the list if they believe a player will fill a need.

But most of the time, the players simply do not fit the profile of what the Broncos are usually searching for in free agency, as in they are often in the 30-something club, coming off big-money, multiyear deals and hoping for another.

In short, the Broncos prefer players heading into their second NFL contracts, or the kind of players who usually aren’t getting released before the start of free agency.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Elway and the Broncos typically aren't major players on the opening days of free agency.
And while this new era of the salary cap – estimates are that it will come in between $143 million and $145 million per team, a significant jump from the $133-million limit in 2014 – has forced plenty of decision-makers across the league to wrap their heads around the idea of what is “too much" to pay a player at a given position. The Broncos have stuck to their profile for the most part.

At least in the big-ticket signings. You can take quarterback Peyton Manning’s signing in 2012 as the outlier, as Hall of Fame quarterbacks with football left in the tank don’t see the open market, so the Broncos dove in with a $96-million deal.

But overall, for much of John Elway’s early tenure with the Broncos, the team’s signings for those older free agents were usually on one-year contracts, usually well after the opening bell of free agency, especially if the player was well beyond his first contract in the league.

The players signed in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 free agency classes were largely veterans on one-year deals – Keith Brooking, Justin Bannan, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen, Brandon Stokley, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips, just to name a few. Most of the exceptions didn't get much longer deals. Wes Welker got a two-year deal, Terrance Knighton got a two-year deal and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie got a two-year deal on paper, but the second year was voided five days after the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.

The exceptions in those earlier seasons were Manning and guard Louis Vasquez. But Vasquez was a 20-something was making his first venture into free agency, and the Broncos gave him a four-year deal for what was his second contract in the league.

He has been a starter, an All-Pro, the kind of return the Broncos want. Even in the 2014 splurge in free agency of the four high-profile, big-money, multi-year signings – Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and DeMarcus Ware – only Ware was older than 28 when the contracts were signed while Ward and Sanders were signing their second NFL contracts.

All four of those players went on to play in the Pro Bowl this past January.

So, when you see all of the veteran players released now, before free agency opens, the Broncos aren’t going to be all that active with those players because the price is the highest. Yes, they've already had tight end James Casey in for a visit, but only because Casey has played four seasons in Gary Kubiak’s offense.

The Broncos are looking to free agents more in line with Ward, Sanders and Vasquez, players just completing their initial contracts, players still ascending. Those are the kinds of players who will be shown the Broncos' checkbook in the coming weeks.

They’ll fill with older players later if they feel they need to, with "later" being some time after the initial flurry of free agency dies down.

Because with some of their needs, Elway has already said the Broncos will look within as well, especially to those in the 2014 draft class who didn’t play much last season – such as wide receiver Cody Latimer – or at all last season – such as tackle Michael Schofield.

As Elway put it: “They’re going to have expectations for those young guys to be able to step in and be able to contribute early. That’s the coaching staff, that’s Gary’s mindset, the coaching staff’s mindset -- they’re not afraid to play young guys. They’ll get them trained up to play, which is going to be beneficial to us."

So, as the list of veteran free agents already on the market grows, as teams shave their salary caps and send signed contracts into the wind, the Broncos will look. Just don’t expect them to dive in on most of the most familiar names.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have one of the longer lists of free agents in the league and just under two weeks out from the formal opening of the NFL’s festival of checks, it’s a good time to take a one-a-day look at some of the impending Broncos’ free agents.

Today: Terrance Knighton
Saturday: Orlando Franklin

Knighton has made his free agency parameters abundantly clear. The 28-year-old defensive tackle would like to play for a team “that can win, because losing sucks, even if you have a big contract. It's better to have a contract you like and have a chance to win."

He’d like that to be in Denver, “because this is a great spot, a great locker room."

And, of course, the Broncos' defensive captain would like to maximize his earning potential in what is a short career window for players, because “you do have to think about down the road, taking care of things, getting yourself in a good position."

Whether all of that adds up to Knighton and the Broncos eventually putting pen to paper, with smiles all around, remains to be seen. Knighton, on several fronts, has expressed his frustration in recent weeks with a lack of movement on that front from team officials.

The Broncos have had some discussions with representatives for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas -- the team's highest-profile free agents -- in recent weeks and months. Team officials, including director of football administration Mike Sullivan, who handles the team’s contract negotiations with players, made the rounds at the scouting combine with a variety of agents, including Knighton's.

But for the most part, Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he’s going to let the market open and then see what kinds of salary numbers are swirling around the players, and that includes Knighton.

“Obviously, players want all the money and they want to play where they want to play," Elway said in Indianapolis. “Heck, I’ve been a player; I understand that, but I can’t calm the frustration because we have to do what’s best for the Broncos and also know we would love to have him back, but we’ve got to see what that number is."

Elway said, in the end, it’s about “what we can fit and who can fit in there."

It means Knighton, who played 48.5 percent of the defensive snaps this past season (520 in all) as most often an early-down player, will almost certainly face a decision about a little more money somewhere else or a Broncos team that had 11 players named to the Pro Bowl with Peyton Manning poised to formally return for the 2015 season. Oakland, with former Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio now the team's coach, is expected to make an offer.

Knighton thinks highly of Del Rio and Del Rio has now made it a point to have Knighton in his defense in both Jacksonville and Denver. Knighton fits, as a nose tackle, in Wade Phillips’ defense for the Broncos, but he’s also at a position where the Broncos believe Sylvester Williams, their first-round pick in 2013, is ready for more – he played 39.7 percent of the defensive snaps last season.

The Broncos also have, with Manning’s imminent return, needs along the offensive line to address with the hunt for at least two and possibly three new starters as well as at tight end, where the team’s top three players at the position are all scheduled to be free agents.

It’s why Knighton has also said “it’s a business at the end of the day and they’re going to do what they think is best and I’ll do what I think is best."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Over the past three seasons, or since Peyton Manning signed on to be the quarterback, the Denver Broncos have largely used two personnel groupings on offense – the three-wide receiver set and a two-tight end package.

And while there is no disputing the Broncos' win output -- 38 in the last three years -- or scoring output, in the last years in particular when they have averaged 34 points per game over their last 32 regular-season games, both executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway and coach Gary Kubiak say that’s going to change.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning, Ryan Clady, Orlando Franklin, Virgil Green, C.J. Anderson
Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos' offensive huddle will include a fullback with frequency in 2015.
Kubiak said in the past week that he alwayshas had a fullback in the offense and intends to with the Broncos as well. And Elway added; “I think to be really effective in the run game, you’ve got to run with the fullback … We’ll have people who can play fullback.’’

Then asked if he believed there was still a place for a two-back offense in these pass happy times, he said; “Without a doubt I do.’’

With James Casey, a tight end who could line up as a fullback as well, set to be the first free agent the Broncos sit down with face to face with in the coming days -- Casey was released by the Eagles last week so he already is in the open market -- it's clear how much of a priority being able to staff the two-back look is at the moment. So, as the Broncos go about melding the playbook for quarterback Peyton Manning’s expected return with what Kubiak wants in the offense, it’s clear the Broncos will look different in how they go about things.

Over the last two seasons the Broncos have preferred the three-wide look to be their base formation. They had just two games last season when they lined up more with two tight ends than with three wide receivers – the season-opening win over the Indianapolis Colts and the Oct. 12 win over the New York Jets – and the difference was just one snap and three snaps, respectively.

It was far more common to lean almost exclusively on the three-wide look over the two tight end – 49 snaps to one in the first meeting with Kansas City, 63 to 10 against Arizona, 49-0 against San Francisco, 77-0 in the first meeting with Oakland, 63-3 against St. Louis and 41-9 against Cincinnati.

The totals against St. Louis and Cincinnati came in losses -- the loss against the Bengals in a period in the season when the Broncos were trying to run the ball more efficiently and they looked disjointed doing it at times.

And by the time the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Colts rolled around, they had a far different approach against the Colts. Last month they were in a three-wide look 56 times, penalty snaps included, as compared to two tight ends on 15 snaps, a far different ratio than they had used in the season-opening win over the same team.

From a football perspective once of the adjustments more two-back looks would bring would have to come from Manning. He could be under center more and face more crowded looks around the line of scrimmage than defenses have played against the Broncos over the last two seasons especially.

Kubiak, for one, says Manning would flourish in the offense because “he’s one of the best play-action quarterbacks ever to play the game. He can run whatever scheme he’s in.’’

But Kubiak did add; “We’re going to run whatever makes sense, whatever we think will get first downs and touchdowns, we’re going to run an offense that fits the personnel we have. Some of it could be different and some of it could look the same.’’
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the on-field workouts continued Monday at the NFL's scouting combine, some players who will be of interest to the Denver Broncos were on display.

Monday the defensive backs closed things out on the combine’s final day.
  • The Broncos will be in the market for a safety, especially if Rahim Moore exits in free agency, but they face some potentially difficult decisions on this draft board. Overall, safety is considered by some in the league as potentially the thinnest position group in the draft, especially in terms of players who are expected to walk in and contribute immediately. Alabama’s Landon Collins re-affirmed his position as the top safety in the draft for many teams with his workout Monday. Collins’ size (6-foot, 228 pounds) and speed (an official clocking of 4.53 in the 40-yard dash) mean he will be long gone by the time the Broncos pick at No. 28 overall. That means the Broncos will likely move down the board, into the second and third days of the draft, where they will try to find value at a thin position.
  • Certainly a player like Virginia Tech's Kyshoen Jarrett makes sense. The Broncos have done plenty of due diligence on Jarrett, and he also fits kind of the hybrid mold the team has tried to find as they search for players who are willing tacklers in the run game, but possess cover skills closer to that of a cornerback. Jarrett, who measured in at 5-9 7/8 and a solid 200 pounds at the combine, was officially clocked at 4.57 in the 40 on Monday. The Broncos have used players built more like cornerbacks at safety in recent seasons, including Omar Bolden, who was drafted by the team as a cornerback and now plays safety.
  • Another player who fits that profile who the Broncos will have to wait until March 31 to see work out fully, is Connecticut’s Byron Jones. He did not do all of the drills at the combine Monday because he had shoulder surgery this past season to repair a torn labrum, but what he did do certainly got everyone’s attention. Jones' 12-3 broad jump is believed to be a combine record, and his vertical leap of 44 inches was also an attention-grabber. Jones was actually a safety for the Huskies before he was moved to cornerback in 2013, and at 6-1, 199 pounds, he too, fits the job description for a coverage safety/cornerback the Broncos will seek in their new defensive scheme. Jones had two interceptions in seven games this past season, to go with 24 tackles, including a seven-tackle game against Tulane. Jones started 12 games at safety in 2012 before starting the 19 games of his career at cornerback in the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
  • With Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, and Kayvon Webster all under contract for the coming season, cornerback is not necessarily a need position for the Broncos. But there are some bigger cornerbacks who could be worth a second-day look in the draft, like Miami's Quinten Rollins, who was officially timed at 4.57 in the 40 at 195 pounds, and Roby’s former teammate at Ohio State Doran Grant. At 200 pounds, Grant showed plenty of speed Monday, with an official 4.44 showing in the 40. Grant’s size-speed combination to go with good reports of his practice habits will push him up the board by the time the draft rolls around.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the NFL’s scouting combine winds down Monday, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway has spent the past week previewing the draft's top prospects and navigating the hotbed of free agency that the event has become.

As teams and player agents scrambled to carve out time in between all of the running and jumping, the business of constructing a roster was at the forefront. A clearer picture has emerged after six frenetic days of how things will go for the Broncos once free agency officially opens on March 10.
  • Elway said in Indianapolis wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, as has been expected for weeks, will formally get the franchise player tag by the March 2 deadline if the two sides cannot work out a long-term deal. The franchise player tender is a one-year, guaranteed contract that would be for roughly $12.9 million for wide receivers this season -- the average of the top five contracts at the franchise player's position. The Broncos want, and intend, to keep Thomas and have made him the top priority this year among their own free agents. There was every indication that Thomas will get the franchise player tag and could then sign a long-term deal shortly after free agency opens and the market for front-line receivers is set.
  • Tight end Julius Thomas' representatives are seeking a long-term deal with near record guaranteed money for the position, as you would expect from a player with back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons. Denver has not given any indication that it expects to go that high. No talks are currently scheduled and Julius Thomas is expected to sign elsewhere. With all three of their top tight ends scheduled to be free agents, the Broncos will scan the market as well -- former Gary Kubiak favorite James Casey is available after having been released by the Philadelphia Eagles this past week. They will give a long look to selecting one in this year’s draft class as well. The team had particular interest in the tight ends workouts on Friday.
  • Yes, the Broncos would like to try to get players like defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, guard Orlando Franklin and safety Rahim Moore back, but Elway outlined this past week the difficulty in trying to do a deal for those players before free agency opens. He described the conversations as: “How much you want? Oh I don’t know. How much you got? I don’t know.’’ And he also said: “Really the bottom line is until the market opens and you get out there and see what’s out there, that’s what sets the price. That’s why it’s very difficult for them to accept something before free agency starts and why it’s difficult for us -- we don’t know what the market is, it could be different for some players … . Players want all the money and they want to play where they want to play. Heck I’ve been a player I understand that, but I can’t calm the frustration because we have to do what’s best for the Broncos and also know we would love to have him back, but we’ve got to see what that number is.’’ Elway said he believed Franklin would get "a lot of interest'' from other teams and the Broncos expect him to sign elsewhere.
  • Elway also made it clear some of the roster gaps left behind by departing free agents will be filled by young players already on the roster who may not have gotten much, if any, playing time last season. In particular, Elway talked about the potentials of tackle Michael Schofield and wide receiver Cody Latimer many times this past week. He also called the right tackle position “a need for us,’’ that a player like Schofield could fill. With Wes Welker scheduled to be a free agent and the Broncos not expected to bring him back, Latimer will be asked to do far more in the offense. The Broncos also saw what everybody else saw this past week in Indianapolis: A deep, athletic group of wide receivers that could reach into the draft’s third day.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As the on-field workouts continued Sunday at the NFL’s scouting combine, some players who will be of interest to the Denver Broncos were on display.

Sunday the defensive linemen and linebackers got to work.
  • With Danny Trevathan coming off three separate injuries to his left leg that kept him out of all but three games last season and with Nate Irving, who finished the season on injured reserve after knee surgery, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, the Broncos will look hard at this year’s group of inside linebackers. While every team will certainly look at the group differently, it’s generally not considered that deep a position on this draft board. So the Broncos may have to consider an earlier pick to get the guy they want. Two players considered slightly undersized who will still continue to get the Broncos’ attention are Miami’s Denzel Perryman and UCLA’s Eric Kendricks. Perryman measured in at 5-foot-10 3/4 in Indy, while Kendricks was 6-0 1/4. But both were sure tacklers who consistently showed up in the run defense. Among the bigger players at the position who will get a look as well from the Broncos will be Benardrick McKinney (6-4 1/8, 246), who clocked an official 40 time of 4.66 Sunday.
  • Perryman, especially, has drawn interest at the combine from teams running a 3-4 defense, as the Broncos will run in the upcoming season. He suffered a pulled an abdominal muscle in a Senior Bowl practice and did not play in the all-star game. Perryman said in his meetings with teams that his discussions of a 3-4 defense were “pretty much second nature to me." And asked to describe his playing style, he said he believed he could, and should, be the first inside linebacker taken in the draft and called himself “a downhill, hard-nosed dog."
  • Washington’s Shaq Thompson won this year’s Hornung Award, given annually the nation’s “most versatile player." He scored two touchdowns as a running back in the 2014 season and four on defense -- one interception return for a score and three fumble returns for scores. Against Eastern Washington he had 15 tackles on defense and carried the ball three times on offense for 66 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run. So, in theory, he could help solve the Broncos’ needs for a linebacker and, to a smaller extent, as a situational fullback. However, Thompson said at the combine he intended to play only linebacker in the NFL, and when asked about running back he said, “No, running back is out of the question." Thompson, at 228 pounds, was officially clocked at 4.64 in the 40 on Sunday.
  • The Broncos had all of their top talent evaluators at Sunday’s workouts -- including executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, director of player personnel Matt Russell, director of pro personnel Tom Heckert and coach Gary Kubiak -- and they will give plenty of consideration to the defensive linemen they saw work Sunday. But many coaches on hand in Indy said this week they also expected to see a big jump in the Broncos’ defensive line play with the arrival of defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who is one of the most respected assistants in the league and represents a major coup for Kubiak given he was under contract with the Texans when Houston coach Bill O’Brien allowed Kollar to pursue the Broncos’ job. Kollar gets three potential starters on the defensive line still in their first contract in Sylvester Williams, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson -- all Broncos draft picks -- to go with his work with Von Miller.
  • Elway addressed, in particular, Kollar’s potential impact on Williams, a first-round pick in the 2013 draft, this past week at the combine. “I think Sylvester’s still growing," Elway said. “We still like Sylvester, still think there’s a lot of potential there, not sure that he’s scratched it yet. If there’s any guy who can get it out of him it’s Bill Kollar. ... Sylvester is going to get tested and he’s going to get pushed."
INDIANAPOLIS – As the on-field workouts continued Saturday at the NFL’s scouting combine, some players who will be of interest to the Denver Broncos were on display.

On Saturday, the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers got to work.
  • Even with Cody Latimer, a second-round draft pick in last year’s draft, expected to compete for far more playing time in the upcoming season, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said it's a given that the Broncos will still take a long look at a class of wide receivers that showed plenty of speed in Saturday’s workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium. West Virginia’s Kevin White, at 215 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 and 4.36 seconds. He is the top wide receiver on the board for many teams and will be gone long before the Broncos pick at 28th overall, but he led a group that showed plenty of size and speed at a position Elway has already called perhaps the deepest in the draft. Among players rated behind the most high-profile players at the position, William and Mary’s Tre McBride, at 6 foot, -inch and 210 pounds, ran 4.41 in both of his 40s. Georgia Tech’s Darren Waller, at 6-6 1/8, 238 pounds, ran 4.46 and 4.54 and Georgia’s Chris Conley (6-1 7/8, 213) ran 4.41 and 4.35. Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (6-1 1/8, 197) topped 40 inches in his vertical leap and then ran 4.42 and 4.40. Bell caught 47 passes for the Huskers this past season.
  • Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak has said the Broncos will have a fullback on the roster. Whether it’s a traditional fullback, a converted tight end or a running back the Broncos already have on the roster, such as Juwan Thompson, remains to be seen. But the big guys at the combine ran pretty well. Alabama fullback Jalston Fowler (5-11, 254) ran a 4.94 and a 4.96. Hawaii’s Joey Iosefa (5-11, 247) ran 5.04 and 5.02. The fastest “big" back who ran Saturday was Florida State’s Karlos Williams, who at 230 pounds ran 4.48 and 4.53. Williams ran for 689 yards this past season for the Seminoles and led the team with 11 touchdowns.
  • Elway has consistently said he believes a team should consider drafting a quarterback in every draft to maintain the depth – former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf used at least a second-day draft pick on a quarterback seven times in an eight-year span when he had Brett Favre. Elway said this week the team is pleased with Brock Osweiler’s progress, but with Peyton Manning set to turn 39 in May, the Broncos will give a long look to the passers on this board. Elway likes the big-framed passers. The Broncos would likely have to expend an earlier pick on the likes of Baylor’s Bryce Petty (6-2 7/8, 230) and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion (6-5 5/8, 229), but those two players both threw well in Saturday’s drills. Petty, in particular, showed improved footwork in dropbacks after spending his career in Baylor’s spread offense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Whatever becomes of the Denver Broncos offense is still under construction as Gary Kubiak and his coaching staff begin to create the framework of what things will look like with Peyton Manning at quarterback this fall.

Kubiak said at the scouting combine this week that he’s already begun to create the terminology for the playbook, “meshing" what Manning has used with the Broncos and what Kubiak’s teams have used in his career.

But Kubiak also made a couple of philosophical things clear.

“If you run the ball well offensively in this league, it opens up some other avenues," Kubiak said. “ … We’re going to run the ball and we’re going to be physical."

[+] EnlargeC.J. Anderson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyNew Broncos coach Gary Kubiak wants running back C.J. Anderson to act like the starter this offseason.
And on the prospect of a fullback, which the Broncos didn’t have this past season, Kubiak offered: “That’s a topic, obviously I’ve had one on my team all the time, it’s something we’ve discussed, that we’re going to have to find, or have to build."

In the end, a productive running game might offer the biggest challenge to the new staff. The Broncos offense became somewhat disjointed down the stretch, from a Nov. 16 loss at St. Louis when the Broncos had 10 rushing attempts through the loss in the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts as the Broncos tried to combine a more committed approach in the run game to what they could do, and were already doing, in the passing game.

Toss in some struggles on the offensive line -- Broncos running backs had first contact with defenders at or behind the line of scrimmage on 33 percent of their carries this past season -- and the attempt to weave it all together will get plenty of attention in the weeks and months ahead. For his part, Manning said in Phoenix, two days before the Super Bowl, that he would be "comfortable" in any offense Kubiak and the Broncos created. Manning also endorsed the benefits of play-action inside a productive run game.

During his time as an NFL play-caller, Kubiak has had a player lead the league in passing yards, rushing yards and receiving yards at some point. He obviously likes the prospect of Manning at quarterback, coming off a 39-touchdown season, as well as the team’s running backs, starting with C.J. Anderson.

Asked Wednesday if Anderson should be considered the starter, Kubiak said, “He’s got to go earn that. I think when he walked off the field last year he was playing that way. … When I talked to him, I said, ‘C.J., when you come back to the offseason, you need to walk in here handling yourself like a starter. I think he’s ready to do that. … I’m very excited about the young running backs we have."

The group includes Montee Ball, who was the starter when last season opened, along with Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson, who could be one of the initial candidates to play fullback.

Last season, in Kubiak’s only year as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, the Ravens finished among the league’s top 11 in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The Broncos have not had a season in which the team finished in the league's top 11 in those three categories since 2005, when they were second in rushing attempts, second in rushing yards and third in rushing TDs. That was the last year Kubiak was the Broncos offensive coordinator before he accepted the job as head coach of the Houston Texans.

“It’s something I believe in, something I think you need to do as an offense," Kubiak said. “ … It will be part of what we do."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Technically, Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio can't specifically talk about signing soon-to-be-free-agent Terrance Knighton, but Wednesday Del Rio made it clear he likes the Denver Broncos defensive tackle plenty.

Free agency doesn't open until March 10 -- a negotiating window opens the week before that -- so under the league's tampering rules coaches and general managers can't talk about acquiring players under contract with other teams. Contracts from the 2014 season do not expire until March 9, the last day of the current league year. But there is history at work given Del Rio was the Jacksonville Jaguars coach when the team selected Knighton in the third round of the 2009 draft and he was the Broncos defensive coordinator when Knighton signed in free agency in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDenver Broncos
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty Images"We drafted him," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio of Terrance Knighton, "we thought at that time he was kind of a dancing bear type. A big powerful man that could stay on his feet and run down the line."
And with Knighton scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and Del Rio on the hunt for more players in his new job as Oakland Raiders coach, it's clear there will be interest in the Bay Area.

"We drafted him, we thought at that time he was kind of a dancing bear type," Del Rio said Wednesday at the NFL's scouting combine. "A big powerful man that could stay on his feet and run down the line. So, you know, this game is about big, powerful men so the guys that have the skill level can do their things. This big powerful man played well in Jacksonville, we got back together, he played well in Denver and so I appreciate that and I respect. We have to have those kinds of people in our trenches in the offensive and defensive line in order to play the kind of football we expect to play."

Del Rio even used some of his question-and-answer session with the media at the combine to put the word out the Raiders have money and are ready to spend as well.

"I think it's important that the prospective players out there understand that things have changed," Del Rio said. "Our practice fields are all being re-done, our weight room will be expanded, we have a steam room going in, there's a freshness going on. ... As you go in this phase of free agency and acquiring players, we have cap space, we have cash, and we have a new staff full of teachers and we have a good young quarterback, we have a good man off the edge Khalil Mack, we've got a good left tackle, we've got good corners, so the things we needed when we started we have."

Knighton, a team captain this past season for the Broncos, was a key voice in the locker room and a key part of the team's defense as well, especially on early downs. For his part Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Wednesday the team hopes to retain as many of its own free agents in the coming weeks, including Knighton.

Knighton would be a nose tackle in the Broncos' new 3-4 defense.

"We've got a few (free agents) obviously," Kubiak said. "The key in this business is holding your football team together and getting better at the same time. We've got some key free agents. … I know we're going to do everything we can to hang on to our players, but at the same time you have to put yourself in position through free agency and the offseason to get better as a football team. John's track record has proven he's doing a great job of that so I'll leave that to him. We would like to hang on to everybody. We want to keep the team intact as best we can."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, now a month into his new job, said Wednesday that the team is moving forward in constructing the team’s offensive playbook with the idea Peyton Manning will be the team’s quarterback. While Kubiak likes and wants to call plays, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp will be heavily involved.

At the NFL’s scouting combine, Kubiak offered a glimpse into how things will look on the offensive side of the ball for the Broncos.

Kubiak affirmed his belief and desire that Manning will be behind center when the season begins -- an official announcement from Manning is expected after he his neck examined next week -- and said the Broncos have already begun the work on the new scheme.

“No doubt I want him to be," Kubiak said. “I think all indications are that everything that he said and through his conversations with John [Elway], he feels good. He’s had his self-assessment, or however you want to label that, and he feels good about moving forward. So, we’ll just continue with the process."

Asked how he would merge Kubiak’s version of the West Coast offense, which often requires the quarterback to roll out, throw on the move and features a vastly different terminology in the play calls that Manning has used previously in his career, Kubiak said the scheme would be built around Manning and adjustments would be made.

“I think he can do anything he wants to do; you do what your players do best," Kubiak said. “It’s interesting to me -- I’ve been asked over the course of the last month since I’ve been in Denver about the bootleg and those types of things. We had Joe [Flacco] in Baltimore last year and I think we booted maybe 25 times in the season. You do what you players do best. We’re going to run the Denver Broncos offense."

Kubiak added that he has already started, with Dennison and Knapp, to construct the terminology that will be used once the players return, with the expectation Manning is there, too, for the start of the offseason program. The Broncos will open their offseason conditioning work April 6.

Kubiak said he has already worked through the game video from the past three seasons since Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012. The Broncos set the NFL’s single-season scoring record in 2013 with 606 points and were second in the league in scoring this past season.

Manning has thrown 131 touchdown passes in the past three seasons, including the NFL’s single-season record of 55 in 2013.

“I’m in the process right now. We’re in the process right now of taking what they’ve done and taken Peyton’s verbiage and taken what I’ve done; there’s a lot of cross already," Kubiak said. “And we’re meshing two things together and that’s a great challenge."

On game days, Kubiak said the plan right now would be for Dennison to be in the coaches’ box with Knapp on the sideline and that Knapp would be the coach on the headset who relays the play call into Manning. Only one coach can talk to the quarterback. Kubiak said he would be on the headset with Dennison and Knapp, so either Dennison or Kubiak would relay the play call to Knapp that would then be sent to Manning.

Kubiak has said he enjoys calling plays and that the staff would see what works best as they prepare for the season.

“I can tell you this: I’m very comfortable going with Knapper and Rico," Kubiak said. “In Houston, I did give up a lot of [play-calling] those couple years we were working together. I’m very comfortable with Rick being able to call the game and he and [Knapp] working together, but at the same time it is something I like to do. I’m going to be part of that; it’s something that’s my passion in football on game day. I’m never going to get away from that. I could sit here and maybe tell you I might, but I’m never going to get away from it. I trust those guys and I’m going to let them do their job."
A closer look at the areas the Broncos could address in the draft. We'll continue today with a look at the linebackers, which are scheduled to work out Sunday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: As they install Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense, they have plenty to work with at the position, starting with impact edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to line up at outside linebacker. Add in Brandon Marshall, the team's leading tackler this past season, to move into one of the inside linebacker spots as well as the Broncos' hope for a healthy return of Danny Trevathan, and that's a quality group. But the Broncos will still be on the hunt for a bigger, early-down presence on the inside to go with building some depth behind Miller and Ware.

Three players the Broncos could target in the draft:

Denzel Perryman, ILB, Miami (Fla.): Perryman measured out at 5-foot-10 5/8 inches tall at the Senior Bowl and weighed in at 242 pounds. He is a consistent tackler who plays with power in the middle of the field and has shown good range to with good instincts. When you look at the game video you see he prepares and is rarely fooled.

Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: Like Perryman, if the Broncos want a chance at him they would likely have to commit their first-round pick (28th overall) to do it. McKinney is a tall, athletic player with a big reach and may even translate to one of the outside linebacker spots because of it. But he usually squares up blockers in run defense, sheds and plays the ball well. He's a taller player, so when he does miss tackles he misses them because he took on the ballcarrier too high.

Nate Orchard, OLB, Utah: Take a look at the Senior Bowl practices and you see a prospect who showed pass-rush skills, did just fine in coverage and understands how to hold the edge in run defense. He's got good size (6-3 1/4, 251 pounds at the Senior Bowl), a high-effort player who was a three-year starter. Knows how shed blockers and use his hands to keep himself in a position to make plays.