AFC West: Peyton Manning

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.

Thomas
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.
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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.
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.
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 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 -- 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
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."
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. -- 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.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning recently discussed his impending decision about whether he will return for the 2015 season, two things stood out.

The first is his ability to physically compete -- not survive, but compete -- and swing with the league's heavyweights. The second is how the Broncos explain how he fits into the plan with a new coaching staff during a pretty hearty rebuild of a 12-4 team.

Manning said Friday in Phoenix that he did not want his decision to be a "lingering thing," and it is best resolved "the sooner the better, for a lot of people."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaPeyton Manning would be playing for a third offensive coordinator in four seasons if he returns to the Broncos in 2015.
Many in the league, including many inside the Broncos’ complex, see Manning making his decision within the next two weeks, a time frame that would account for postseason time off for the team's football staff. Manning said he wants to speak to John Elway when the executive vice president of football operations/general manager returns.

Manning also implied last week that he might make a decision even before the exam on his neck that has to be performed at least 10 days before the start of the new league year, which starts March 10. So Manning's physical would be March 1 at the latest. Manning’s salary for 2015 -- $19 million -- is guaranteed on March 9. Manning’s father, Archie, said last week that he believes Peyton will make his decision in "the next week or two," so that puts next week on the radar.

But Manning’s ability to physically handle another season is important to him. He has often said he doesn’t want to be a "hang-on guy."

"If you come back, it’s because you still believe you can help a team," Manning said in Phoenix after receiving the Bart Starr Award for his off-the-field work. "And you think you have a chance to help that team win. That’s kind of why you’ve always played. … It’s one thing to play and have a uniform and be on the roster; it’s another to truly contribute and help."

With a roster that has eight Pro Bowlers under contract for next season, there is plenty on the table for Manning and the Broncos.

But Manning will also have to wrap his head around change, and there has been plenty for the Broncos since the season ended. In his 13 seasons behind center for the Indianapolis Colts, excluding the 2011 season he missed after spinal fusion surgery, Manning had one offensive coordinator (Tom Moore).

In three seasons in Denver, he’s already had two (Mike McCoy and Adam Gase), and if Manning returns for 2015, Rick Dennison would be the third. Head coach Gary Kubiak is expected to call plays for the Broncos, but Dennison would be side by side with Manning in creating the game plan.

Although Kubiak has said he would gladly structure an offense to fit Manning’s abilities, Kubiak’s offenses of the past -- versions of the West Coast offense -- have had a far different look with far different terminology than what Manning has used. Manning said last week he would "be comfortable" in whatever Kubiak wants to run, and the two have been at the job long enough that they could make things work.

But Manning doesn't just roll with changes. He researches change. He grinds at the details. His lists of questions for any and all problem-solving sessions border on legendary. College coaches who recruited him in high school talk of his lists of questions. Bill Polian has recalled on several occasions that when he was the Colts’ general manager and first met with Manning before the 1998 draft -- the year the quarterback was drafted -- he came armed with a long list of questions.

Elway said the questions came when the Broncos were Manning’s first visit of his first foray into free agency in March 2012. Gase, once asked what Manning wants most from a coach, has said "answers." So when Manning talks of wanting to see where he fits, it isn’t lip service. He wants to know. He wants to sweat all the details.

As he said in Phoenix: “At the same time, you want to get a good feel if the team is comfortable with you, and if you fit in. Like I said, we’ve had quite a few changes. … Getting a good evaluation of the changes that have been made, you know, how I fit in to the changes, how does Coach Kubiak see me possibly fitting in with him and his team. Like I said, you want to get a good feel for them and what’s comfortable to them, as well."

Manning has said he has "great respect" for Kubiak as a football coach and human being, and Kubiak has said it would be easy to design an offense for Manning.

In the end, Manning’s decision won’t have anything to do with the Broncos’ playoff loss or any nervousness about the new offense. It will simply be whether Manning feels good enough to compete at the level he believes he needs to reach to win, and whether he knows the Broncos feel good about his doing it.
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."
PHOENIX – Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning said Thursday that he expects Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, one of his three sons, to decide on whether he plays in 2015 “maybe in the next week or two."

Archie Manning made his comments during an appearance from the Super Bowl media center, aired by a Nashville, Tennessee, radio station, and touched on Peyton Manning’s impending decision as well as the quarterback’s right thigh injury he suffered in December.

“He’s given a lot of thought to it," Archie Manning said. “My advice for him is to go through the process, get away a little bit, let your leg heal, give it a lot of throught and decide what you’re going to do … [I] think he’s taken a good evaluation of where he is physically."

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning missed the Pro Bowl because of a lingering thigh injury.
Peyton Manning skipped last week's Pro Bowl because of the injury. At the time, Manning issued a statement that he was “disappointed that I'm just not healthy enough this year to be part of it."

Manning suffered the injury just before halftime of the Broncos' Dec. 14 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Manning had suffered flu-like symptoms the night before the game and had four bags of fluids administered by IV in the night before the game and the morning of the game.

He has said he believed dehydration contributed to the leg injury, which he suffered trying to roll out to throw to Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

After missing some practice time the week following the injury, Manning had his first four-interception game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals and he did not throw for a touchdown pass in the regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders.

Manning had said on Christmas Eve that he intended to return for the 2015 season, but then backtracked Jan. 11 following the Broncos’ 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC’s divisional round. Manning finished 26-of-46 passing for 211 yards and a touchdown in the playoff loss as several Colts defenders said they wanted to put the game’s in Manning’s hands and force him to throw the ball toward the sidelines.

Following the game, Manning said he could not say with any certainty if he would be back for the 2015 season. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway met with Manning the day after the season-ending loss and Elway said he told Manning to take at least four weeks to make a decision.

Manning’s salary for the 2015 season -- $19 million – is guaranteed on March 9, which is the last day of the league year, if Manning is on the roster. Manning was signed to a five-year, $96 million deal in 2012 that has been tweaked since he signed it.

If he returns to play in 2015, his cap charge is scheduled to be $21.5 million -- his base salary and a pro-rated charge for bonuses.

Asked Thursday if he expected Manning to return for the 2015 season, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said: “What a great player he’s been for this league? He’s a great competitor, and I’ve been fortunate to play against him a bunch of times. I certainly hope he comes back because the league will miss him if he doesn’t. Those decisions are up to him. I’m sure it’s up to him whether he’s [ready] mentally and physically, if that’s what he wants to do. I certainly hope he’s back."

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