AFC West: John Elway

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As the 2014 season drew to a close, Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said the team was poised to dig into the idea of analytics -- the use of advanced statistics -- as part of its personnel evaluations, and was ready to do it sooner rather than later.

At the time, Elway leaned back in the chair behind his desk and said; “I have a stack of resumes, and it gets bigger all the time, of people who want the job."

On Friday, the Broncos announced who got the job as Mitch Tanney was hired as the franchise's first director of football analytics. Tanney, who worked with the Chicago Bears for the past two years, has also worked for Stats LLC as he managed that company’s system that paired a player’s analytical data and player records to the game video.

Tanney is a former Monmouth College quarterback who was the runner-up for the Division III Player of the Year in 2005. He holds degrees in mathematics and Spanish to with an MBA from the University of Iowa.

Elway, with an economics degree from Stanford, said this past season that, “I’m a numbers guy; I know the power they have. ... I want to know what they can do for us."

The Broncos have used a wide array of on-field statistics – down-and-distance, situational performance, etc., in the past. Tony Lazarro, the Broncos’ director of football information systems, has overseen that effort. Tanney’s hiring shows the team’s intention to step up the use of advanced metrics in its evaluation of football personnel, both in pro personnel and in college scouting.

“We want to try to get our arms around it, find out everything we think we can do with it," Elway said just before the end of the regular season. “I’m curious about it; I want to look at it. We haven’t used as much of it to this point, but I certainly want to continue to explore it."

Elway, whose father Jack was a longtime college coach and an NFL personnel man, has consistently said he believes in the traditional forms of “eyes-on" scouting. He also has said he wants to embrace new ways of thinking.

“I want to do things that help us succeed and achieve the goals we want to achieve, which is compete for and win world championships," Elway said. “You have to stay open-minded, have to be ready to do things that improve what you do and your ability to find the best players to be Denver Broncos."
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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. -- With John Elway at the top of the corporate flow chart on the football side of the Denver Broncos' day-to-day activities, the team has been more than willing to dive into free agency to see what it could do in what is a pricey auction at times.

Active, however, on its own terms. Elway has signed most veteran free agents to short-term deals, most of those one-year deals, especially early in his tenure.

They have usually reserved the high-dollar, multiyear contracts for those players in line for their second NFL contract where the potential to hit an ascending player, one who actually plays as well, or even a little better, after the deal than he did before it, are greatest.

So, on those terms, the Broncos will again be active in free agency when things officially get down business to next week.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesWhile a free-agent acquisition like Aqib Talib has paid off, the Broncos will continue to build their roster through the draft.
They have, before they drop roughly $12.9 million or so on the franchise player tag for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, about $26 million worth of workable salary-cap space to participate. A potential tweak or two to quarterback Peyton Manning’s contract could add some additional room.

They would also add a little more room if they get the long-term deal done for Thomas the two sides have been unable to complete to this point. But after Thomas and Dez Bryant get the franchise player tags by Monday’s deadline, and perhaps Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree sign, the market gets defined a little better and the chances to find common ground for Demaryius Thomas and the Broncos improves.

All in all, however, that’s enough cap room for the Broncos to take a spin in the early frenzied days of free agency to sign a guard, center and tight end, the three most likely positions to get their attention this time around.

And free agents, because they are known commodities, often generate more buzz in the workaday world than the draft. The draft is potential, it’s an unknown in many ways, so folks are going to want to talk about free agency.

But whether the Broncos compete for trophies over the long term or not will always depend more on what gets done in April and May every year far more than what they do in March.

“The draft will always be the base for what we do,’’ Elway said. “That’s the approach. We’re always going to try to get players who improve our roster, who are better, who help us improve. But it has to make sense and we will always prefer we’re bringing guys along, who know what it is to be a Denver Bronco. We like good players in free agency and we’ve signed guys like that, good players who help us be a better team. But you have your core people and build around it.’’

Manning’s signing will always be the free-agent acquisition that tops any list made for the Broncos from now until, well, forever. But a Hall of Fame quarterback with elite football left in the tank on the open market is not something that had really been seen before and it would be shocking to see it again at any point in the reasonably near future.

So, that’s not the gauge. And no question the Broncos played the free-agency market about as well as it can be done a year ago. They signed four marquee free agents – Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders – and all four played in the Pro Bowl.

But key to remember is three of the four were 28 years old or younger when they signed the deals and two – Ward and Sanders – were signing just their second NFL contract.

That’s how to work free agency on long-term deals. To do it any other way is to invite cap trouble and a thin depth chart as a team watches the dead money pile up – those salary-cap charges for players who are no longer on a team’s roster.

For the upcoming season, the Broncos’ biggest dead-money charge at the moment is $812,500 for kicker Matt Prater. So, they have succeeded in avoiding that to this point, and the key for them moving forward is to have the free-agency discipline and the draft success to avoid it in the future.

Because often teams approach free agency as a way to try to repair their draft mistakes, to fill those roster holes they have not filled from within. And as the annual confetti tosses begin for teams who “win’’ free agency in March and then go on to eventually miss the playoffs, it’s probably a good time for a reminder.

In 2014, the Broncos’ leading rusher (C.J. Anderson) was a player the team signed as an undrafted rookie, their leading receiver (Thomas) was a first-round pick by the team in 2010, their leading tackler (Brandon Marshall) was a waiver claim who spent almost a full season on the Broncos’ practice squad, their best defender in coverage (Chris Harris Jr.) was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and their sacks leader (Von Miller) was their first-round pick in 2011.

In short, the Broncos can certainly help themselves, again, over the next two weeks, but the players they sign will be the bonus, not the foundation.
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

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Knighton
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 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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Monday is the first day teams in the NFL can formally designate an impending unrestricted free agent as a franchise player.

While the Denver Broncos would certainly like to have a long-term deal worked out with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas at some point -- they have had the framework of a five-year on the table at times over the past year -- the team has been prepared to place the franchise player tag on Thomas in the coming days.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesKeeping Demaryius Thomas will be one of the Broncos' top offseason priorities.
Teams can designate a franchise player at any point between Monday and March 6. The designated franchise player gets a one-year, guaranteed contract for the average of the five largest contracts at the player's position. Last season that franchise player salary at wide receiver was $12.312 million and it is expected to rise this year.

Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are the team’s highest-profile players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

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.

After a rookie season slowed by injuries -- he suffered a fractured bone in his foot in a pre-combine workout in early 2010 -- Thomas had a 32-catch season in 2011 as the Broncos ran a read-option offense with Tim Tebow at quarterback. But since Peyton Manning's arrival in 2012, Thomas has played himself into the league's elite at the position.

Demaryius Thomas has had three consecutive seasons with at least 92 receptions, 1,430 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. He is 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.

General manager John Elway said after the season that he would like to get Demaryius Thomas “locked up and back here and we’ll keep working on that."

Manning has called Thomas “a tough, tough matchup for any defense, a guy who can make any play, run any route, turn small plays into big ones."

For his part Demaryius Thomas has said he believes “it will all work out," and when asked if he would like to be back, he consistently has answered, “Of course, we’ll just see how it all plays out."

Just days before the Super Bowl, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the Broncos' coach when the team selected Thomas with the 22nd pick of the 2010 draft, spoke of Thomas’ progress as a player.

"He deserves the credit for what he's done with that," McDaniels said. "I'll say this -- he's a tremendous young man, and after the games we had an opportunity to play I've had the opportunity to have a brief exchange with him and those are always important for a coach and a player. And he's been unbelievable when I've had an opportunity to talk to him.

"He's obviously made himself a great player," McDaniels added. "He's so much more versatile now than when I had him that first year. He's inside, he's outside, he's running different routes, he can stop and start, he can go down the field, he's a tremendous run-after-catch player, which we knew that he would be when we got him … I also think he's been an unselfish guy. He's played in an unbelievable offense the last few years there and you can't get them all, but you don't see him not blocking in the run game and doing all those other things too."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Wade Phillips showed Tuesday he certainly did not forget to pack his wit when he returned to the Denver Broncos.

Phillips, in his first official question-and-answer session since he was hired as the team's new defensive coordinator, provided a few nuggets along the way.

On being hired after the Broncos had pursued Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, a former Texans assistant with both Phillips and Gary Kubiak, Phillips said, "I think John [Elway] and Kube and myself all feel like Vance is a bright young star. But I believe I'm of first magnitude myself. I think that's the way they judge brightness of stars, anyway. So it worked out great. It worked out great for me and I think I'm going to do a great job for this team."

On why, after nine different NFL teams over almost four decades, he still wants to coach: "I love coaching. That's what I do. My wife, Laurie, wanted to get me out of the house after a year of being around so I love what I do. I was a lousy head coach, but I'm a pretty good defensive coordinator and that's what I do well. So I wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn't be happier."

On some of the best defenses he's had, Phillips said, "The '91 defense here was one of the best I've ever had. We lost 10-7 in the playoff game in Buffalo [the AFC Championship Game] but I think we threw a screen pass for a touchdown to them. That's how they got 10 [points]. We had a great bunch. I've had a great bunch everywhere I've been. I've been lucky to get into the right situations with good players and I think we have them here."

Both Kubiak and Elway had played in that game -- Kubiak took over for an injured Elway in the fourth quarter and went 11-of-12 passing for 136 yards in that quarter. But since it was Elway who threw the interception in that game, on a tipped pass that resulted in the Bills' touchdown, Phillips was then asked about the play that involved the team's current football boss. "Yeah, I don't know (laughing). I don't know who caught it either. Kube almost brought us back in that game. [Running back Steve] Sewell fumbled right at the end of the game and we missed three field goals in the wind. We had the opportunity to win it all there."

And finally on coming back, for his second stint with a team that fired him as coach following the 1994 season to hire Mike Shanahan, Phillips noted, "Somebody said about coming back to Denver, and I said, 'Well, when you've coached for 32 teams, you almost have to come back to one you've been with before.'"
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Beyond the big-ticket items like, say, managing the salary cap and finding players to power a championship team, few things give your average NFL decision-maker a dull ache between the eyebrows quite like trying to predict how many compensatory draft picks will be awarded to his team each year.

In short, they almost never get as many of the added picks as they think they deserve when the league crunches the numbers. Or as Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said, “We always have a number in mind, and then you see if they agree with your number, but I’m not sure anybody really feels like they have it locked down."

But as the Broncos go through their offseason work in the coming weeks, including next week’s scouting combine, they could well be looking at receiving at least three compensatory picks this time around. And when the Broncos took their own swing at the math, that seems to be the total they’re working with as well.

“We’re going to have eight or nine picks in the draft next year," is how Elway put it last month.

Tracking their picks, it looks like, after a seventh-round pick was shipped to the New York Giants for Brandon McManus, the Broncos have six picks at the moment in the 2015 NFL draft -- one pick in the first (28th overall), second, third and sixth rounds to go with two fifth-round picks.

It’s important to remember compensatory picks awarded for the 2015 draft are a result of free agents lost, and signed, from the previous season. So, the Broncos' spending spree from a year ago has significant bearing on how things will go. But DeMarcus Ware was released by the Dallas Cowboys, much like Peyton Manning was released in 2012, and those players do not count in the compensatory math because the player wasn’t "lost" in free agency but rather forcibly sent into the market by his former team.

The NFL has always kept the compensatory equation behind the curtain, but in talking to many general managers and salary-cap experts from around the league, they say the biggest factors are the contracts signed by the free agents a team acquired, in terms of average dollars per year, compared to the contracts of those free agents a team lost.

Playing time also figures in heavily, as do postseason awards, etc.

Given all that, if the Broncos have six picks in the draft at the moment and Elway believes they will have "eight or nine" by the time the draft rolls around, he’s working off a template of at least two or three compensatory picks.

Because Ware’s contract isn’t in the math -- he was released by the Cowboys last March 11 -- cornerback Aqib Talib’s deal, at an average of $9.5 million per year, is the biggest acquisition in terms of compensatory comparisons. Wide receiver Eric Decker ($7.25 million per year average) and defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($7 million per year average) were the Broncos’ biggest losses.

In my simpleton compensatory math, wobbly at times to be sure, Rodgers-Cromartie played in one more game this past regular season than Talib did at the same position, but Talib made the Pro Bowl. Those two are largely a wash in the gain/loss of compensatory picks, or at least that profile has been a wash in previous seasons, with a slight lean toward Talib being a bigger gain than Rodgers-Cromartie was a loss.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, safety T.J. Ward and center Will Montgomery, all starters, would largely constitute the remainder of the "gains" in free agency. And when it comes to the Broncos' "losses" when the picks get awarded, Decker, guard Zane Beadles, running back Knowshon Moreno, defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive end Shaun Phillips will be the key contracts.

Especially Beadles’ ($6 million per year average) and Decker’s ($7.25 million per year) contracts because both were 16-game starters and both signed deals elsewhere that were larger, on average, than Ward’s ($5.625 million per year) and Sanders’ ($5 million per year) contracts. After those two, Ayers’ five-sack season for the Giants will likely help land the Broncos a compensatory pick as well -- he played 12 games -- while Phillips played 11 games for the Titans to go with five games for the Colts. Moreno played in three games for the Dolphins before elbow and knee (ACL) troubles ended his season.

I surveyed a smattering of folks in front offices around the league in recent weeks about what it all could mean for the Broncos when the extra picks are formally awarded in March. The highest number offered, after just a quick discussion, was four picks and the lowest was two.

In looking at similar lists over the years, I think it all looks like three compensatory picks for the Broncos, with the caveat being that I usually now subtract one as the sort of never-get-it-right penalty. So, three picks on just the numbers, two if tradition holds true that teams simply always get fewer than they think they deserve.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the NFL Players Association’s salary-cap projections are close, or higher, than what the NFL’s management council has already projected for teams, the Denver Broncos will have enough room in 2015 to try to attack the long list of their own free agents and perhaps make a quality late signing or two to fill in the gaps.

But a splash like last year's is not in the cards this time around.

Teams around the league, the Broncos included, were told just before the end of the season the 2015 salary cap was expected to be between $138.6 million and $141.8 million per team, up from this past season’s $133 million per team.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesJulius Thomas' future with the Denver Broncos could be in doubt because the tight end is an unrestricted free agent.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said last week in Phoenix that the union also will, for the first time, issue its own cap projections for the coming season, just before the NFL’s scouting combine begins Feb. 17. Despite the combine's main purpose being the place where the most of the highest-rated prospects for the 2015 draft are evaluated, it’s also the place where agents and team officials get together with free agency on the horizon so the union would like its own projections in the discourse.

The union has long held that the league's cap projections have been too conservative and artificially hold down spending. It certainly didn’t hold down the Broncos’ spending last March when they dove into free agency for cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. All four of those players played in the Pro Bowl.

But this year, with 17 restricted and unrestricted free agents combined, the Broncos’ plan will have a more local feel than the last year’s when the Broncos simply let their highest-profile free agents head into the market without an offer from the team. Just after the Broncos hired Gary Kubiak as the franchise’s 15th coach last month, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway more than hinted that this year, the team will be looking in-house first.

“We like our roster, we like where we are with the moves we’ve made," Elway said. “We’re always looking to improve and will bring in any player we think is an improvement over guys we have, but we have some of our own guys coming up, and we want to do what we can there."

If the salary cap officially comes in at, near, or even a little above the league projection of $141.8 million per team to go with an expected rollover of some cap room of this past season, the Broncos would (conservatively) have about $25 million in projected workable salary-cap space if you take their top 51 salary-cap figures at the moment into account.

Some of that room will have to be set aside for their draft picks, and Elway said last month he expected to “have at least eight" draft picks.

The Broncos have limited their dead money against the cap, and at the moment, kicker Matt Prater’s cap charge of just more than $800,000 is the biggest hit there for '15. The Broncos also don’t have many big-roster bonuses due in the coming weeks, either, other than Ryan Clady’s $1.5 million roster bonus, to go with a $2.5 million roster bonus for Ward and $500,000 for Talib.

Also something to consider is Ware, Talib, Ward and Clady have all, or part, of their 2015 salaries fully guaranteed within the first week of the new league year, as well -- so between March 10-14.

With Peyton Manning's $19 million guaranteed on March 9, the Broncos will, if Manning returns to play for 2015, have guaranteed $40.5 million in base salaries to those five players by the time March 14 rolls around. It's why, with the oldest deal in the pile, after groin and thigh injuries this past season, Clady could be a target for a contract redo if the Broncos are searching for some additional room.

It all means the Broncos' focus will be largely on their own free agents. The top priority is wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, whom the Broncos would certainly like to sign to a long-term deal, but at minimum will be poised to use the franchise player tag on him for ’15.

That’s a guaranteed one-year deal. For the 2014 season, it was $12.312 million for a wide receiver, so that would take a slice out of the this year’s cap, as well, and would be the team’s second-highest figure behind Peyton Manning’s $19 million, which is guaranteed March 9, if he’s on the roster.

As a result, tight end Julius Thomas, also an unrestricted free agent, will be a tougher get. His representatives have made it clear he wants to have a contract among the league’s highest-paid tight ends after back-to-back seasons with 12 touchdown receptions.

The Broncos would not have the cap space, nor the inclination with a tighter cap fit for them on the horizon in 2016, to put both Thomases at the top end of the pay scales at their respective positions.

Terrance Knighton will get a long look from the Broncos, but Jack Del Rio is going to want Knighton in Oakland as much as he wanted Knighton in Denver. And Knighton, who has called Del Rio “a genius,’’ has made no secret of his affinity for playing in Del Rio’s defense. Safety Rahim Moore, tight end Virgil Green, tight end Jacob Tamme, guard Orlando Franklin, linebacker Nate Irving and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein also are among the team’s unrestricted free agents.

Among the restricted free agents, linebacker Brandon Marshall showed more than enough as the team's leading tackler to draw interest from elsewhere if the Broncos don’t put a high enough tender on him. The Broncos do have the right to match any offer to him, as well.
PHOENIX – Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has been out of sight, at least in terms of public appearances. But the team’s coaching change, with John Fox out and Gary Kubiak in, has not been out of Manning's mind.

Manning is aware of the public conversation following Kubiak’s hire has been about whether Manning could fit into his new coach's offense. On Friday, Manning said the subject isn't worth debate.

Manning
“I know that’s been a hot topic of discussion," Manning said following a breakfast where he received the Bart Starr Award for his off-the-field efforts. “ ... But if I choose to come back, I feel pretty comfortable, aside maybe from Tubby Raymond’s Delaware Wing-T offense, I feel pretty comfortable playing in any offense. I really do. I don’t see that as really being a factor."

Manning’s affirmation of his ability to work within Kubiak’s playbook confirms what former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said shortly after Kubiak’s hiring that the two would be able to work together.

“There's no doubt in my mind," Plummer said earlier this month. "Man, look, Gary is a great coach and great coaches change their systems up -- they extend it or tweak it to maximize their players' abilities. But they would both have to work at it, they both would have to find what was best for them on each side. They could do it, but they would have to put in the time to make it right. It’s not an exact fit, but Kubes is a great, great coach and Peyton is one of the best ever. If they want to get it done, need to get it done, they'll get it done."

Manning has not yet decided if he will return for the 2015 season, but said Friday he doesn’t want the process “to linger." He said Kubiak’s offense and any fallout from the Broncos’ 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC’s divisional round would not be factors. Kubiak has run a version of the West Coast offense almost exclusively in his career as an NFL play-caller. It requires the quarterback to be on the move plenty, to throw on the run, rolling left or right to both sides of the formation at various times.

Manning has played almost exclusively in the pocket in his Hall of Fame career with a far different playbook with far different verbiage in the play calls. Kubiak, on the day he was introduced as Broncos coach, said it would be “easy to work with Peyton," and that should Manning return: "We would make an offense that fits what our players do. This will be a Denver Broncos offense, not Gary Kubiak's offense. ... We would work to Peyton's strengths when the time comes and he makes his decision either way."

Manning also reaffirmed Friday his decision to return will be based largely on his physical health as well as the team's plans for himself and the roster.

“I’m kind of still determining that," Manning said. “That’s a little bit of the time. I’m taking some time to assess some things and to see. That’s something that’s important to me is not whether I can physically do it for myself, but can I physically do it to help the team? I’ve always wanted to be part of the solution to helping and never a problem or a limiting factor for the team. I want to be able to look Coach Kubiak and John Elway and Joe Ellis in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, physically, I honestly feel I can contribute and help.'

“It’s one thing to play and have a uniform and be on the roster. It’s another to truly contribute and help. And that’s the only thing I’ve known in football."

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