AFC West: Shaun Phillips

ENGLEWOOD, Colo.--– Score another one for the Denver Broncos' pro personnel department. Or at least get ready to score another one if defensive tackle Marvin Austin can keep his current training camp momentum through the preseason games to the roster cut down to 53 players.

But for a team that has made consistent work of getting quality return on one-year deals to a veteran players to fill roster gaps, Austin looks like he’ll soon be added to the list. Austin signed a one-year, no-bonus, $570,000 deal with the Broncos just before the draft.

Austin
At that time John Elway said simply Austin was “a guy that really had a first-round grade on him three years ago."

But Austin’s NFL career to that point had been filled with injuries, so much so the former second-round pick by the Giants had been on injured reserve as a rookie in 2011, played in just eight games in 2012 and was released by the Giants, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys in a three-month span last season. But following surgery to repair a disc problem in his back, the Broncos liked what they saw from Austin in a workout and reeled him in. Austin has done enough in training camp so far that he worked some with the starting defense in Tuesday’s practice.

“I was like, ‘I appreciate it.’ I just go out there and perform and work every day at practice and they said that my performance thus far warranted me getting some reps with the (starters)," Austin said. “We are competing ... So I just want to come compete every day and show them I can be a player in this league. I don’t want to be just a guy."

Should Austin maintain the current trajectory and keep himself on the field, he’ll join a rather productive list of one-year signings the Broncos have made over the last three seasons.

Last season it was Shaun Phillips -- who went on to lead the team in sacks with 10 -- who signed a one-year deal. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who signed a two-year deal on paper, but the second year was voided five days after the Super Bowl. Rodgers-Cromartie started 13 games for the Broncos last season and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three.

“You want to bring in guys that fit," Elway said. “Guys who have a chance to make your roster if they can bring what you’ve seen from them in the past."

The Broncos leaned on one-year players even more in 2012.

On the way to a 13-3 mark that included an 11-game win streak, the Broncos signed safety Jim Leonhard, defensive tackle Justin Bannan, linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Brandon Stokley to one-year deals. Of those players, only Leonhard got a signing bonus ($65,000).

By season's end Brooking, Bannan and Koppen were starters, while Leonhard and Stokley were key backups.

So, Austin is in good company, or will be if he keeps on the current path and makes the roster when the cuts for the regular season come.

“It feels great," Austin said. “I have been humble through my career so I know the type of opportunity that I have, so I am just grateful to be here today and grateful to be able to say I can still play football, especially at the professional level."
The Denver Broncos' decisions on how to repair last season's defense essentially come down to a faith in healing, a calendar and a stopwatch.

Because the Broncos are certainly hoping for the best when it comes to the return of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Von Miller, two of the Broncos' six defensive starters who finished the 2013 season on injured reserve, from their ACL surgeries. And when they opened owner Pat Bowlen's checkbook in free agency they had a clear goal in mind.

"We were aging some," head coach John Fox said this week. "We wanted to get younger, we wanted to get faster -- you know, like you do every year. We're a much younger defense at this point. We needed to retool that side of the ball."

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellThe Broncos are counting on DeMarcus Ware to give them the pass-rushing presence they missed at times last season.
The Broncos took at least some salary-cap risk with DeMarcus Ware's three-year, $30 million deal, but he was also the only 30-something free agent they added. Cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, their other high-profile signings on defense, are 28 and 27 years old, respectively.

The Broncos will also take a long look at defensive backs in the draft, and perhaps edge rushers and inside linebackers as well. Speed and youth are priorities, so their depth chart should have a decidedly younger feel when they finish training camp this season.

But Ware fills an important role in the blueprint. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put Ware in the same category as quarterback Peyton Manning in terms of why the team believed signing him was good business.

"I like getting Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said, which was the same thing he said when the Broncos signed Manning in 2012 after the quarterback had had four neck surgeries and missed the 2011 season.

Ware missed the only three games of his career this past season when he tried to play through elbow and leg injuries. He had surgery to repair the elbow immediately following the season and pronounced himself healthy upon his arrival in Denver.

"I am ready to go," Ware said. "It was something I took care of. I'm healthy, my body feels great."

"He was the most veteran guy that we signed in free agency," Fox said. "He has a lot of skins on the wall -- one of the highest sack guys currently. I remember when he came out [of college]. He played injured. That says something about a guy. He had surgery the minute the season was over. It was something he did in training camp."

Fox also sees Ware as the solution to the question the Broncos' defense simply could not answer last season. Though Shaun Phillips did finish with 10 sacks after signing a one-year deal on draft weekend last April.

But it was still not everything the Broncos needed or wanted on defense after Elvis Dumervil was released following the fax fiasco and he elected to spurn the Broncos' attempt to re-sign him and join the Baltimore Ravens.

"And we put a guy in there, but we never really replaced [Dumervil], we didn't rejuvenate so to speak," Fox said.

Fox said when the Broncos evaluated Ware and took into account his elbow is now repaired, they saw potential for Ware to regain the form he has shown for much of his nine previous seasons. He had 19.5 sacks just three seasons ago and 11.5 sacks two seasons ago.

"It's hard to play this game with one arm," Fox said. " … We looked at it a little more glass half full."

Asked if he thought Ware could be an every-down player in 2014, Fox added: "I got asked that the other day. I don't try to define guys. I tell them, ‘Don't let me define you. Don't let any coach define you.' A lot of that stuff is different. Each year is new whether you're an old player or a young player. He'll determine that by his performance in practice and during the evaluation process … But when we see what he's done we expect there is more of the same there."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Denver Broncos aren't in a rush to sign any more checks in free agency.

But they do have their eyes, and minds, open when it comes to players still on the market. John Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations and general manager, wouldn't rule out the return of some of the team's free agents. In particular, he said he would be willing to consider running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Shaun Phillips.

Both veterans are unsigned and would have to accept their roles with the Broncos if they came back.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty ImagesWould Knowshon Moreno be willing to return to Denver in a reserve role?
"I'm still open to that," Elway said at the NFL owners meetings. "You look at the impact from a lot of different ways as in what role they would have on our team, but it is something I would consider in both those cases."

Moreno, who led the Broncos last season with 1,038 yards rushing to go with 13 total touchdowns and 60 receptions, would have the most significant adjustment in any potential return. He just finished his fifth season with the Broncos and was the team's No. 1 back.

But the Broncos have moved Montee Ball to the top of the depth chart as they work to improve their run game. If Moreno returns, it would be with the understanding, barring an injury, that it would be in a reserve role.

"With a guy like Knowshon, who was the starter and would have to come back in a different role, we would look at how he would handle that," Elway said.

On the other hand, the Broncos signed Phillips as a rotational option in their pass rush. He received a one-year deal during the weekend of last April's draft with the idea that he could give them some pop on pass-rush downs.

But then Phillips was forced to play far more than originally intended because of injuries and suspensions up front. Von Miller was suspended six games to open the season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in December. And Derek Wolfe had an illness that put him on injured reserve.

Phillips played 770 snaps on defense in the regular season, or 68 percent of the team's plays. If Phillips is still on the market later in the offseason, Elway said he would want to know whether Phillips would return to the Broncos in a situational role.

"Shaun was really signed as a rotational-type guy last year, and we'd be looking to see if he would play that same role," Elway said. "The thought process with Shaun is we'll see how things go, but I'd like to have him back. But it's a matter of who's out there and what opportunities he has, too."

The Broncos have added DeMarcus Ware at defensive end in free agency and have 2013 draft pick Quanterus Smith coming off injured reserve. The Broncos will look at this year's draft class for edge rushers, too.

The Broncos have about $5.9 million in salary-cap space remaining after signing Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Andre Caldwell. They need to leave some room for players who eventually end up on injured reserve as well as the draft class and any potential moves they want to make during the season.

"We're still in good shape with the cap, we just know it's too early," Elway said. "There's going to be bumps in the road as we go ahead, and I just want to be able to be prepared for any type of thing that would come up . ... We've got a cushion right now, and it's early to eat that cushion up."

No compensatory pick for Broncos

March, 24, 2014
3/24/14
7:40
PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Denver Broncos had held out a small hope to get at least one compensatory pick for the annual selection weekend, but the league did not agree with that math.

The NFL released its list of compensatory draft picks Monday -- 13 teams were awarded 32 picks in all -- and the Broncos didn’t make the complicated mathematical cut. This year’s compensatory picks were awarded based on signings and losses in free agency before the 2013 season.

Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Louis Vasquez, Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were among the players signed by the Broncos a year ago with Vasquez having been named an All-Pro this past season and all five going on to be starters. Cornerback Tracy Porter, who went on to be a 16-game starter for the Oakland Raiders, and safety Jim Leonhard were among the team’s biggest free agency losses.

The team's biggest departure was defensive end Elvis Dumervil, but since he was under contract when he was released by the Broncos following the well-publicized fax fiasco, he does not count as a loss in free agency. Players whose contracts have expired are considered in the math.

At the moment the Broncos have seven draft picks, one in each of the seven rounds.
While calling the shots for the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan once said, “If we signed all the guys we're supposedly going to sign we'd have 100 guys and no money."

Well, history has rolled around to repeat itself once again.

The Broncos' decision-makers, poised on the edge of free agency, are once again seeing the team's name floated plenty on players they are indeed interested in, but are also not prepared to bid the highest on.

Or, as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said just over a month ago, when discussing his take on contracts and pending free agents:

"It's a matter of how many people are out there and how many buyers. Are there six teams chasing him or five, or one team or teams? Plus it comes down to the thing that it's been my goal to really continue what [Broncos owner] Pat Bowlen created in the fact that people want to play here. So players will come here late in their career when they know they have a chance to win a world championship and they know the reputation of the Denver Broncos since Pat Bowlen has been here that it's a good place to play. That's why, to me, if you find a veteran guy and that's what matters to him, you're finding the right veteran guy. That's just as important as money. If money is the No. 1 thing, we're really not on the same page if it's all about money in my mind."

So, sure the Broncos have discussed the likes of pursuing safety T.J. Ward and defensive end Jared Allen. But to say the Broncos lead the way with either of those players, as some have said already, is simply not realistic.

At this point the Broncos are a negotiating tool for those two players as well as those who represent them. For either to end up in Denver it would likely require a willingness to trade dollars for playoff potential. And leaving dollars on the table is not often the business of those hired to negotiate contracts on commission.

The Broncos will be aggressive when free agency opens Tuesday; they will likely sign a player or two or even three in the opening days. That's been their profile with Elway on the job, and then they wait to add another veteran player or two in April or May.

Last year they signed Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton early and then Shaun Phillips, who led the team in sacks last season with 10, on the draft weekend and Quentin Jammer in May.

So, the Broncos are poised to spend some of Bowlen's money this week -- it just won't always be on the players who were said to be "locks" to end up in Denver.

Top free-agent roundup: AFC West

March, 10, 2014
3/10/14
10:00
AM ET
The AFC West produced three playoff teams and the eventual AFC title winner in the Denver Broncos, so it should come as no surprise that many top free agents come from the division. Oakland Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams break down the top 15:

1. Branden Albert, Chiefs offensive tackle: Kansas City won’t franchise him this year. Albert will get a nice contract elsewhere.

2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos cornerback: He’s not yet 30 and still a top-tier athlete.

3. Eric Decker, Broncos wide receiver: Productive in scoring zone, will be one of the biggest wide receivers on open market, but rarely faced opponents’ top cornerback in Broncos offense.

4. Lamarr Houston, Raiders defensive end: Better suited to the left side because he’s not the prototypical speed-rusher.

Moreno
5. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos running back: Has had multiple knee surgeries, including one on a torn ACL in 2011, but he runs with passion, is solid in pass protection and a productive receiver.

6. Jared Veldheer, Raiders offensive tackle: Didn’t have a very good season in 2013 but would attract some attention as a free agent.

7. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs guard: Was a free-agent find for Kansas City last season. Can play right tackle if needed.

8. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs guard: A better pass-protector than run-blocker. He will be only 26 in July.

9. Shaun Phillips, Broncos linebacker: He’ll be 33 in May but showed last season that he can still be an effective situational pass-rusher.

10. Zane Beadles, Broncos guard: For a movement-based front, he’s a smart, durable option who played in every game while with Denver.

McCluster
McCluster
11. Dexter McCluster, Chiefs wide receiver/punt returner: Hasn’t had a huge impact on the offense in Kansas City, but he will be only 26 in August.

12. Robert Ayers, Broncos defensive end: Had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s a late bloomer.

13. Tyson Jackson, Chiefs defensive end: Like Ayers, he had his best season in 2013, so maybe he’s figuring it out as well.

14. Tracy Porter, Raiders cornerback: He’s versatile enough to cover the slot receiver, and he had one of his better seasons in 2013.

15. Kendrick Lewis, Chiefs safety: He’s only 25 but was a better player earlier in his career. He hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury in 2012.

Free-agency primer: Broncos

March, 7, 2014
3/07/14
11:00
AM ET
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 Key free agents: WR Eric Decker, RB Knowshon Moreno, LB Wesley Woodyard, G Zane Beadles, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, S Mike Adams, LB Paris Lenon, CB Quentin Jammer.

Where they stand: The Broncos have significant issues on defense. They have six defensive backs who are unrestricted or restricted free agents; they have told Champ Bailey, who had a year left on his deal, they will release him; they don’t have a middle linebacker who started any games in 2013 on the roster; and two of their top three players in sacks in 2013 (Phillips and Ayers) are free agents. That’s an awful of uncertainty on the depth chart with starters at defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety now on the open market. They also have two of the four wide receivers who were on the 53-man roster last season -- Decker and Andre Caldwell -- as free agents.

What to expect: Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has consistently said he believes that free agency is where a team should target “glaring needs," so the draft can be a best-player-available affair. So, with some cap room to work with, the Broncos will be aggressive with a few targeted deals -- as they have done in both 2012 and 2013 with Elway calling the shots -- before they back out and then wait for the first waves to pass. But they lean defense early in the checkbook frenzy because they need pass-rush help, have already worked out linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Lofa Tatupu -- Jackson eventually signed in Indianapolis -- and likely will sign a veteran receiver as well. The Broncos are selling a potential Super Bowl shot with Peyton Manning back at quarterback, so they figure to be a popular stop for players looking for a run at a ring.

McShay Mock 3.0 reax: Broncos

March, 6, 2014
3/06/14
5:10
PM ET
When ESPN’s Todd McShay worked his way through his third mock draft in recent weeks, he kept the Denver Broncos’ attention on the defensive side of the ball.

McShay has the Broncos, at No. 31, selecting Misouri defensive Kony Ealy, a pass-rusher who carries a first-round grade through the pre-draft season. McShay had the Broncos selecting TCU cornerback Jason Verrett in his second mock draft.

Here's Todd's latest first round Insider:

Ealy measured in at 6-foot-4 and weighed 274 pounds at the league’s scouting combine last month. He also, with a 34 ½-inch arm, had one of the biggest armspans among the pass-rushers invited to Indy, something Broncos head coach John Fox has consistently said is an important piece of the pass-rush puzzle given the size of offensive tackles in the NFL.

Ealy’s 40-yard dash of 4.92 seconds wasn’t one of the best, but he consistently shows up on game video as quick off the ball and finished with eight sacks this past season in the speed-first Southeastern Conference.

The Broncos certainly have openings with Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and Jeremy Mincey all free agents who are expected to test the open market.

A combine recap for Broncos

February, 26, 2014
2/26/14
7:00
AM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL's scouting combine having wrapped up Tuesday afternoon, the Denver Broncos have had an up-close-and-personal look at 335 or so of the best prospects in this year's draft.

And as they collate all of the information they obtained in and around Lucas Oil Stadium from the workouts, medical exams and interviews from those prospects, here are some things they likely took away from the past week's work:
  • They can find much-needed help for their defense on this draft board but will likely have to use earlier picks to get it. It is a deep draft overall, but many scouts believe the depth is far greater, as a whole, on offense. So to get the impact players on defense, the Broncos may have to move more quickly do it. That's especially true among the defensive backs. As a group the wide receivers in Indy ran faster and were, on average, bigger than the defensive backs in attendance. The Broncos have six defensive backs scheduled to be restricted or unrestricted free agents, so they have some things to address in the secondary. That's especially true at cornerback, where Chris Harris Jr. is not only a restricted free agent but he's also returning from ACL surgery. Both Broncos head coach John Fox and executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said at the combine they're optimistic in Harris' recovery because the ACL was not completely torn. But with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie set to hit the open market to go with Champ Bailey's $10 million salary cap figure and a coming discussion with Elway about Bailey's future, the Broncos certainly will have to give the position attention in the draft. And they'll have to do it in the first three rounds to have a chance at the bigger cornerbacks on the board who have the kind of speed the team wants.
  • With Von Miller coming back from ACL surgery and Shaun Phillips headed for free agency, the Broncos will need more presence on the edge in the defense. And the pool of potential rushers who look to be ready to come in and contribute significantly as rookies looks fairly shallow. Phillips' signing in free agency during last year's draft weekend turned out to be one of the league's best value signings. Phillips finished with a team-leading 10 sacks in a one-year deal with no signing bonus. But that kind of good fortune is not a given. The Broncos will feel at least some incentive to look both in both free agency and among those early picks for an edge rusher. Fox said during the combine he believes Quanterrus Smith, a fifth-round draft pick in last year's draft, will be ready to contribute after Smith spent this past season on injured reserve. But he's a question mark, and the Broncos don't even open their conditioning work until April 21 and won't have conducted any of their on-field OTA work until after the draft.
  • The Broncos were highly interested in the linebacker class at this year's combine. They need more physicality at the position, but they need it from a player who can drop into coverage when asked. So don't think old-school thumper, but rather an attempt to find someone who plays with the same kind of versatility Danny Trevathan has shown since the Broncos selected him in the 2012 draft.
  • The Broncos have a glaring need at running back, but the run game is going to get plenty of attention in this offseason from offensive coordinator Adam Gase. The Broncos want, and need, to take some of the pressure off quarterback Peyton Manning and the team's passing game to do the heavy lifting as well in the offense in short-yardage situations. Knowshon Moreno is an unrestricted free agent who will get a bigger offer elsewhere than he can get from the Broncos. And after years' worth of running back classes filled with undersized runners, many running backs coaches in the league consistently referenced the size of this year's group at the combine. Many teams will be looking to dive in during the second, third and fourth rounds. There were 17 running backs at this year's combine who weighed 218 pounds or more. Last year there were 10 running backs at the combine who weighed at least 218 pounds and 14 in 2012 .
  • The Broncos want more speed in the defensive formation. If there was one lesson they took away from this past season, including the Super Bowl loss, it was that they were not nearly as fast as they need to be in the defensive formation. That speed deficiency showed up on special teams as well, notably down the stretch and into the playoffs. Look for the Broncos' draft class to have more fast clockings than "try hard" guys when the picks get made.
With the NFL's scouting combine set to open Wednesday and free agency to follow on March 11, today marks the sixth installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Defensive line
Thursday: Linebackers

In the Broncos' defensive fronts there are certainly more questions than answers right now. Beyond Terrance Knighton, Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams, the Broncos have plenty to cross their fingers about and plenty of medical reports and possible options to consider.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeThe Broncos can't be sure what they are going to get from their defensive linemen coming back from injuries, including Derek Wolfe.
If things work out, if the medical staff sees the recoveries the team expects and things go well, they will have a versatile, deep group that can adjust to almost any situation -- especially if Knighton, whose representatives have already asked for a new deal, picks up where he left off down the stretch in 2013 and into the postseason.

Jackson is an emerging player who has the ability to play with impact at both end and tackle. Williams was likely the team's most improved player from September to February and projects to be a starter in '14.

But the rub will be how Derek Wolfe (illness), Kevin Vickerson (hip) and Quanterus Smith (knee) emerge from their time on injured reserve. Because of Von Miller's knee surgery and Shaun Phillips' entry into free agency, Smith is going to have to be every bit of the pass-rush force the Broncos hope he can be.

If any of those three isn't up to full speed when the season opens, the Broncos will have a significant hole in their rotation.

The Alpha: At one time, Wolfe looked to be growing into this role, both on the field and off, but after he suffered seizure-like symptoms on a team bus ride to the airport in late November, he didn't play for the remainder of the season. So, it fell to Vickerson and Knighton to be at the front of the line at this position group. If Wolfe returns through the offseason workouts and into training camp at his former level of activity -- and that was the Broncos' expectation as this past season drew to a close -- he figures to step to the forefront again. But Wolfe was struggling at times even before he went on injured reserve after suffering a neck injury in the preseason, a scary incident when he was taken from the field by ambulance.

Salary cap: The Broncos have seven defensive linemen who finished the 2013 season on the team's 53-man roster or on injured reserve under contract for '14. Knighton's $2.75 million cap figure leads the way among the group with Vickerson's $2.266 million figure just behind. Williams, at $1.723 million and Wolfe, at $1.42 million, are followed by Sione Fua ($645,000), Jackson ($623,000) and Smith ($468,000).

Knighton had a $1 million roster bonus as well.

[+] EnlargeBryant McKinnie
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRobert Ayers is slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
Pending free agents: Two of the Broncos' top three players in sacks this past season are unrestricted free agents: Phillips (10 sacks) and defensive end Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks, third on the team). Phillips signed a one-year deal on draft weekend last year and while the extra workload that came with all of the Broncos' injuries in the defensive front seemed to affect his play at times, he was one of best price/production signings in the league. Ayers has now finished his original rookie deal, signed when the Broncos made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft -- the second draft pick of Josh McDaniels' tenure.

Who could stay: The Broncos have no significant cap issues to address at the position and while Knighton would like to cash in on his play over the last two months of the season, the Broncos are not expected to address his contract this year. Knighton and Vickerson are slated to be unrestricted free agents after the 2014 season.

Who could go: Ayers likely will have to look elsewhere to get his best deal. The Broncos would bring him back at their price because he is familiar with the defense. Phillips will be entering his 11th NFL season in '14 and while he helped the Broncos overcome plenty of injuries, they'll be looking to get a little younger up front. But if he's unsigned after the initial wave of free agency, the Broncos could look to sign him to a deal similar to the one he had this past season -- a $1 million base with some incentives at several sack totals.

What they like/want: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes big guys in the middle such as Knighton, Vickerson and Williams to eat up blockers, but he also needs some versatile inside-outside types like Jackson to make it all work when the Broncos move from their base look to some of their specialty packages with five, six or seven defensive backs.

Denver likes Smith's potential -- take a look at his three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL prospects as a senior at Western Kentucky to see what's there -- and he will be looked at hard as the team goes through its offseason paces. The Broncos have bigger needs at other places and with Miller recovering from ACL surgery, the to-do list for Smith as an edge player figures to be a healthy one.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 3

They need some attention up front given the number of players coming off injured reserve with heavy workloads in their rotation. If all of them return without incident to the form that is expected, the Broncos are fine.

But history has repeatedly shown that's not something the team should count on. As a result, they'll have to give defensive tackles and edge rushers some looks heading into the draft.

There's enough uncertainty here to warrant a move or two as insurance.

Franchise/transition tags: Broncos

February, 17, 2014
2/17/14
8:00
AM ET
In each of the previous two years, the Denver Broncos used the franchise tag on an impending free agent they hoped to lock up to a long-term deal but just needed a little more time to cross all the T's and dot all the I's in the contract.

In 2012, it was kicker Matt Prater, who got the tag before he signed a new multiyear deal with the team. Last year it was left tackle Ryan Clady, who was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery when the Broncos placed the tag on him.

Clady, who would have earned $9.828 million on that one-year deal had the tag remained in place, eventually worked out a five-year, $52.5 million contract with the team just before training camp.

But don’t look for the Broncos to use either of the tags this time around. Their most prominent free agents -- most notably running back Knowshon Moreno, wide receiver Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Wesley Woodyard -- have been productive starters with the team, but none are so deep in the team’s plans that the Broncos would use the tags to have them guaranteed of being on the roster next season.

Decker has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, but the franchise-tag salary on a one-year deal at wide receiver was $10.537 million last year and is expected to be slightly higher this time around.

At running back, the franchise tag was $8.219 million last season, and at linebacker, it was $9.619 million.

The Broncos will make offers to most of their impending free agents, but it’s likely all of their more high-profile unrestricted free agents could get better offers, in terms of overall money, elsewhere.

Decker, Moreno, guard Zane Beadles and defensive end Robert Ayers are among the team’s free agents who, next month, will complete deals they signed with the Broncos as rookies. It will be their first opportunity in the open market. Woodyard, who has been a team captain in each of his six seasons with the Broncos, just finished his second contract with the team, while other unrestricted free agents, like Rodgers-Cromartie, safety Mike Adams, linebacker Paris Lenon and defensive end Shaun Phillips, came from elsewhere.

Part of the issue for the Broncos this time around is securing the players who are set to become free agents following the 2014 season, a group that includes wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

Denver Broncos season wrap-up

February, 5, 2014
2/05/14
2:00
PM ET
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.

Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.

Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.

Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.

 

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the sting of the Super Bowl loss still fresh, the Denver Broncos' chief football decision-maker said the team heads into the offseason under the premise that Peyton Manning will return at quarterback for 2014.

Manning has already said on several occasions his intent is to play in 2014, but executive vice president of football operations John Elway added Tuesday that the Broncos will make offseason decisions based on Manning being behind center. But the team knows the 37-year-old can't play forever, so the Broncos will also keep an eye on making a plan for life without Manning at some point.

Manning
"Well, we're going to keep building like Peyton is going to be here," Elway said. "If Peyton decided to hang 'em up, we have expectations hopefully to make that transition. It's going to be tough, but we're going to hopefully be ready for that transition, too. We do that by making sure that we do a good job in the draft, drafting well, and having those young guys come in and perform for us."

Elway has consistently talked of maintaining the youth of the Broncos' roster with homegrown players as the foundation. But last year, the Broncos elected -- either because of injuries or the need to fill holes that remained following the draft -- to reel in some veterans with double-digit years of experience. Defensive end Shaun Phillips (who just finished his 10th season), Quentin Jammer (12th) and linebacker Paris Lenon (12th) were all signed to fill needs.

Of the seven players who closed the season on the Broncos' roster who were in at least their 10th year in the league, four were signed when free agency opened last March.

But Manning's return is the foundation for what the Broncos do across the roster. Manning carries a $17.5 million salary-cap charge in 2014, the team's largest.

"Yeah, but I'll tell you right now it's worth it for us to have Peyton Manning," Elway said. "That's just part of when you get a quality quarterback like that, that we have in Peyton Manning. You know that's going to be a big chunk of your salary cap, but we got to figure out ways to find the right players."

Manning said the 43-8 loss Sunday night didn't "change anything" in regard to his plan for next season. Manning is scheduled to have a physical in the coming week on his surgically repaired neck.

But the Broncos did give him an exit physical Tuesday for everything else, including his ankles, and they expect good news from the coming exam, as well. Manning feels good enough physically to have entered the Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament, which begins Thursday. Certainly, if the team had any concerns about the quarterback, or if Manning himself had any concerns about his neck, a golf tournament would not be on the docket. Manning will likely have his physical before free agency opens March 11.

Elway said Tuesday he had not yet had a chance to speak to Manning since the team returned to Denver on Monday.

Elway disputed the notion that there was more frustration and disappointment among the team's faithful than there was inside the team's complex.

"Let me tell you this: There is not anybody that is more disappointed about what happened on Sunday than everybody in this organization, especially the coaches and the players in that locker room," Elway said. "They are as disappointed because they are the ones that went through the hard work for the whole year. That's where I get disappointed, because I know how hard they worked and I know how disappointing it is when you aren't able to play your best football game in the Super Bowl like we were."

There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

Broncos' D will need an A effort

January, 31, 2014
1/31/14
8:00
AM ET
Wesley Woodyard, Danny TrevathanDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesHow will Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan and the Denver defense impact Sunday's result?

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The most prominent storyline of Super Bowl XLVIII, at least beyond what Richard Sherman said, what Marshawn Lynch didn't say and just how much wobble is in the average Peyton Manning touchdown pass, has been the Denver Broncos' No. 1 offense and the Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense.

It has been the classic matchup of league best on league best and the first of its kind since Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the league's No. 1 defense, defeated the Oakland Raiders (the No. 1 offense) to close out the 2002 season.

But how a Broncos defense battered by injuries throughout the season responds against Seattle's power offense with Lynch at running back, the mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback and wide receiver Percy Harvin playing in just his third game of the season, will have a lot to say about how things go for the Broncos. In fact, it may have everything to say about whether or not the Broncos get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

"We feel like we need to be the defense we know we can be," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We've been better as the season has gone on, we've adjusted some, overcome some and now we feel like we're ready to play our best football."

The Broncos have four defensive starters on injured reserve -- cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller -- and they have not always played with the consistency defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would have liked because of it. But after holding opponents to fewer than 17 points only once in 14 games, the Broncos have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in four consecutive games. The total includes both of their playoff wins -- 24-17 against the San Diego Chargers and 26-16 over the New England Patriots.

"In spite of all the things that could have derailed us, we stayed on point, stayed on message, continued to grind, continued to believe," Del Rio said.

Del Rio has used a variety of lineup combinations until settling on the current one that includes Woodyard, an every-down player for much of the season, now playing in the specialty packages. Del Rio also has put Paris Lenon at middle linebacker in the base defense to go with Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving at the other two linebacker spots.

The combination gives the Broncos a little more bulk against opposing run games, especially one such as the Seahawks'.

The return of Champ Bailey, who played just five games in the regular season because of a left foot injury, has given Del Rio more options of late in the coverages the team can play and stabilized things, even with Harris Jr. having torn an ACL against the Chargers in the divisional round. After initially returning to the lineup, playing in the slot as part of the nickel defense (five defensive backs), Bailey will likely start on the outside against the Seahawks and then move inside to the slot if Seattle goes to a three-wide receiver look. In the nickel, Bailey would likely face Harvin or Doug Baldwin.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images"I don't want to hear a reason that we can't," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "I want to talk about how we're going to get it done."
And the Broncos have gotten enough from Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and Terrance Knighton in the pass rush to at least try to work past Miller's injury, a torn ACL he suffered in Houston in Week 16.

"We think we can play the way we need to, we know we have to if we're going to win this game," Bailey said. "We don't think too much about the injuries. We would love to have those guys because you always want your best out there. But [Del Rio] isn't going to let you talk about that anyway and we wouldn't want to."

Said Del Rio: "I don't even want to hear it, I don't want to hear it from our staff, I don't want to hear a reason that we can't. I want to talk about how we're going to get it done. I don't spend a lot of time entertaining how we can't. I understand that we can and want to figure out exactly how we can get it done. It's a little bit of scheme, it's a little bit of technique, there's a little of mentality you've got to build. It can be pretty good if you put it all together and everybody buys in."

While the Broncos' record-setting offense and the Seahawks' bone-rattling defense have parked themselves in the headlines this week, Sunday's game may well be decided by what Seattle's offense does against Del Rio's defense.

"We feel underrated a little bit, but we've got to expect that," Broncos safety Mike Adams said. "I probably would say the same thing because we had a slow start as a defense early in the season. But one thing we did: We finished the season strong and we carried it on to the playoffs, and we're trying to continue that streak that we're on."

SPONSORED HEADLINES