Denver Broncos: Champ Bailey

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was easy to see as free agency opened this past March that the Denver Broncos -- even with a Super Bowl trip this past February and three consecutive AFC West titles in tow -- were going to be a team in transition in the locker room.

Not just the usual player turnover that coach John Fox says he prepares for each season -- "a third of your team is going to be new looking back at you in that meeting room, that's what I expect almost every year" -- but at the foundation, at the core. It's also turnover among the guys who keep an eye on things, the guys who keep the peace, the guys who give the needed pats on the back or deliver the kicks a little south of there.

The guys who run the room, who help keep the little problems from becoming big ones.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Michael Ciaglo/MCT/Icon SMIChris Harris has the potential to be a leader on defense, but injuries have kept him separated from his teammates.
"A lot of it is the players you bring in," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said. "I just believe you have to get that locker room right, your leaders have to lead in what they say and what they do."

This offseason, including this week's mandatory minicamp, has been as much about getting their leadership secured as it has been about X's and O's. None of the five captains who strode to midfield to take the pregame coin flip as recently as the 2011 season are still with the team. The last three -- all significant contributors -- were lost this offseason.

Champ Bailey was released before he signed with the New Orleans Saints, Wesley Woodyard was not offered a contract, so he signed with the Tennessee Titans, and Chris Kuper retired.

Quarterback Peyton Manning and tackle Ryan Clady were voted captains on offense by their teammates last season -- Wes Welker was voted a captain after Clady went to injured reserve -- and there's no reason to believe Manning and Clady wouldn't get the votes again. Manning sets the agenda, in many ways for the entire team, by his approach and presence, but he's also a decade older than many of his teammates, and separated by standing and life experiences, so other voices will be needed on offense. That's where Clady comes in; he's a quiet, talented leader who has the respect of those around him.

Welker, too, has the savvy, veteran chops to get the attention of teammates, but some younger players such as Demaryius Thomas, Louis Vasquez and even second-year running back Montee Ball can emerge.

Defensively, however, it still bears watching given that two of the team's most talented defenders -- linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris -- are both on the mend from ACL surgery. Players going through injury rehab often spend much of their day away from their teammates. They are held out of most of the on-field work, which limits contact with their teammates at times.

"It's just so hard to lead right now when I'm not actually involved with a lot of things," Harris said. "That's the only thing that I would say hurts right now on the leadership part is that it's kind of like I'm on IR still. So everybody else does their thing and I kind of do my own thing. So I'm still in that situation. But film room, meeting room, off the field, I'm definitely going to lead, and once I get on the field that leadership is going to come right back."

Harris has the potential to act like a captain, with or without the actual C on his jersey -- Bailey often said as much during his time with the Broncos. So does linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the team in tackles last season and has been pushing for more in offseason workouts.

"I'm sure that's in my picture, or at least I hope it is," Trevathan said of his potential to be a captain. "Right now I just need to get better, help others get better, help this team get better."

Broncos players say defensive end DeMarcus Ware, with a no-nonsense work ethic to go with 117 career sacks, has already earned the respect of his new teammates. Ware, simply because of his standing in the league and how he carries himself, has the potential to be an important voice among the Broncos.

Those who know him say he is a lead-by-example type who picks his spots carefully to speak. Often that works far better given that so few players have any patience for the rah-rah, in-your-face guys who don't practice anything close to what they preach.

In the end, this type of thing always gets sorted out. Talent will always be the biggest component in success, but talent is also the most wasted commodity in the league when it isn't accompanied by the ability to work in a group or some roll-up-your-sleeves attitude.

The Broncos are talented. They just need the right people keeping everyone involved and on the right track.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is the meal and there is the parsley that simply rides along on the plate.

Whatever becomes of the 2014 season for the Denver Broncos, the team's offense, coming off the highest-scoring season in the league's history, will fuel much of the discussion as well as the team's fortunes along the way.

But as the Broncos get down to some of their offseason business this week, the team's defensive players have decided they don't want to just be ornamental. They want to have an impact.

"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We just want to be that defense that goes out there and dominates and be talked about."

[+] EnlargeDenver's Terrance Knighton
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)"We just don't want to be that defense that does enough to get by and the offense is putting up 40 points," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
On the way to their second 13-3 season in a row, their third consecutive AFC West title and a Super Bowl appearance, the Broncos offense scored a record 606 points and quarterback Peyton Manning set NFL single-season records for touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). And the defense? Well, five starters finished the year on injured reserve as the unit finished 19th in the league in yards allowed per game (356.0) and 22nd in points allowed per game (24.9).

When all was said and done, 10 opponents scored at least 21 points and the Broncos surrendered 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards.

"I think last year we made a mistake of just having the guys we had thinking that was enough and not putting in the effort to be great," Knighton said. "That's something we're not talking about this year, the talent we have. We just want to go out there and put out the work. Like I said, just be a top defense and not be dominant in certain spots."

The Broncos lost three defensive starters in free agency -- linebacker Wesley Woodyard, cornerback Champ Bailey and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- but they responded with urgency, signing cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. They used a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby. And the players themselves, the new arrivals and the holdovers, have kicked around the idea of being more than some high-profile passengers on the Broncos express.

So much so that when the Broncos' strength and conditioning coach, Luke Richesson, gave the players a day off Tuesday from the usual conditioning sessions, the defensive players all showed up for work any way.

"Everybody has that mindset," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "We thought we had better talent than how we played sometimes last season and we think we have a lot of talent this year."

"It's always exciting to start over," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "When you have a collection of guys coming back like we do -- a very talented group returning from injury, we also have a very talented group that we brought in -- free agency and draft picks. So getting all of those guys back out on the field, it's an exciting time of year."

When the Broncos sifted through what went wrong with the defense, the injuries to linebacker Von Miller, Harris, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe certainly played a part. But executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has also consistently referenced a hole in last year's roster-building.

"We never really replaced Elvis [Dumervil]," Elway said.

Dumervil, who led the NFL in sacks in 2009 with 17 and had 63.5 sacks in six seasons with the Broncos, signed with the Baltimore Ravens last season after a fax fiasco forced the Broncos to release him to avoid paying him a bonus. It's why the Broncos were so persistent in their pursuit of Ware, who got a three-year deal worth $30 million, because they wanted the same kind of pressure package Dumervil and Miller provided when the Broncos were a top-five defense -- second in yards allowed per game and third in scoring defense.

They believe a nickel package with Ware and Miller rushing the passer -- in which offenses have to decide where and how to slide their protection plans -- with Talib, Harris and Roby at cornerback is faster and more athletic than last season's defense. The defensive players have already shown more edge as they work through the non-contact portions of the offseason program.

"The biggest way is as coaches, we provide a blueprint, we provide kind of a map for them," Del Rio said. "But then [the players] have to take it and make it their own. So the interaction they have, the time they spend lifting weights and running, different guys emerge. Guys earn the respect of their peers and I think as you play and you're here and as you show you're a guy that can be counted on, then your voice becomes a little more important. So that's how I think you kind of grow into it. Very rarely does a guy just plug himself and say, 'Hey I'm the leader.' So as coaches that's something that we encourage obviously, for guys to step up and take charge and be accountable and take responsibility for each other ... I feel good about our group."
There is football. There is life. And then there is life in football.

And when the Denver Broncos look at this year’s rookie class, they see players like cornerback Bradley Roby, wide receiver Cody Latimer, tackle Michael Schofield and linebacker Lamin Barrow, players who are expected to contribute plenty to the 2014 season. The are potential starters on that list, or if the Broncos have good fortune, there could be others among the first-year players overall who earn their way on to the depth chart.

But to get those contributions on the field, those players will not only have to digest a far beefier playbook than ever before, but they will have to find a way to acclimate quickly to football as a job.

Asked what was more difficult for rookies, to adapt on the field or off of it, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who made the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2011, answered without hesitation.

“I would say life, just making sure everything is straight,’’ Harris Jr. said. “It’s like a totally different adventure that you’re going on, people blowing you up all the time, friends and family. The football, this is what you want to do, where you kind of hoped you’d be, it kind of gets you away from the rest for a little bit. Life distractions can’t get you on the field, or you can’t let them. But the key is to limit those life distractions. I’ve always kind of kept my circle small.’’

That thought is straight out of the Book of Bailey, as in Champ Bailey. The former Broncos cornerback, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who signed with the New Orleans Saints after the Broncos released him, routinely talked about how he limited access to his affairs to a small group.

Or as former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith has said; “The guys who have too much going outside these walls find themselves on the outside real quick, looking in on the guys who took care of their business. Some guys just don’t figure that out fast enough.’’

“These younger guys, they come in and a lot of times they’ve got a big circle,’’ Harris Jr. “That can be tough. Champ, he had a small circle, real small. So small it almost wasn’t a circle, but I watched, I learned and I never really had the kind of issues some guys had.’’

The team’s rookies did their first on-field work on their own last week, but this week the full team will gather on the field for the first set of organized team activities (OTAs). The rookies have spent some of the last two weeks participating in meetings with the team’s veteran players, so they have had a taste of the football side of things.

The Broncos have also tried to show the team’s newest players how to prepare for some of the other issues they will face.

“You approach it like your children,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “You try to give them wisdom in all areas: Off the field, the dos and don’ts in our city, where to go and not to go. Jerry Butler, our player development guy and our chaplain, our coaches. They’re just great resources. [Team owner] Pat Bowlen does a great job as far as getting people and resources here to help these young men, really in all areas.”

It has been a front-burner issue for the Broncos on all fronts to be sure. The team had a rocky ride off the field during last year’s offseason when front-office executives Matt Russell and Tom Heckert were each arrested for DUI offenses and All Pro linebacker Von Miller was suspended for six games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to go with an arrest for a missed court date and some traffic violations.

And this offseason has now already had a bump or two as well. This past week free-agent signee T.J. Ward was charged with misdemeanor assault and disturbing the peace for an incident in a Denver strip club and Russell was sentenced to seven months in jail for last summer’s arrest.

It has all had the Broncos continuing to evaluate the resources they have available for players and other team employees. Fox has described it “as letting guys know what we have available to them and encourage them every chance we get to use those resources. It’s there and we want them to use it.’’

For the team’s rookies it can be as basic as the team’s nutritionist creating meal plans to others helping to locate apartments and finding a bank. All with clearing away enough things so they first-year players can get down to the business of football.

“It’s like 100 percent different,’’ Schofield said. “A lot more complicated It’s all different now.’’

“I plan on getting things in order so I can really get to the football side of things,’’ Barrow said. “I just want to be in the hip pocket of the veteran guys to learn everything I can. I feel like I’ll ask all the questions I can and they’ve said they’ll help with everything.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On his trek from being a guy some folks in the league said was too short and then going undrafted, to one of the most important players on the field and in the locker room for the Denver Broncos, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. has always been about jumping life’s hurdles to get where he hopes to go.

So, it really is no surprise, as he heals from surgery to repair his left ACL, he plans on being on the field before this summer’s training camp is over and in the lineup when the Broncos open the regular season Sept. 7 against the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"I haven't had an offseason, I've been here," Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said on his return since ACL surgery.
"I’m ready, I’ve been working my ass off, excuse my language," Harris Jr. said with a smile. “I haven’t had an offseason, I’ve been here. I went to Dr. Andrews [for surgery], that was my little vacation and I’ve been here. Treatment every day and now I’m pretty much doing two-a-days, I’m here at 6:45, then coming back for the meetings and the lift. I’m feeling great, I'll be ready. I’m building my confidence because I wasn’t down too long. I’m able to test things, I just feel confident about what’s going to happen.’’

“I’m not doing everything until mid-training camp,’’ Harris Jr. continued. “I’ll probably be ready at the beginning of training camp, but I probably won’t do anything until mid-training camp. I’ll continue to do my workouts, watch and coach them up.’’

With Champ Bailey’s release, Harris Jr. is now one of the elder statesmen in the Broncos’ secondary, at least when it comes to the team’s playbook. As he enters his fourth season, he has gone from an undrafted rookie who caught Bailey’s eye in 2011’s training camp -- “that kid competes on every play, doesn’t get rattled,’’ Bailey said then -- to a key part in how the Broncos’ go about things on the field.

So much so, that the Broncos allowed a Total QBR of 43.6 in the 2013 regular season when Harris was on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And in the 81 snaps that he wasn't on the field, opponents had a Total QBR of 93.

Ask defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio about Harris Jr. and the word “competes’’ will often be somewhere in the first sentence, as in “he just competes on every play, in practice, in games, he leaves nothing for granted.’’

He's just the do-it-all guy, who can line up outside against an opponent’s best receiver or move down inside to the slot and win those physical battles in the everything-happens-fast area of the of the field. And it was noticeable when Harris left the Broncos’ divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter this past January as the Broncos had a 17-0 lead when Harris Jr. was in the game and the Chargers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter when he was not.

It was a non-contact play, but an injury Harris Jr. believed was coming even before it happened.

“I was definitely surprised, at least a little bit, that it was a partially torn ACL.’’ Harris Jr. said. “But I wasn’t surprised there was something wrong because I had been having little nagging injuries in my left leg for about two years, then after the (Dec. 1) Chiefs game, I couldn’t walk after that game, I was just so sore. I just figured something in my left leg was just wearing down. After a while, that’s why it happened so easy, it was non-contact, I do those same movements every day. So, it was something that was bound to happen, because I just feeling those little pains before. I was probably playing with it before I really knew.’’

Harris Jr.’s scheduled return would certainly help a re-vamped Broncos’ secondary. The Broncos opened owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook to sign cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in free agency and then used a first-round pick earlier this month on cornerback Bradley Roby.

Talib and Harris Jr. started together on a Kansas defense that helped the team win an Orange Bowl -- “so we already have that chemistry together,’’ Harris Jr. said -- and thought the Broncos are still in the shorts-and-T-shirts phase of the offseason workouts, Ward continues to draw raves from teammates and coaches alike.

The Broncos hope the plan makes it from the drawing board to the field. Talib and Harris Jr. could be the starters with Roby and Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, fitting into the specialty packages. If that comes to fruition it would give them a three-cornerback look in the nickel (five defensive backs) and a four-cornerback look in the dime (six defensive backs) that would feature more speed and athleticism than they had last season to match up with three- and four-wide receiver sets.

“Two years ago we finished in the top of the league and last year, we didn’t,’’ Del Rio said. “We like being at the top. So we’ll work our way back. We’ve got good players, good design. We’re going to work hard. And we expect to be good.’’

“This is my third year with Jack now, I feel like I know the defense inside and out,’’ Harris Jr. said. “And we’ve got a lot of new guys, so I try to make it easier on them. But I’m on track to get back out there. I’ve got big plans, so much motivation for this year. This a good team, we expect great things. I'm going to be a part of it, that's for sure, I'm going to be part of it.’’
When the Denver Broncos gathered this week for their first group workouts of the offseason, there were plenty of new faces on the roster.

DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib and Will Montgomery lead the way in the new arrival department, at least until the draft class arrives next month. But for many on hand this week, the workouts still had an odd feel to them.

The Broncos were missing three former team captains -- three powerful voices in the locker room, three players others often looked to in good times, as well as bad, to show others the way.

Champ Bailey is in New Orleans, having been released by the Broncos after 10 seasons. Chris Kuper retired and Wesley Woodyard signed with the Tennessee Titans.

And while Super Bowls are won with talent on the field, they are also won with how things get handled in the locker room along the way, because ego, the pursuit of credit, fretting over contract status, grousing over playing time and the general human condition has cratered almost as many title hopefuls as the injury report.

Asked this week about the team's identity, quarterback Peyton Manning said what he usually says when things such as identity or chemistry are the topics of the day.

"I don't know if it has to be the same or different," Manning said. "I want it to be an identity that helps us win football games. I think it's hard to say what it is going to be at this point. Our full roster has certainly not been decided. The draft is -- when is the draft now? It's like in September now. ...We still probably need to see who we are based on who the personnel is, I think you form the identity from that. I think it is OTAs, it's definitely training camp and obviously it'd be nice to have it somewhere around the beginning of the season, but even before, I think you can develop it throughout the course of the season -- what really works for you."

It also means players such as Manning and left tackle Ryan Clady, the team's captains on offense last season -- Wes Welker replaced Clady when Clady went on injured reserve -- will again have prominent roles in the locker room.

But defensively, with Bailey and Woodyard gone, there are some players who are going to have to step forward in how they handle themselves as well as how they interact with their teammates. Linebacker Danny Trevathan has the look of a potential captain in how he approaches his job and how he plays on the field. As does cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who is currently working his way back from ACL surgery.

They will be two of the most important voices in the defensive meeting room, kind of a bridge between the new arrivals like Ward, Talib and Ware and the players who have been with the Broncos. But it would be a shock if Ware, whose friends in the league say is one of the hardest workers they have been around, is not elected a team captain by his new teammates when the votes get tallied later this summer.

Ware is a classic lead-by-example guy who has 117 sacks on his playing resume. He will serve an important role in the coming weeks and months, as a veteran presence on that side of the ball. And while Ware's presence will certainly benefit Von Miller, Derek Wolfe is another player who could reap the rewards as well. Wolfe had the look of an impact player as a rookie in 2012 before last season's illness landed him on injured reserve.

The Broncos have some questions to answer on the field as they get started, but they're working through some in the locker room as they move through these opening weeks of their offseason work.

"Everything is all about details when it comes to football," Ware said this week. "When you have everything in place, it really doesn't matter. It comes to the small things of guys really wanting it, the mistakes that you make and it starts this offseason with just working out and guys really giving it their all. That carries over into the season."
Any time the words "best" or "greatest" get tossed into a football sentence, it is usually little more than the starting point to an argument.

And current New York Giants cornerback Walter Thurmond, who played for the Seattle Seahawks last season, certainly cranked up one of those arguments Tuesday. As the Giants opened their offseason workouts this week, Thurmond, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal with New York in free agency, said: "I'm the best slot corner in the league. I'll say that, for sure."

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Harris Jr. could be "one of the best in the league," according to former teammate Champ Bailey.
Yes, Thurmond has a Super Bowl ring, courtesy of the Seahawks' 35-point win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. And, yes, he's a quality nickel cornerback in the fast-paced, high-contact world of a defensive back who's asked to play in the slot.

But best slot cornerback in the league? No.

For that designation let's go to a 12-time Pro Bowl selection to make the call. And this past season when former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was asked about Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr., Bailey said: "Chris has that ability to play on the outside and be one of the best in the league. He's smart, he studies, he's tough and competes on every play. But in the slot, at the nickel, he's the best in there. He can match up with anybody."

Sure, Bailey was Harris' teammate and mentor for three seasons. But Bailey doesn't say anybody is the best at anything if they're not. That's just not how he's wired.

Harris made the Broncos' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and since has simply become one of the defense's most consistent and versatile players. Last season Harris started games on the outside, playing both sides of the formation. When the Broncos went to the nickel or dime, Harris was often in the slot.

And when Bailey returned from a foot injury last season and the Broncos tried to limit his snaps by using him as a nickel corner in the slot down the stretch, Bailey said Harris was a quality resource, "a guy I can talk to about playing in there, because everything happens fast, you almost have to know what the offense is doing as much as the receivers. I definitely can learn from him about playing in there."

Harris, who is still coming back from surgery to repair his ACL, took to Twitter to state his case Tuesday. After seeing Thurmond's comments, Harris sent:
Harris, who was an unrestricted free agent, signed his one-year, $2.187 million tender and is rehabbing at the Broncos' complex. The Broncos expect him to be ready for the start of the season.

He will be the starter in one of the outside cornerback positions, with Aqib Talib in the other. But when the Broncos go to their specialty packages, Harris is again expected to get most of the reps in the slot. The Broncos hope Kayvon Webster, a 2013 draft pick, is ready for more work in the defense, but Webster would play in an outside spot when the Broncos go to their specialty looks, leaving Harris to bump down inside when offenses go with three or four wide receivers.
When ESPN The Magazine and Sportingintelligence went to work to see who is showing whom the money in professional sports around the globe, the Denver Broncos did not check in as one of the biggest spenders on the big blue marble.

Not that owner Pat Bowlen would agree, having used up most of the cash on hand in recent weeks with the Broncos' aggressive spending binge in free agency. But in 2013 The Magazine/Sportingintelligence found the Broncos were 125th among professional sports franchises around the world in average spending per player ($2,213,884).

The Broncos were the fourth-highest ranked NFL team in per-player spending, but still two spots behind their Denver sports brethren, the NHL's Colorado Avalanche ($2.225 million average per player).

The figures are salaries only, and do not include endorsements or appearance fees. The figures used for the Broncos and other NFL teams show that signing bonuses and roster bonuses were used in the totals; players who signed new deals before the 2013 season ranked far higher than if just their base salary had been used.

But perhaps the item that will come as a bit of a surprise to folks in the Rocky Mountain region is the Broncos sit a smooth 63 spots behind their other neighbors downtown, Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies. The Rockies, whose fans routinely lament that the team's ownership is not committed to winning, were 62nd in the global survey, having spent an average of $3.688 million per player in 2013.

Overall it was Manchester City of the English Premier League that led the way in spending at an average of $8,109,912 per player in '13, just ahead of the Yankees ($8,031,948) and the Dodgers ($7,778,336). The first NFL team didn't check in until the Minnesota Vikings at No. 115 ($2,315,053 per player).

The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks were at No. 116 at $2,303,317 per player and the Chicago Bears were at No. 121 ($2,235,822).

Because of the number of NFL players on an active roster in a season, NFL team's total wage bill ranked much higher than its per player ranking. For example the Broncos' total wage bill in 2013 -- $117,335,842 in base salaries -- was 26th overall, behind only the Seahawks, Bears and Vikings among NFL teams.

For Broncos individual players, quarterback Peyton Manning and his $25 million in 2013 led the way. It was by far the largest total on the team -- left tackle Ryan Clady was next at $15 million after signing a five-year contract extension just before the 2013 season. Manning's $25 million salary, in addition to bonuses, placed him, the survey said, tied for 16th in the world among individual athletes. That total did not include Manning's extensive endorsement income with major deals with companies like Gatorade, Buick and Papa John's. Broncos officials, however, put Manning's compensation at $20 million for 2013, a total that included a $5 million advance on future salary.

The survey shows the team spent an average of $2,213,884 per player, but the Broncos had 17 players -- or 32.1 percent of the roster -- receive at least $2 million in cash payouts in 2013. Just three -- Manning, Clady and Champ Bailey -- received at least $10 million. In the 2014 season only Manning, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib are scheduled to receive cash payouts of at least $10 million by season's end, including base salary, signing and other bonuses.

Broncos draft rewind: 2013

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
As the guy at the top of the football flow chart for the Denver Broncos for the last three seasons, John Elway has now overseen three drafts for the team.

The Broncos have made 23 picks in those three drafts and found seven full-time starters. Denver hopes to be add to that total this season if things go as planned in May.

But let’s go inside each of those three drafts to see how things have gone and where they are headed.

Today: 2013.

First pick: Sylvester Williams, 28th overall. When the Broncos selected him last April they saw an every-down option, a potentially disruptive interior pass rusher and a player also strong enough to play with power in run defense as well.

Given Williams’ personal history -- a stint working on an assembly line in a factory before deciding to walk on to play football in junior college -- the Broncos also saw a player with plenty of room to grow on the developmental curve to go with the work ethic that put him in the a position to be a first-round pick.

With Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson both having ended up on injured reserve last season, Williams went from being inactive on game day three times in the season’s first nine games to starting the team’s last four games of the regular season and three playoff games.

Starters: 1.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack DempseyBroncos running back Montee Ball wasn't technically a starter last season, but that should change in 2014.
With those seven starts in 2013, Williams was the only Broncos player from last April’s draft class to open that many games. He is the only "starter" in the group by the letter of the law at the moment.

But running back Montee Ball (second round) will be the second starter as soon as the Broncos open their offseason workouts. Ball, with 312 snaps this past season, actually played more overall than Williams (296 snaps) and finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 559 yards.

Williams and Ball will continue to lead this draft class. With the Broncos expected to add some wrinkles -- and attention -- to the run game, Ball will have the potential for a breakout season.

Best value pick: At the moment it’s Ball. As the 58th player selected in the 2013 draft, Ball was the classic example of production over measurables in the pre-draft process.

He didn’t run as well as many of the other running backs on the board, but he plays faster, and showed good instincts with the ball. A lot of players talk about what needs to be done. Ball actually put in the time and effort to do those things. Ball improved in pass protection, boding well for the future. Despite few opportunities as a receiver in the run-first Wisconsin offense, he will function just fine catching the ball in the league.

Now’s the time: The Broncos expect and need Williams to take a significant jump this season. There are few positions -- other than quarterback -- where it is more difficult to move quickly into the lineup and have an impact as an NFL rookie.

NFL offensive guards are far stronger, move better and play smarter so the transition for the defensive tackle can be tough because there isn’t much room to work in the middle of the field. So once a defensive tackle is shut out of the play it is difficult for him to win the advantage back.

Williams flashed the ability to consistently win position off the snap down the stretch. If he takes the usual step between a rookie and second season, he should be one of the starters on the interior.

Gone: WR Tavarres King. The Broncos believed King, who had played in a school-record 56 games at Georgia, had the physical skills to go with some on-field maturity to get into their rotation as a rookie.

And King flashed those skills in camp, but he also showed a little too much ego and attitude for the Broncos’ liking at times, so they put him on the practice squad. But after a one-week move to the active roster last October, the Broncos tried to get him through waivers and back on the practice squad to bring Von Miller back from his six-game suspension.

King was signed by the Carolina Panthers, but did not play in any games last season. That hole in the draft class means the Broncos will be inclined to take a receiver out of this draft's exceptionally deep class.

More to come? Though the Broncos will give a long look to the cornerbacks in this year’s draft, cornerback Kayvon Webster (third round) will have the opportunity to earn plenty of playing time in the nickel and dime packages moving into the season.

With Champ Bailey's departure and Chris Harris Jr. still coming back from ACL surgery, Webster will have to be in the mix.

Also, defensive end Quanterus Smith (fifth round) did not play as a rookie after the Broncos placed him on injured reserve as training camp drew to a close. Smith, who had a three-sack game against an Alabama offensive line loaded with NFL draft picks in his senior season at Western Kentucky, had torn his ACL in his last collegiate season.

The Broncos tried him in the rotation in camp, but decided to move him to the IR in an attempt to bring him back at full speed this year. With Miller still working through his return from December ACL surgery, the Broncos could use Smith to come out of the gate strong.

Smith, at 255 pounds, is slightly undersized to play the power left end spot, but could have some opportunities to play there as Miller works his way back.

The best way to get the best answers is to ask somebody who knows. Not somebody who just says they know, or acts like they know, but those who really know.

My dad worked for the railroad for several decades. Up early, home late, holidays, weekends, whatever, the trains always had to be on time, the boxcars always had places they needed to be.

"People need their groceries," he always used to say.

In the piles of questions I once fired his way in the years gone by because he really knew about so many things, there were always a few about if he liked his job or not, if he hated working Christmas or if he ever got yelled at by anybody.

And one of the items he left me with was, “A job isn’t everything you are or you’re gonna be, but you can tell the people who take pride in their work, right away, no matter what it is.’’

Count Champ Bailey as one of those people.

And after 10 seasons around Bailey in Denver, and a few more years around some others equally as gifted in their own ways, one of the things that is clear is a person simply cannot survive 15 years and beyond as a professional football player without some luck, a pile of talent and pride in their work.

Sure, the money can be great. And for those with some star power, the fame and fortune are life changing.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWith his experience, the Saints will be looking to Champ Bailey for more than just on-field production.
But when Bailey agreed to a two-year deal with the New Orleans Saints on Friday, it put his 16th season on deck. And 16 seasons for a cornerback puts you on the shortest of lists. Bailey got there because he began his career with immense talent, fluid athleticism, unshakable confidence and a willingness to study.

He has learned the game -- he routinely cites Deion Sanders and Darrell Green, two of his early teammates in Washington as important mentors -- he has adjusted to every tweak of the rulebook and every "point of emphasis" given to the league’s officiating department to take away more and more of what defensive backs could do in coverage. He's worked through injuries and through an almost annual change in his team’s defensive coordinator until he got Jack Del Rio in back-to-back seasons in his last two years in Denver.

Bailey, who has been named to the Pro Bowl 12 times, waited 15 seasons to play in his first Super Bowl to close out this past season, but the foot injury that hounded him for much of 2013 robbed him of some of what he could do to try to get the ring he covets. It was an odd scene, watching the Seahawks pick on Bailey in the Super Bowl.

There were many years when nobody threw his way, ever. So much so he said, "Some games you’re out there just doing sprints."

And while his place in his era, at his position, will be argued, Bailey has not only been one of the best ever in coverage, he has been the best tackler of the "shutdown cornerbacks" of his generation. He has played the run when others wouldn’t, so much so he once blew out his shoulder making a run-play tackle on the dirt of what was then the Florida Marlins’ infield and has worn a brace on the shoulder since.

Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer once called Bailey "not just a great tackler, but an elite tackler … one of the best I’ve ever seen or anybody else will ever see."

He should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, with 10 interceptions and in his decade on the Front Range he saw the Broncos bobble three spectacular chances to win a Super Bowl in 2005, 2012 and 2013 with losses in the AFC Championship Game, the divisional round and Super Bowl XLVIII, respectively.

The Broncos made the tough call when they released Bailey right before the start of free agency. “Time to move on’’ is how the team put it.

"I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me and our organization," head coach John Fox said last week. "… I’ll miss him, we’ll miss him, it’s a business, it happens."

The Broncos never really postured that they were going to bring Bailey back in any fashion -- Bailey said they didn’t make any sort of offer for a pay cut or a change of position when they released him -- but as long as Bailey was unsigned the door was still cracked a hair in the minds of some of the team’s faithful.

The door is closed all the way now. But five years or so after Bailey retires the Broncos will put his name up in the team’s Ring of Fame and he will be in one of those first-ballot discussions for the Hall of Fame.

But first, Bailey will join the Saints, and how they use him remains to be seen. Will he line up on the outside, feeling healthier than he did this past season, or will Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan find some kind of safety-nickel corner role for him?

No matter the task at hand, there will be pride and there will be work. And everyone else in the defensive backs’ meeting room should be ready to ask a lot of questions.

Because those players likely won't ever have a chance to sit next to a player like Bailey again.
The Denver Broncos watch the recoveries of all of their surgically-repaired players with great interest, but the recovery timetable of one of those players will have the most significant impact on the kind of defense the Broncos will play in the 2014 season.

Is it Von Miller? Well, the Broncos certainly want their Pro Bowl linebacker back to his 2012 production level-self when he returns from ACL surgery because an elite edge rusher is a foundation player in roster building. But, no, it's not him.

Is it Derek Wolfe? The Broncos would like Wolfe, who did not play after suffering seizure-like symptoms in late November, to return to their defensive line rotation and be the impactful player up front they believed he could be when they took him in the second round of the 2012 draft. But, no, it's not him.

It's cornerback Chris Harris Jr. By all accounts Harris Jr. is progressing well from his ACL surgery. Harris signed his one-year tender offer this week. The one-year deal, now guaranteed since Harris Jr. has signed it, is worth $2.187 million in the coming season.

The Broncos had placed a second-round pick on Harris Jr. as compensation had he signed an offer sheet from another team. But the Broncos had the right to match any offer Harris Jr. would have received from another team and would have quickly done so had anybody else tried to sign him.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
John Leyba/Getty ImagesChris Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.
But in a pass-happy league, Harris Jr.'s ability to play both outside at cornerback and inside in the slot against any receiver makes him a rare player in the league.

In fact there are some in the league who believe, after a franchise quarterback, the cornerback who can play effectively down inside at the nickel spot may be the most difficult to find. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway says there is only a short list to work from when you look at draft prospects each year.

“And that's where it's really getting difficult, and maybe the most valuable guy right now is the guy who can come down and play in the slot,'' said ESPN's Herm Edwards, a former NFL defensive back who has also coached the secondary and called plays on defense in the league. “When you get that guy he can play a long time. He's got to do everything, a unique, valuable guy, who can cover, blitz, tackle and play outside and inside and do all of that while being technically sound.''

It is how Harris Jr. has gone from inexplicably going undrafted as a rookie in 2012 to such a key role in the Broncos' defense. He's ultra competitive, quick, rebounds from the few mistakes he does make quickly and can cover bigger receivers outside as well as the smaller, fast-twitch quick players on the inside.

Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, said the nickel corner has one of the toughest jobs because things happen quickly in the middle of the field and there is no benefit of a sideline “where you can force a guy to cut him off from the ball. Inside you're always in the open and if you make a mistake the quarterback can pounce fast.''

“When you play outside the boundary is your friend, you're always playing to a boundary,'' Edwards said. “It's there to help you. When you play the nickel you're in the middle of the field, and there's always a void in the defense between the numbers, between the hashes, there's always an empty spot. If a guy beats you there, you're done on defense the guy catches it and now he's running ... And it all happens fast in there.''

It's why Harris Jr. was easily the Broncos' most important restricted free agent and also may have been their most important player from their own roster who was poised for some kind of free agency. Replacing Harris would have likely, in the opinion of many personnel executives around the league, been more difficult for the Broncos than replacing Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles or Shaun Phillips -- all players who signed elsewhere.

Harris Jr. is still on track to return to full speed from ACL surgery -- an injury he suffered in the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers this past January -- and projects as a starter at corner alongside Aqib Talib. And while Talib has played inside at times in his career, Harris Jr. still projects to move into the slot when the Broncos go to the nickel and if they haven't matched Talib on a receiver who has moved into the slot to try and escape him.

Elway said last week at the NFL meetings that the timeframe for Harris Jr. to get back to full speed was not the same as other players who have had ACL surgery because Harris Jr. did not damage any other ligaments or cartilage and the ACL was not completely torn.

“But when you have that guy -- and I've coached guys who it took a year and half to even get comfortable in the nickel role -- and you can rely on that guy to move wherever you need him to, you have to keep him,'' Edwards said. “Because if you don't you're going to have to spend a lot of time trying to get yourself another one.''
There were times, especially late in Mike Shanahan’s 14-year tenure as the Denver Broncos' head coach and in Josh McDaniels’ two-year run with the Broncos, the team would release a player or two or five without so much as a ripple of interest from anyone else in the league after the Broncos had cast them into the market.

For the moment, anyway, those days are past.

Due to a variety of reasons, those Broncos players who formally became unrestricted free agents Tuesday were not on the Broncos' to-do list as an organization this time around. But three of the now former Broncos were certainly popular selections elsewhere once the bidding opened.

So as the first week of free agency draws to a close, here’s a scorecard of the major Broncos’ departures thus far, including signings, releases and in one, case, retirement:

G Chris Kuper

Where did he go?: Announced his retirement.

How it happened: Kuper had tried to battle back from a left ankle dislocation in the final game of the 2011 regular season and a serious infection that followed a year later after another procedure on the ankle.

He was a high-character player who was one of the Broncos' best when he was healthy, a physical, technically-sound lineman who always handled his business. Kuper wasn’t part of the lineup very often over the last two seasons -- six starts in last two years combined -- but his leadership, work ethic and day-to-day approach will be missed.

CB Champ Bailey

Where did he go?: Released.

How it happened: It has long been true in the league it can be difficult for a player to return to the locker room where he has been one of the Alpha players for so long when his role, or pay, or both have been reduced. It’s why many guys simply choose to sign elsewhere for a deal that was similar to the one they were offered as a pay cut by their former team.

And Bailey, with a $10 million salary cap figure for the 2014 season, after playing in just five games last season because of a foot injury, was facing that kind of scenario. But the Broncos took even a more severe approach and didn’t offer him an alternative. They simply decided to move on.

Bailey is a future Hall of Famer, a future Broncos Ring of Famer, a Broncos captain for a decade and certainly one of the team’s best-ever players. It was tough on both sides for that to end the way it did, but players rarely get to choose their football fate when their career clocks wind down. NFL personnel executives worry about the condition of Bailey’s foot and watched the Seattle Seahawks repeatedly target him in the Broncos’ Super Bowl loss.

So while Bailey has said he wants to play in 2014, it will bear watching to when a team is ready to offer him the opportunity.

LB Wesley Woodyard

Where did he go?: Signed with Tennessee Titans.

How it happened: The Broncos felt Woodyard, a captain for all six of his seasons in Denver, either on defense or special teams, was not the same player when he returned from a neck injury this past season.

It was a tough contract year for Woodyard. First, the Broncos put him at middle linebacker in the preseason, a tough assignment for the undersized Woodyard and then they benched him in the base defense down the stretch and in the postseason when the Broncos believed he was not holding up in the run game after missing two games with his injury.

The Broncos didn’t really make an attempt to retain him, and even if they had it wouldn’t have been for the kind of contract he got with the Titans -- four years, $16 million overall with a $3 million signing bonus. Woodyard will play one of the inside linebacker spots in the Titans’ 3-4 look and if healthy should have a quality year in Ray Horton's defense.

WR Eric Decker

Where did he go?: Signed with New York Jets.

How it happened: Decker got caught, in a bit of bad timing, in the Broncos' plan for the future. The Broncos face the prospect of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the team's top wideout, and tight end Julius Thomas, a top-shelf playmaker in waiting, to be poised for free agency after the 2014 season.

To pay Decker big dollars now to go with big dollars to the two Thomas’ next year is to have too much salary cap room taken up by players who have the same job in the offense. Also, the Broncos saw Decker as a No. 2 receiver who had bouts of inconsistency at times, even in his back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with 24 receiving touchdowns in the last two years combined.

Decker had 11 drops in 2012 to go with seven this past season. He had five 100-yard games, but also had games of 32, 50, 42, 5 and 42 yards receiving along the way. In the Broncos’ three postseason games he finished with two catches for 32 yards in the divisional round against the San Diego Chargers and with one catch, for 6 yards, in the Super Bowl.

In the Broncos' minds there had to be more consistency to even consider an offer to Decker and in the end no formal offer was made. And despite the many good things Decker did in the Broncos' record-setting offense, the Jets, and their faithful, will expect more after a five-year, $36.3 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.

G Zane Beadles

Where did he go?: Signed with Jacksonville Jaguars.

How it happened: Beadles played in every game of his time with the Broncos -- 64 in all, with 62 starts. He’s just 27 years old, a home-grown player who was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft.

But the Broncos invested $26 million last March in Louis Vasquez at right guard and signed left tackle Ryan Clady to a five-year, $52.5 million deal in 2013. That’s a lot of investment in back-to-back years in two spots up front.

And Beadles was looking for something on the order of what he got from the Jaguars -- five years, $30 million, with $13 million guaranteed -- more than the Broncos would have been willing to entertain. So while Beadles is smart, assignment sound and performed well much of the time in the multiple schemes the team played in his time in Denver, the Broncos are of the opinion they want to be more physical up front and that Beadles had difficulty at times with the power players across from him. To that end they will consider moving right tackle Orlando Franklin inside into Beadles’ left guard spot.

In that scenario Chris Clark would move to right tackle with Vinston Painter, a 2014 draft pick, a possibility down the road as well. With those in-house options on hand, the Broncos simply chose not to bid because they weren’t going to go nearly as high as somebody else would, and did.
Leadership is a quirky, often transient, item in the NFL. Those who build teams consistently say they want it, those who coach teams consistently say they can’t win without it.

Leadership is almost always talent driven, however, as well as health related at times. Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith, a Ring of Fame member for the team, may have put it best when he said “nobody listens to you if you can’t play and you can’t lead in the training room either -- you have to be on the field.’’

And it’s all true.

In the last week the Broncos officially put themselves in a transition period in that department as they move through the opening days of free agency and into the draft. Because in the last seven days three of the most respected, perspective-filled, rational voices in the locker room have moved on.

Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection and an annual pick by his teammates as a captain, was released. Wesley Woodyard, the only player in franchise history not named Floyd Little to be a team captain in each of his first six years with the team, is an unrestricted free agent the Broncos watched hit the open market Tuesday.

And Chris Kuper, a roll-up-his-sleeves player who was simply universally respected in the locker room, has retired after two years of trying to battle back from a gruesome ankle injury he suffered in the final regular-season game of the 2011 season. In that 2011 season, Bailey, Kuper and Woodyard were among the Broncos’ five team captains named for the year.

The other two were Kyle Orton, who would lose his starting job aboard the Tebow Express later that season and Brian Dawkins, who retired after the ’11 season. So, just two seasons after those five players walked to mid-field to take the coin flip on many weeks, none will be in the locker room for the Broncos in 2014. That, too, is the nature of things in professional football.

Broncos’ football boss John Elway has consistently said “getting the locker room right’’ is the biggest item on the to-do list for any playoff hopeful. What that really means is the most talented players also have to be the most responsible in how they approach things on the field.

Woodyard and Bailey were team captains this past season, so that leaves tackle Ryan Clady (Wes Welker took his spot when Clady went to injured reserve last season), safety David Bruton and quarterback Peyton Manning remaining among the players initially chosen by their teammates as team captains in 2013.

Manning leads by his other-worldly work ethic, his production and his status as a future Hall of Fame quarterback. But in the locker room the younger Broncos players, some 15 or 16 years his junior or so, see him more as a coach-authority figure. That presents a different dynamic at times.

The Broncos will need players like linebacker Danny Trevathan, running back Montee Ball, and receivers Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas to step to the forefront this time around. Ego, internal bickering and the relentless quest for credit for what’s been done derail as many teams as injuries along the way.

It matters what happens in the locker room when none of the supervisors are around. And as the Broncos write the checks and make the picks in the coming weeks and months, it will matter how well they did finding the players who put the C on their jerseys as well.
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 then the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.

Plenty of folks in the league say they 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 back

Monday: Linebacker

[+] EnlargeJairus Byrd
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsJairus Byrd may be one of the best safeties available but he may also be one of the most expensive.
Why it's an issue: For most of the 2013 season the Broncos carried 11 defensive backs on their roster showing both a you-can-never-have-enough philosophy to go with the practical side of things. And the practical side was they simply needed that many bodies to play all of the mix-and-match groupings they were forced to play as well as deal with Champ Bailey's foot injury that kept him out of 11 games.

But no fewer than six players at the position will be either restricted or unrestricted free agents this week, including cornerback Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Mike Adams while the Broncos have already released Bailey after a decade with the team. And on a defense where there is plenty of uncertainty about who will play where, the secondary is potentially where things are most in flux.

Chris Harris Jr., who was down to down, game to game, the Broncos' best defensive back last season, is also coming back from surgery to repair his ACL. The ligament was not torn all the way through in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers and he suffered no cartilage damage, so the Broncos are confident his return will come as quickly as possible.

But until he is back in the lineup it is yet another question among many the team faces at this spot on the depth chart.

The Broncos have tried to get Rodgers-Cromartie back in the fold since they met with his agent at the scouting combine last month, but because he is one of the more experienced starters at the position while stil one of the youngest available -- at 27 years old -- he will have some demand in the open market.

The best out there: Overall, the feeling among many personnel evaluators around the league is there are some potential starters at both safety and cornerback set to hit the market with the potential of a Pro Bowl selection or two available as well. But, as always, to get the top-tier players it will take top-tier money early in the bidding, sometimes even a little more than expected.

For the Broncos Antoine Bethea, Chris Clemons, T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd are the best safeties set to be on the market. While Bethea is the best of the group, Clemons is a fairly under-the-radar player compared to the others. He is versatile and has played every bit as well at times as the others on the list.

Ward is a player Broncos' pro personnel director Tom Heckert knows well from Heckert's time as Browns' general manager. Byrd wants double-take money and turned down what was believed to be a three-year offer from the Buffalo Bills.

Byrd also has had some foot issues -- he missed five games this past season with plantar fasciitis in both feet -- that would need a look for any team willing to dive in for the kind of contract Byrd hopes to receive.

At cornerback Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the better players available. Rodgers-Cromartie played at a far higher level for the Broncos than he did for the Eagles in the previous two seasons, but he still suffered some concentration lapses and took himself off the field too many times. These are two things he has to address before he can be considered a no-question No. 1 player at the position.

Among the other cornerbacks available, Tarell Brown (49ers), Aqib Talib (Patriots), Vontae Davis (Colts), Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers), Alterraun Verner (Titans), Sam Shields (Packers) and the Seahawks' Walter Thurmond lead the way.

Munnerlyn played for Broncos head coach John Fox in Carolina, but projects more as a slot cornerback than a full-time option on the outside, as does Thurmond. Brown, however, is a three-year starter for the 49ers who missed some time this past season with a rib injury.

Brown is also 29 and would fit the Broncos defense. Verner just finished the contract he signed as a rookie so is one of the younger options expected to be in the market – he's just 25 – and coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Shields is just 26 and the Green Bay Packers had tried to get a deal in recent weeks, but Shields and his representatives looked determined to see what his value would be on the open market. Shields played this past season on a one-year, $2.1 million tender he signed as a restricted free agent.

Talib's is an experienced starter, injury history will concern some.

Bottom line: It will be a stunner if the Broncos don't dive in at this position with possible signings at both safety and cornerback if they get a chance at the right combination.

In an NFL locker room, where there will always be far fewer nameplates than people who would like them, there might be no higher standing, no more significant sign of respect than the double locker -- two lockers, side by side, assigned to one player.

Not just some extra room for dirty laundry, or to store another box of shoes from a zealous sneaker-company rep, or because a roster move was made on the player with the locker next to you. No, two lockers, awarded for service and standing.

This past season the Broncos had two players with two lockers. QB Peyton Manning and CB Champ Bailey. Membership in the future Hall of Fame club, it seems, has its privileges.

Yet Denver executive vice president John Elway and coach John Fox looked one of those players in the eye -- Bailey -- and told him his services were no longer needed. The Broncos confirmed the move Thursday after league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Wednesday that it was imminent. The end is almost never neat and tidy in the NFL, even if you’ve done what Bailey has done in his career.

The 35-year-old, just four weeks after his first appearance in a Super Bowl, was told he no longer fit in the Broncos plans. Not a little, not a lot, just not at all.

No doubt it was a grueling decision for the Broncos. Fox is a former defensive backs coach who has routinely lauded Bailey with all-time status at the position. And Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, has routinely said Bailey will have a gold jacket of his own someday.

But a Super Bowl was lost, by 35 points no less, and the march of time is merciless, no matter how much talent has been involved along the way.

Elway has always promised that tough decisions would be made in pursuit of a third Lombardi trophy for the Denver franchise. Decisions made in the “best interest of the Denver Broncos."

The Broncos did not need the salary-cap space that moving Bailey’s $10 million cap figure off the books will provide. They had no legitimate financial pressure to make the move, no immediate, pressing need to talk to Bailey about a contract reduction with the threat of his release hanging over the proceedings, not with the cap having settled in at $133 million per team.

Even Bailey’s $1 million roster bonus -- due March 15, and smaller than his $4.5 million bonus in 2011, his $3 million bonus in 2012, and his $1.25 million bonus last season -- did not offer any real incentive to make a move.

No, this was a football decision, made about one of the greatest players to wear the franchise’s uniform, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection who is headed for the team’s Ring of Fame after his 10 seasons in Denver.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, spent the past 10 seasons with Denver.
The Broncos' football decision-makers, like many personnel executives in the league, simply decided that what they saw this past season, in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens two Januarys ago, and in the Super Bowl loss last month offered reason enough. That a player who once was a one-man no-fly zone for opposing offenses is now a target, the guy opposing QBs went on the hunt to find as they went through their progressions.

Bailey played a career-low five regular-season games this past season because of a foot injury. In a balky return to the lineup against the Chiefs in early December, he said he didn’t have confidence in his foot or his play. And Bailey without confidence was unheard of, unseen, really, before that.

Confidence was always as big a part of Bailey's football life as the air in his lungs. He respected the best players he faced, played without the constant on-field, me-first soundtrack. Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith once said, "Champ doesn't say anything because he doesn't have to. He knows you know you already didn't get the ball." Bailey mentored the young players around him and prepared -- even with the injury that kept him out of the lineup most of this past season -- the same way in his last season as he did in his first.

Former Denver coach Mike Shanahan, after he sent running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins in 2004 for Bailey and a draft pick, said Bailey would be a franchise changer for the Broncos. That Portis was good, very good, but that Bailey was great, as in forever great.

Bailey will certainly want to play next season -- he has said as much in recent days -- unless he has a change of heart or the league’s other 31 teams force him into a change of heart.

The Broncos should have made the Super Bowl in 2005, and he should have been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. The Broncos should have played far better in last month’s Super Bowl, and there should be some other way for a run like Bailey’s to end.

But life’s tapestry is full of all kinds of things, good and bad. Bailey has routinely shrugged off the bad, much like opponents' touchdowns, as things that happen. His position? You prepare, put yourself in the best position and hope for the best.

Even with the pile of Pro Bowls and a decade largely filled with on-field excellence, Bailey has always been a pragmatist when it came to how things worked in the league. He had seen too many players come and go, played for too many defensive coordinators -- a double-digit total, with seven in Denver alone -- to believe anything was forever for anybody.

Even during this past season, Bailey offered this on a Friday afternoon: “When they’re done with you, they’re going to be done with you; when it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on. For them and for you. That’s how it is in this league. It’s business when you come in to a team, it’s business when you go. You just try to make the part in between go as long as you can and be as good as it can be."

Bailey did that, did all of that.

A combine recap for Broncos

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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.