Four key defensive players gearing up for contract years


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever he's asked about the roster decisions he faces at that moment, Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway routinely says he not only has to consider what's best in the present, but also what will be best as he looks "two, three years down the line."

Even as the Broncos go through their early sessions of their offseason program, it's already crystal clear they will face, beyond their current attempts to get a long-term deal done with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, plenty of decisions on defense when all is said and done.

Linebackers Von Miller and Danny Trevathan and defensive ends Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe -- all projected to have significant roles in the new 3-4 scheme -- are all also poised to be unrestricted free agents next March. A fifth player, linebacker Brandon Marshall, their leading tackler in 2014, will also be a restricted free agent, meaning he can receive offers from other teams the Broncos would have the opportunity to match.

And while that isn't really a "now" problem given the Broncos coaches are still trying to figure what players will play where in the new defensive scheme, it will provide a backdrop to their current work as the players look to carve out their respective portions of playing time.

"That's always in the back of your mind, you know what I'm saying?" Jackson said Wednesday. "It's a big year for me, it's my contract year, so if I said I wasn't thinking about that I'd be lying. I know what I have to do is go out here and produce and make it hard on Elway not to give it to me. But it's first things first … I'm just trying to work, stay healthy and slowly chop at getting that big deal."

It is on players' minds, of course, whether they choose to say it or not, as Jackson did. Miller, who is playing on his fifth-year option in his contract as the Broncos' first-round pick in 2011, has already outlined this offseason how he has radically changed his diet, even eschewing Gatorade, the sports-drink giant that used to pay Miller to endorse its products, in an effort to raise his level of play.

Trevathan, the team's leading tackler in 2013, is coming off a '14 season when he suffered three separate injuries to his left that eventually put him on injured reserve. He had surgery to repair the third injury, a dislocated kneecap, that officially ended his injury-marred 2014, and posts almost daily on social media his expectation of a big season to come.

Wolfe missed much of the 2013 season after he suffered seizure-like symptoms on the team's bus ride to the airport for a road trip. Last season, as he tried to regain his 2012 form, he and Jackson split snaps in the defense. As a result, after playing 84 percent of the defense's snaps in '12, Wolfe was at 67 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season. Wolfe said Wednesday he feels far better at this point in the team's offense than he did a year ago in offseason workouts and has pushed any thought of a contract down his to-do list.

"When you're winning games and having fun you're not really -- I'm not really even thinking about a contract or anything, my main goal is winning a Super Bowl," Wolfe said. "That's all I care about right now. If you win a Super Bowl everybody gets paid."

In Elway's tenure as the team's chief football decision-maker, the Broncos have chosen to let many of their high-profile free agents go elsewhere and try to replace them from within. The 2014 free agency binge was a notable exception to the homegrown approach.

This past March the team saw five players who started games with the Broncos -- Orlando Franklin, Rahim Moore, Terrance Knighton, Nate Irving and Julius Thomas -- sign elsewhere and wide receiver Wes Welker still remains a free agent as well. The Broncos chose to use their available money to re-sign cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in December and then re-signed Virgil Green this March.

"It's a business, man," Wolfe said. "It's just the way it goes. You can't pick and choose your friends and who's going to stay and what's going to happen. You kind of roll with it, we'll make do with what we've got."

Or as Jackson put it; "Stuff happens upstairs and if you try to think about what goes on in those offices upstairs with Elway and them, you'll go crazy. I just try to worry about what I can do out here."