ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With the NFL’s scouting combine set to open Tuesday and free agency to follow March 9, today marks the sixth installment of a position-by-position look of where things stand for the Denver Broncos at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitment, free agents and where their needs are greatest.
Monday: Defensive backs.
Since cornerback Chris Harris Jr. arrived as an undrafted rookie in 2011, he has seen the team’s defense evolve into what it became this past season. And whenever anyone, especially in the pre-Super Bowl swirl of coverage, asked him about the Broncos defense he routinely talked of “elite players in the front, at linebacker and in the back with the DBs.’’
But he would often stop at the linebackers, to give them a little more shout in the shout-out. A group with two Pro Bowl selections in Von Miller -- Super Bowl 50 MVP -- and DeMarcus Ware to go with two 100-tackle players in Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall.
“Those guys, that’s the best group in the league,’’ Harris said. “They play the run, they play the pass, they go sideline to sideline and they get the quarterback. Man, that’s all the jobs.’’
Or as Trevathan put it recently; “We’re probably one of the best linebacker groups in the league, the best maybe. A lot of people didn’t give us a lot of credit, but we grind, we always grind.’’
And the Broncos certainly like their potential for an encore from not only their defense as a whole in 2016, but the linebackers specifically. However, to keep the band together as it were at linebacker will require some work with the checkbook.
The Alpha: If you’re on the short list of defensive players who have been named Super Bowl MVP -- only nine have won the award -- you are the The Man. Miller is the team’s franchise player at the position and in the defense, and the Broncos still believe Miller is an ascending player in terms of on-field production if he can maintain the focus and work ethic he showed down the stretch and into the postseason after all of the post-Super Bowl hoopla finally calms down.
Salary cap: At the moment Ware has the biggest cap figure at the position -- $11.67 million -- but that will only be true until the Broncos place the franchise player tag on Miller as the team works toward a long-term deal. That number is expected to be in the $13-14 million range. Shane Ray is $2.07 million and is the only other player under contract at the position for ’16 who will count more than Corey Nelson’s $612,150.
Pending free agents: Miller is the big-ticket item in free agency. And Miller said this week he expects a long-term deal to get done with the Broncos. Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler this past season, is an unrestricted free agent while Marshall is a restricted free agent. Todd Davis is an exclusive-rights free agent.
Who could stay: The Broncos would like to solve the riddle and keep all involved. Miller will be retained, first with the franchise-player tag and then with a long-term deal that, barring the most unexpected string of events, would be in the loftiest of financial air. The Broncos will also retain Marshall.
Who could go: Miller said he has “no doubt’’ Ware will return for his third season with the Broncos -- Ware’s 12th overall -- but Ware did miss five games with a back injury this past season with plenty of back/neck troubles previously in his career. His $11.67 million cap figure will likely be looked to for some adjustment. So, if he chooses to retire or does not want to re-work the deal at least somewhat, there is a chance he would not remain. The Broncos want to keep Trevathan as well, but with Miller, quarterback Brock Osweiler and defensive end Malik Jackson also on the Broncos’ free agency docket, Trevathan could get caught in the squeeze.
What they like/want: They like speed and versatility, as in the group they have right now. They have used draft picks on Ray and Nelson in the last two drafts respectively, so while Ray would be slotted into far more playing time if Ware doesn't return, Nelson would get an initial look of Trevathan departs, as would Davis.
Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): It’s a 2. Miller and Marshall aren’t going anywhere. The question is how to cope with the potential loss of Trevathan, who has led the team in tackles in two of the last three seasons. If he signs elsewhere, the Broncos would be inclined to look in the draft sooner.