2014 Team Needs: Denver Broncos
With the official start of the new league year upon us, Denver Broncos fans can begin to turn the page on a forgettable end to an unforgettable season. The reigning AFC champions enter 2014 with a record-setting offense and three consecutive AFC West division titles since General Manager John Elway took control of football operations in 2011. Not bad for an organization that had lost 22 of its previous 28 games prior to Elway’s arrival.
But, the Seattle Seahawks proved that the Broncos have work to do in all three phases of the game if they want to be Super Bowl champions. Fortunately for Denver, they already have players on the roster that fill many of their needs. Von Miller, Ryan Clady, Chris Harris, Jr., and Rahim Moore all graded in the Top 10 at their respective positions in 2012… and all missed the 2013 postseason (Harris played parts of one game). While those four players alone may not have tilted the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII in Denver’s favor, their return to health makes Elway’s job much easier as he continues to build a roster capable of winning an NFL title.
Potential Cap Casualties
After releasing future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey, the Broncos vaulted into the Top 10 of teams with the most available cap space, per overthecap.com. Here’s how they could create nearly $10m more in cap room for this season:
– Guard Chris Kuper hasn’t played a full season since 2011 and, in his last two starts, graded a combined -10.1. Though incumbent starter Zane Beadles and his -2.9 grade probably won’t return, Denver could kick starting left tackle Chris Clark (+19.7 on 1,303 snaps) inside and end up with a much cheaper, possibly better in-house option than both of them. Right tackle Orlando Franklin is often mentioned as a future guard, but he lead all offensive tackles in Pass Blocking Efficiency last season, even when factoring in his subpar Super Bowl performance. Despite Clark’s lack of experience at guard, releasing Kuper and allocating the $4.1m savings elsewhere is an obvious move.
– With Julius Thomas establishing himself as a Top 5 receiving tight end, he’ll need to get paid eventually. That could leave either Joel Dreesseen ($2.5m saved) or Jacob Tamme ($3m saved) as the odd man out. Or do you release both and team Thomas with the younger, cheaper Virgil Green, Denver’s other tight end from the 2011 draft?
– The emergence of Terrance Knighton locks him into one of the starting defensive tackle slots. At the other spot, 2013 1st-round draft pick Sylvester Williams will surely get a long look. Depending on what happens in the draft, that may not leave room for Kevin Vickerson, a two-down, mistake-prone (-7.5 penalty grade) defensive tackle on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a season-ending injury. Though his $2.3m cap number isn’t handcuffing the team by any means, Denver would still get $1.8m in cap savings.
If it weren’t for issues with a fax machine last offseason (and a pay cut request), Ravens edge rusher Elvis Dumervil—our highest-rated 3-4 OLB rushing the passer—would still be a Bronco and defensive end would be less of a need. Instead of signing Dwight Freeney (+7.7 pass rushing in 2013 prior to injury) or John Abraham (fifth in 3-4 OLB Pass Rushing Productivity), Denver chose to go with the younger, cheaper Shaun Phillips on a one-year deal. While Phillips was a force against the run, he only registered 53 total pressures in 520 pass rush snaps, good for 23rd out of 32 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends in Pass Rushing Productivity.
Derek Wolfe battled major health issues last season and thus far in his career has been a non-factor rushing the passer. Surprisingly, Denver received its most production at defensive end from Robert Ayers, one of their first round picks in 2009. After averaging a -1.2 overall grade his first four years in the league, Ayers graded at +11.6 in 2013 and led the team with 41 quarterback hurries. But, given his mediocre career overall, he’ll be allowed to test the market.
Free agent fix: Keep an eye out for Justin Tuck. Not counting when future first-ballot Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks are on the market, Elway has generally been reluctant to spend top-dollar in free agency. Therefore, don’t expect to see our top-rated free agent Michael Bennett in a Bronco uniform, though odds increased slightly with Bailey being released. While Tuck’s run defense (+11.7 in 2013) receives less publicity than his postseason pass-rush success, he brings added value like Bennett with his ability to kick inside and apply pressure.
Aside from quarterback, the strongest position on the team entering the 2013 season was cornerback. However, with Harris recovering from ACL surgery, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie an unrestricted free agent, and no more Champ, a position of strength has suddenly become a major need. Rookie Kayvon Webster showed flashes (see the Jacksonville and Indianapolis games), but at this point he provides more value on special teams.
Free agent fix: The first order of business would be to re-sign Rodgers-Cromartie, one of only four cornerbacks to grade at least +11.0 in coverage during the regular season. Moreover, he now has a year under his belt in the Broncos’ system and did not have any major off-the-field issues. None of our other Top 10 free agent corners can make all of these claims. It also wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Denver use a first round draft pick on a cornerback for the first time since Willie Middlebrooks in 2001.
While Peyton Manning can make any receiver look better, particularly when the previous quarterback can’t find a team, free agent Eric Decker deserves some credit for his improved performance during the past two seasons. Decker’s overall grade increased from +9.3 in 2012 (26th in the league) to +16.7 in 2013 (13th in the league). The improvement can be attributed in part to his more reliable hands, where he dropped just nine passes out of 104 catchable balls in 2013, compared to his 2012 totals of 12 drops from 103 catchable balls. Look for Decker to parlay these numbers into a contract Denver may be unwilling to pay, especially considering their defensive needs and that wideout Demaryius Thomas (+25.9) will merit a more expensive deal next offseason.
Free agent fix: Including playoffs, Golden Tate quietly graded better than Decker last season in pass receiving. Though he struggles as a blocker, Tate more than makes up for this weakness with his great hands (5th in WR Drop Rate; Decker was 26th) and dynamic after-the-catch ability (league-high 21 missed tackles in 2013). If that wasn’t enough, the Broncos would also be acquiring our highest graded punt returner, suddenly another position of need with Decker and Trindon Holliday possibly not returning.
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