Broncos free agency primer: DE

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
7:00
AM ET
With the countdown to free agency in its final stages, it's time to take a look at the Denver Broncos' top needs in the open market.

The Broncos are expected to aggressive and active once the signings formally begin on March 11th. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need and the draft is the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.

Expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial waves of signings have passed.

It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.

Today: Defensive end

Friday: Wide receiver

Why it's an issue: Two words -- Von Miller.

Miller is recovering from ACL surgery and even with the most optimistic of projections in his recovery doesn't figure to be full speed by the time training camp closes out and the regular season begins. The Broncos were forced to mix and match in the pass rush for most of this past season because of issues around Miller.

He missed the last game and a half of the regular season to go with all three playoff games after injuring his knee. Miller also missed the first six games of the season because of a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. And even in the games in between, you would be hard-pressed to find a personnel evaluator in the league who believed Miller consistently played with the same explosiveness as he did in 2012 even before his injury.

The Broncos also have players who finished No. 1 and No. 3 in sacks this past season who are unrestricted free agents. Phillips led the team with 10 while Robert Ayers had 5.5. Jeremy Mincey, who was immediately moved into the rotation at defensive end after signing in December, is also a free agent.

Denver got every bit out of Phillips than could be expected, but the veteran wore down as the season went on as Derek Wolfe's illness and Miller's inury/suspension forced him to play more snaps than the Broncos would have preferred. By the end of the season Phillips had played 770 snaps -- 68 percent of the defensive plays, including penalty plays.

Ayers, who had 4.5 of his sacks in the games Miller missed with a suspension, had just one sack over the last 10 games of the regular season to go with one in the three preseason games. Mincey played at least 28 snaps in each of the last two games of the regular season to go with at least 18 snaps in every playoff game.

It all means the Broncos will be on the hunt for an edge presence in free agency.

The best out there: The Broncos were hoping to take a recruiting swing at Brian Orakpo, but the former Pro Bowl selection was tagged as a franchise player -- a one-year deal for $11.46 million that is fully guaranteed as soon as Orakpo signs it.

Jared Allen will be a free agent, but he turns 32 in April and may be at the point in his career, despite 23.5 sacks in last two seasons combined, a situational player looking for every-down money.

Allen's teammate in Minnesota, Everson Griffen, has been a rotation player and started just one game in his career, but he won't turn 27 until December and had 5.5 sacks this past season in 673 snaps. By contrast Allen had 11.5 sacks in just over 1,000 snaps of work.

Colorado Springs native Lamarr Houston is worth a long look as well for the Broncos. Houston isn't the proto-typical edge player, but his versatility would certainly fit into Jack Del Rio's defense with his ability to play both the weak- and strong-side end position, to stand up in a two-point stance at times and play down inside at defensive tackle in some specialty looks as well.

If the Broncos are willing to dive in for the bigger money, they will certainly take a look at the Bengals Michael Johnson and the Seahawks Michael Bennett. But any top-shelf contract handed out this March could impact March '15 at the position when Miller is poised for free agency.

O'Brien Schofield has a long injury history. He had ACL surgery after a Senior Bowl injury even before he entered the draft. The 2010 and 2012 seasons ended because of injuries. But he also has potential to get the passer. For the right price -- he made $1.323 million with the Seahawks last season -- he will get a look from some teams.

Bottom line: The Broncos will be looking to spend at this position right out of the gate, even though there are some buyer-beware players in the mix.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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