AFC West: Emmaniel Sanders

Broncos still needy in spots

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
2:30
PM ET
For the moment, the Denver Broncos have put away owner Pat Bowlen's checkbook, albeit with fewer checks in it than when free agency began.

The team has one or two offensive linemen on its radar that it would consider reeling in. But with just under $6 million in salary-cap space with which to work, the price would have to be right.

So with the heavy lifting behind them in free agency, the Broncos will simply wait to see if there are any veteran players they want to sign to low-impact deals. Two years ago, they added Keith Brooking and Jim Leonhard; last season they signed Quentin Jammer and Paris Lenon.

The Broncos still have some needs on their depth chart to address, either with late-spring deals or in the draft. The biggest of those needs:

Defensive back

Safety T.J. Ward was a starter the moment he signed his new contract, as was cornerback Aqib Talib. And the Broncos are certainly encouraged by Chris Harris Jr.'s recovery from ACL surgery.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAqib Talib has had difficulty staying healthy in his career, so the Broncos would be wise to bolster their depth at cornerback.
Harris has told plenty of folks he believes he could have played in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl with a partially torn ACL. But the Broncos put him on injured reserve, not wanting to risk a full tear or damage to the other ligaments and cartilage in his knee.

Talib has never played 16 games in a season. Until he does, the prudent expectation is the Broncos need more depth here. And with defenses playing the nickel and dime so much, the Broncos will need some additional help at cornerback moving forward.

Kayvon Webster will get, and deserves, a bigger role and the Broncos will put as much on his plate as he shows he can handle. Webster has the kind of skills in man-to-man the Broncos want with plenty of speed. But if the draft falls right, the Broncos could still look to use a premium pick on a cornerback.

Middle linebacker

Once a glamour position on defense, middle linebacker is a situational job these days. The Broncos had four games this past season when the middle linebacker was in the formation 12 or fewer plays.

The Broncos have players they can use at the position already on the roster -- Nate Irving, or possibly Steven Johnson -- but those would be stop-gap moves and the Broncos have tried Webster there before only to make him Von Miller's backup. The Broncos will look for someone at the position who fits their scheme later in the free-agency season.

"People are a lot more worried about middle linebacker than we are right now … we'll get something done,'' executive vice president of football operations/GM John Elway said this week.

Weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan plays in base, nickel and dime schemes, which means the Broncos can look for a two-down player at middle linebacker if they have to.

The list of true middle linebackers is shrinking in the college game and defenses are getting smaller to defend spread attacks, but the Broncos will take a long look at some options at inside linebacker in the draft.

Returner

The Broncos did not make an offer to Trindon Holliday, who agreed to a deal with the New York Giants Monday. The Broncos loved Holliday's touchdowns -- six in less than two seasons, playoffs included -- but they struggled to reconcile those with his spotty work handling the ball and a difficult stretch last season when he had limited impact and made plenty of questionable decisions.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been a returner, but he also had a foot surgery early in his career and the Broncos see him as a key piece of their three-wide-receiver set on offense as well as a potential No. 2 receiver. Elway has already used the work "risk'' when talking about the possibility of Sanders handling both kickoff and punt returns.

The Broncos have players who could fill in, but they lack impact players at the position.

Defensive end

The Broncos did the work to get DeMarcus Ware in the lineup and believe the 31-year-old's durability -- he's missed just three games -- has been a hallmark of a 117-sack career to this point. They have high hopes for what will essentially be Quanterus Smith's rookie season as a pass-rusher in '14 after he spent last season on injured reserve. They believe Derek Wolfe will return to form as a strongside end.

But the Broncos need some additional depth here and have to cover themselves if Ware's injury-marred 2013 season turns into something similar in '14 or if Smith isn't ready.

Wide receiver

Yes, they signed Sanders and re-signed Andre Caldwell just before free agency opened. But with Wes Welker's concussion history -- he had two last season -- the Broncos would be remiss if they didn't look at the draft's deep class of wideouts.

The Broncos could find a player who could contribute this season, add more speed to the roster and have a player ready to move into the lineup with Welker's contract set to expire after the 2014 season.

They carried four wide receivers on the roster last season, but would be wise to carry five this time around and add some youth on the outside. Whether that means they carry three tight ends instead of four or 10 defensive backs instead of 11, adding a spot at wide receiver would be a worthy investment.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos pro personnel department put up the names of the league's prospective free agents at wide receiver in recent weeks, they had two at the top of the list -- Emmanuel Sanders and Brandon LaFell.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos liked what they saw in free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who can play both inside and outside the slot.
The feeling was their own free agent, Eric Decker, would command more in the open market than they wanted to spend so they were going to have to dive in elsewhere. And that’s how it played out with Decker reeling in a five-year deal worth just over $36 million from the New York Jets.

The Broncos ranked the targets with a combination of age, potential explosiveness and versatility. What the Broncos wanted, or liked, may not have been what others saw along the way and time will certainly tell if the team is right or not.

LaFell has never caught more than 49 passes in a season with the Carolina Panthers, but he could play in the slot as well as outside and he is 27 years old. Sanders caught at least 44 passes in just two of his four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sanders, too, can play inside in the slot as well as on the outside -- he played three seasons primarily in the slot to go with mostly in one of the outside slots last season -- and turns 27 Monday.

The Broncos initially believed Sanders would be out of their price-range after their spending binge on defense to open free agency and talked to LaFell’s representatives plenty along the way. But when they found they had a chance with Sanders, they closed the deal.

With Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas already in the formation, the Broncos see Sanders as an explosive player in the short area with run-after-catch ability no matter where he gets the ball.

He figures to line up all over the formation and during their study, the Broncos said they took particular note of the missed tackles Sanders created.

“He’s a guy that has had a tremendous career so far, and we think that he’s only scratched the surface,’’ said Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway. “So we have great expectations of Emmanuel and really think he’s going to come in and add a tremendous amount to the offensive side … An interesting stat was he caused more missed tackles -- 15 -- than all but three NFL wide receivers in 2013. So that shows you what he can do with the ball after he catches it.’’

Even though after four surgeries on his neck Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning doesn’t have the raw power in his arm he once did, he still is as accurate as ever in the short to intermediate parts of the field. And his ability to put the ball where run-after-catch plays can be made – the Broncos receivers led the league in those totals last season – is a hallmark of the offense.

Sanders has had some ill-timed pass drops in his career, but the Broncos didn’t see that as a big detriment. Decker led the team in drops with 11 in 2012 to go with another seven drops this past season and still put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with 13 and 11 touchdowns respectively.

With Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas out wide in a three-wide receiver set, they could conceivably put both Sanders and Welker in the slot. Now, a defense would have to try to decide what to do with the Broncos tight end, who can run by linebackers, with two proficient wideouts in the slot as well.

It’s just one of the options for the Broncos. For his part, Sanders will get an early tutorial on the offense when he joins Manning and the Broncos’ other receivers at Duke for workouts in the coming weeks.

“Immediately after I got the news that the numbers matched, Peyton had texted me,’’ Sanders said. “We’re going to link up and work out – he has a little camp at Duke University and we’re going to work out there.’’

Sanders’ signing will also take the Broncos out of the free agency game for the most part at the moment. They have about $6 million in workable cap space after Sanders’ deal and have an offensive lineman or two on the radar, but they are finished making the big splashes. The Broncos are also still prepared to take a long look at a deep class if big, physical, speedy receivers in the draft.

As Elway said Sunday; “We feel like we got better and we signed guys who guys who fill what were big needs for us.’’

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