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
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.