Broncos Offseason Evaluation: Rebuilding or Replacing?

Before free agency started, I was planning on doing a preview for every position on the Broncos that was about to undergo some addition or subtraction. I made it through a couple of these and was determined to power through the rest, but then a funny thing happened. Teams were given an unofficial window to negotiate with players the weekend before free agency, during which they could discuss terms with players but couldn’t actually sign them. That didn’t prevent a flurry of “agreements” from being announced during that window, as teams were practically backing up the money trucks to the front lawns of the players they coveted and took full advantage of the leeway that the league offered to them.

Once it became abundantly clear that A) the Broncos were not going to be major players in free agency and B) they wouldn’t even be resigning the majority of their own free agents, it just didn’t make a lot of sense to move forward with my initial plan. It’s nice when life provides you with an excuse to be lazy, but I still feel like I owe you guys something after we promised that there would be all those others posts to look forward to. Thanks a lot NFL, you made me feel guilty.

Here is a rundown of what the Broncos have been doing so far in the new league year, and why most of it isn’t nearly as bad as you may think.

Tight End

The case of Julius Thomas boils down to a scenario where one side was looking for a lucrative contract with a lot of guaranteed money and the other side was reluctant to make a commitment to a player it didn’t trust to live up to said contract. That’s a bit of an oversimplification of what happened, but it more or less explains why Thomas is now on the Jaguars and not the Broncos. Let me be clear – I don’t hold it against Thomas for taking the best deal he could find. That is ultimately the point of free agency for the players, is it not? It was all of the pointless drama that ensued concerning Thomas and his father, who aired their grievances with the Broncos in public and seemed utterly incapable of attempting to amicably depart from Denver. I don’t really have anything against Thomas and it would be nice if he helped lift Jacksonville out of obscurity, but the whole situation just left a bad taste in my mouth. Jacob Tamme at least considered staying in Denver, but chose to move on to Atlanta after being promised a fresh start and more playing time.

The Broncos were able to use the money they could have spent on Thomas, who remains a force in the red zone but has well-documented struggles with his durability and run-blocking, on keeping fellow 2011 draft pick Virgil Green and procuring the services of Owen Daniels. Considering he has never played for any team without the tutelage of coach Gary Kubiak, Daniels can help Green learn the new offense and fill the veteran void left by Tamme, but whether or not the Broncos miss Thomas will largely depend on Green’s ability to assume a larger role in the passing game. Personally, I think he will flourish and form a rapport with Peyton Manning early in the season, much like Thomas did when he emerged on the scene. The Broncos also signed Jon Don Duncan, who has a fantastic name and could serve as an H-Back in the offense. Or he might not even make the team. We’ll see.

Offensive Line

If you read any of those positional previews I did (you know, all two of them), then you are aware that I predicted that the Broncos would spend some big money trying to fix their offensive line. Names like Rodney Hudson, Bryan Bulaga and Derek Newton were some of my potential targets, and I thought the Broncos would land at least a couple of those guys. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Pegboards, where I follow up my frequently inept football analysis with mildly amusing self-ridicule. Bulaga and Newton resigned with their respective teams, Hudson chased the money to Oakland and even our own Orlando Franklin ditched us for San Diego after we didn’t even “humble” him with an offer. Yeah, thanks a lot for the spot on predictions, Jesse.

So what the hell, John Elway? What are you doing to reinforce your beleaguered offensive line? Why didn’t you keep Franklin or at least lowball him to show that you still care? And why did you so promptly ensure that my foot went directly in my mouth? Well, the answer to all of this is that the Broncos already have two high priced veterans on the line in Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez, and it simply wasn’t frugal to pay top of the market value for anyone who was available. Instead, Elway will build around Clady and Vasquez with promising youngsters and cost-effective veterans, with the hope that Kubiak and his staff can develop all that raw talent and bring out the best in everyone involved via direct competition. It’s a crazy strategy, I know, but if anyone has a track record for churning out quality offensive lineman from unexpected places, it’s Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.

As it stands, Michael Schofield will complete with Chris Clark at right tackle, Matt Paradis, Manny Ramirez and Ben Garland are all in the mix at center, and Garland and newcomer Shelley Smith will get a look at left guard. Chris Myers or Will Montgomery could still be brought in to help stabilize things and this doesn’t even include the draft, which will undoubtedly augment the group even further. Back away from the ledge, people. Elway believes that his new coach can put together a line that will simultaneously clear lanes for the running game and keep Peyton Manning upright. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Defensive Line 

Terrance Knighton was probably the hardest loss to stomach so far, if only because it really didn’t have to go down the way that it did. Pot Roast egregiously overestimated his value on the open market and in doing so, he alienated the teams that many believed would be his most persistent suitors. The Broncos and the Raiders both declined to meet Knighton’s asking price, which should have been an immediate red flag for everyone else in pursuit. He wound up signing with the Redskins for far less than he thought he’d get, and that’s what sucks the most. The Broncos easily could have retained Knighton for what the Redskins paid, but somewhere along the way he burned that bridge and Elway had already moved on. Is it a matter of pride? Are the rumors of Knighton’s weight problems well-founded? Or do the Broncos simply believe that Sylvester Williams is finally ready to realize his potential and become an impact player? I guess we’re going to find out.

Regardless of the reason behind Knighton’s departure, the Broncos have some work to do in the middle of that defensive line. Mitch Unrein followed Franklin to San Diego and that leaves Marvin Austin as the only other candidate for nose tackle on the team. The Broncos did manage to pick up veteran Vance Walker, who will back up Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson at defensive end.

Inside Linebacker 

There wasn’t a lot the Broncos could do here in free agency. Some people wanted Nate Irving back, but his deal with the Colts could potentially pay him more than what Corey Nelson, Steven Johnson, Todd Davis and Lamin Barrow will make COMBINED in 2015. Is Nate Irving worth the price of four linebackers to you? Yeah, me either. Truth be told, the Broncos already consider this position to be mostly settled for the new 3-4 defense they will employ. Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall are penciled in as the starters with those other four providing depth, but injury concerns could cause Elway to explore alternative options in the draft. Reggie Walker was brought in to help bolster the Broncos’ overmatched special teams, but I’d be surprised if he was a candidate for extended playing time on defense.

Safety 

If there is one thing that is as true about life as it is about sports, it’s that there are some wounds that time simply can not mend. Rahim Moore is a much better player now than the one who first took the field as the Broncos’ starting free safety in 2011, but despite all of that progress there is a large contingent of fans in this state who will never forgive him for the gaffe he made against Baltimore back in the 2013 playoffs. “The Dream” also never quite blossomed into the ballhawking enforcer that the Broncos hoped he’d be, and I think that made him expendable in a weak safety market. This may end up being a win-win for both sides, as the Broncos can let Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips try out their own guys for the position and Rahim gets a fresh start in Houston, where he’ll no longer have that one, miserable play hanging over his head constantly. I wish you the best Rahim, I really do.

The first guy to get a crack at being the new starter is Darian Stewart, who came on strong for Baltimore down the stretch last season. Kubiak certainly took notice, but the knock on Stewart is that he is oft-injured and may actually profile better as a strong safety. With more reliable candidates unlikely to come from the draft, the Broncos will likely play to Stewart’s strengths while finding ways to get Bradley Roby and Kayvon Webster on the field more often. Quinton Carter is still available, but after three straight years of ending the season on injured reserve, I don’t believe he’s likely to return.

 

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