Denver Broncos: Julian Edelman

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 11. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes teams should shop for need in free agency and take the best player available in the draft.

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 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 such as Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.

[+] EnlargeEric Decker
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliEric Decker could be on his way out of Denver as a free agent.
Today: Wide receiver

Saturday: Defensive backs

Why it’s an issue: The Broncos are a half-and-half affair at the position at the moment. As in two of the top four wide receivers the team had on its 53-man roster this past season will be unrestricted free agents in the coming days.

Eric Decker and Andre Caldwell are each headed to the open market, leaving Demaryius Thomas and Welker as the only two players at the position on the current roster who caught passes in games in 2013. Kick returner Trindon Holliday does practice with the receivers during the week, but had just one catch for seven yards this past season.

Decker has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback and has 24 touchdowns receptions in the past two seasons combined. Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green are the only wide receivers in the league to have had at least 10 touchdown catches in both 2012 and 2013.

But the Broncos see Decker as a No. 2 receiver who likely sees himself as a No. 1 with the desire for the paycheck to go with it. And the Broncos believe they need to plan for next year’s free-agency season when Demaryius Thomas and Broncos tight end Julius Thomas are both slated to be unrestricted free agents. Caldwell was a rotational player -- 16 catches this past season to go with three touchdowns -- but with Welker having suffered two more concussions this past season it is a spot on the depth chart that needs some attention.

The biggest hurdle, however, in the Broncos’ search for replacements, whether it be in the draft or in free agency, is the fact they need players who think quickly and can work through a complicated playbook without mistakes in game-day situations. Manning calls plenty of the game at the line of scrimmage and the receivers have to make the changes with him. The offense is built on timing and moving quickly and not everybody is a fit in that situation.

The best out there: Seattle’s Golden Tate is not quite as big as Decker physically, but he's a productive player who would flourish with a quarterback like Manning if he could get up to speed quickly in the call-it-on-the-fly work the Broncos do at the line of scrimmage. Tate could also play on the outside and offer something in the return game.

The Patriots’ Julian Edelman does a job similar to Welker's in the slot, but he’s a proven player who could move to other spots in the formation and help in the return game. However, his injury history is cause for at least some pause. The Broncos know Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones all too well and Jones would offer some potential special-teams pop as well.

Carolina’s Brandon LaFell is seen as a rotational player with some upside still remaining, but he’s had just 13 touchdown catches in his career.

Bottom line: The talent pool in free agency is fairly shallow, which only enhances Decker’s ability to get a bigger deal elsewhere. The Broncos will take a look with checkbook in hand, but with a deep class waiting in the draft, there is no reason for them to overreach on a player at this point in the offseason -- especially considering Julius Thomas will be ready for more next fall.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Even as two teams that won 12 and 13 games in the regular season fell all over themselves to try to be the underdog this week -- even John Elway offered that “no one thought" the Broncos would “get by" San Diego to even get this far -- the topic of the Denver Broncos' Nov. 24 trip to Foxborough, Mass., has come up more than once in recent days.

Come up in the framework of whether the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime victory in a game the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime has any bearing on Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

The Broncos rushed for 280 yards in the game and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 344 as both teams played half a game that was decided when a punt hit Tony Carter's leg and put the Patriots in position for the game-winning field goal.

[+] EnlargeManning/Brady
AP Photo/Steven SennePeyton Manning, front, and the Broncos would just as soon forget their overtime loss against Tom Brady's New England Patriots on Nov. 24.
“Again, just like I’m sure they’re doing, you look at things, you look at matchups, you look at schemes," Broncos coach John Fox said. “But that game will have little to nothing to do with this game. Typically, they’re always different."

Well, yes and no.

Certainly, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for rarely attacking a problem the same way twice. Or at least twice the same way in such a short period of time. And some of the names have already changed in the weeks since.

Whether it was the frigid conditions -- 22 degrees at kickoff with wind gusts of up to 40 miles an hour -- or Belichick’s usual crafty ways, the Patriots held Peyton Manning to 150 passing yards.

That was by far a season low in a game in which the Broncos spent virtually the entire game in their three-wide-receiver look -- every snap but two. The Broncos did not have tight end Julius Thomas in the lineup that night -- it was one of two games Thomas missed this season with a knee injury -- and the Patriots did well in doubling Wes Welker and forcing Manning away from his usual favorites.

Eric Decker finished that game with just one reception, and Demaryius Thomas and Welker, who had three drops in the game, had four receptions each. Overall, it was the worst outing of the season for the Broncos' pass-catchers as they finished with a season-high seven drops.

“And you have to clean those things up," Decker said. “If you have opportunities to make plays, you have to make them."

Defensively, the Broncos will not face do-it-all tight end Rob Gronkowski this time around -- he’s now on injured reserve -- so the Patriots' offense will look vastly different, at least as far as intent. The Patriots have been far more run-first in their approach in recent weeks as Brady has completed 14, 14 and 13 passes in the past three games, respectively.

In the last meeting, Brady used Gronkowski to get back in the game -- Gronkowski had seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown -- and Julian Edelman finished with 110 yards on his nine receptions, including two touchdowns. The Broncos figure to use veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who did not play in the Nov. 24 game, at least some against Edelman.

“They came out and played a great second half of football, there is no doubt about that," said Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. “There is nothing else to say. They just came out and played -- they fixed what they needed to fix, and we didn’t adjust well to what they fixed. We have to be able to, when we’re up, stay up, and, if we’re down, get up on them and keep them down.”

The Broncos also fumbled five times in November, losing three on a night when the teams lost a combined six fumbles.

But, in the end, the Broncos closed out the week wanting neither to remember that sliver of history all that much nor be doomed to repeat it. They have chosen to look at Sunday’s game as its own set of circumstances with a chance at the Super Bowl at stake.

“Every game is a learning experience, but that one really taught us something," Trevathan said. “It is a different day, a different attitude and a different mindset. We’re going to go out here and do what we have to do to get a win."

“You look at it, but they’ve been through a lot to get this far, we’ve been through a lot to get this far," Bailey said. “And a month is forever, and that was a month ago, almost two months. We’re on to this one, and you don’t need any more than that."

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