Broncos follow Peyton Manning's retirement with rough first day of free agency

Broncos have holes to fill (1:18)

Adam Schefter explains the Broncos' strategy for replacing players they lost to free agency. (1:18)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos knew it would be different, this whole life after Peyton Manning thing.

Two days after Manning announced his retirement at the Broncos’ suburban Denver complex, free agency opened. And after four previous forays into free agency with Manning as a headliner, Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway explained what life was like in negotiations with the future Hall of Famer in the fold.

“This guy [Manning] because he’s made my job easy," Elway said. “Bottom line is I said, ‘Mr. Bowlen wants to win championships and you get to play with Peyton Manning.’ They said, ‘Where do we sign?’ And that’s really what happened and that’s why we’re able to put these great teams together. It was because what he was about and what he meant to this league, what his reputation was in this league and how we attracted football players. Because they knew if he was on their team, we had a chance to win a world championship."

A roster certainly isn’t built on the first day of free agency, but it was still a tough open Wednesday. Not only is Manning gone, but defensive end Malik Jackson signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, linebacker Danny Trevathan signed with the Chicago Bears and quarterback Brock Osweiler signed with the Houston Texans. The Broncos did sign tackle/guard Donald Stephenson.

Three players out, one in as the post-Manning era got under way. Few things in football are forever, or last five years for that matter, but while Manning did “raise all boats" as Elway often said, there are many players the Broncos will now need to step up after Manning’s departure as the Broncos continue to put together their depth chart moving forward.

Start on offense, where receivers such as Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler, who caught Manning’s last career pass, could have bigger roles.

“I think all of is could see how he did things, how he prepared," Fowler said of Manning. “I’ve said he taught me how to be a pro -- the way to approach the game, how to be a good player and teammate on and off the field … If we all keep doing that, other players will see us moving forward and it can be something he left behind for us."

Latimer, who was a second-round pick in the 2014 draft, had six receptions this past season and has been largely unable to transfer impact moments in practice into game situations.

But coach Gary Kubiak has said Latimer became a key a special teams player and believes there’s more to come from him in the offense.

“I think there is," Latimer said. “Whatever happens, I want to come in with the idea of getting more involved."

Tight end Jeff Heuerman, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in rookie minicamp last May, is expected to be a key piece of the offense -- predicted by no less than Manning. Heuerman was one of the players who participated in Manning’s rehab workouts when the quarterback was trying to return from a foot injury.

They don’t know who they will block for yet, but Stephenson will be the first step in the makeover of the offensive line. A player who can line up at guard or tackle, he figures to be in the mix to start.

Even before 72 hours had passed since Manning’s departure, it was clear life would be different without the future Hall of Fame quarterback. But there are plenty of days ahead, including the draft, for the Broncos to address the holes left behind by the other departures in free agency’s opening hours, as well as any departures to come.

C.J. Anderson, who is a restricted free agent, could be another departure if any of the teams that have expressed interest follow through with an offer. If he stays the Broncos are going to want to see a consistent impact from the running back.