- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.