Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
The best thing the Broncos could do to win the Super Bowl next year would be to make the Cardinals or Rams better.
Think about it: Unless they get a salary cap exception that allows them to spend $233 million or the Browns trade two first-round picks for Brock Osweiler, it is hard to imagine the Broncos getting better than the Seahawks team that used them as weed 'n' feed last month. And the Broncos cannot build their roster for a multi-year, multi-round slugfest with the Seahawks, because Peyton Manning is probably entering his final season.
So the best thing the Broncos can do is find a team to hammer the Seahawks before they can reach the Super Bowl. It cannot be the 49ers, because if you make the 49ers better than the Seahawks, it's like strapping a nuclear warhead to King Kong to take down Godzilla. But improving the Cardinals or Rams could turn the NFC West into a World War I battlefield from which no hope can escape. Losses to the Rams and Cardinals would take away the Seattle home field playoff advantage and turn Jim Harbaugh into Angry Tantrum Man, making it easier for a beatable Packers or Panthers team to slip though the NFC playoffs. So Peyton should rent himself out to the Rams for four games per year! Von Miller could hang out with the Honey Badger in Arizona. If the Broncos trade all of their picks this year to the Cardinals and Rams for selections in the 2016 draft, would that be suspicious?
Okay, none of this will happen, or really should happen. But it exemplifies the unique Broncos dilemma. They have to win the Super Bowl in 2014, period. No tomorrows, no moral victories. And their road will once again probably pass Peyton's greatest foe in Foxborough, followed by either the team that made February Peyton Paste or the team good enough to beat them.
So this GM for a Day segment will be a little different. We will sift through the free agent quandaries first: most of them will sort themselves out a few hours after you read this, anyway. Then, we will focus on how to get the Broncos over their three biggest hurdles: a Chiefs team that will challenge them for the AFC West, a Brady who will brady them with his bradyness, and a Seahawks-Niners caliber boss battle at the end of the level.
John Elway has the toughest job in sports this year, but the best player to do it with. Our search for tiny advantages that can put the Broncos over the top may take us to strange places.
Problem: Lots of in-house free agents ready to hit the market.
Solution: Swoop in on anyone who doesn't attract a crowd.
Eric Decker is likely gone. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is also as good as gone, though the Broncos made a strong bid to keep him. Guard Zane Beadles is probably gone, but the Broncos can replace him by moving Orlando Franklin inside, Chris Clark to right tackle and welcoming Ryan Clady back from injury. Knowshon Moreno will probably leave, but running backs are not difficult to replace.
Phew. The Broncos have a long list of in-house free agents, and they did not do much to keep them. Wesley Woodyard, Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers are among the key defensive free agents we have not mentioned yet. The Broncos probably feel they will get some of these players back at reasonable prices. Phillips is a veteran situational pass rusher, the kind of luxury item only a win-now powerhouse can really use, and the Broncos are among the few win-now powerhouses in the league. Ayers appeared headed to the draft bust file before repurposing himself as a wave defender who excels at run defense. The market for players like him is usually not strong. The situation is similar on offense: Andre Caldwell won't fetch a premium as a veteran No. 4 receiver.
So the Broncos may eventually gobble up some of the players they allow to hit this week's meat market. Where they suffer losses, they must attempt to acquire upgrades. With Decker gone, they should seek Sidney Rice. If they lose Phillips, they should make an incentive-loaded offer for Jared Allen. With the secondary in flux and the Patriots on their "to beat" list, they should drive the Aqib Talib market. It will be financially impossible to do all of these things, but the Broncos want to come out of the free agent period with one bona fide upgrade to compensate for all of the losses and reclamations.
What cannot be fixed through the market must be fixed in the draft. With the cornerback position uncertain, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller provides some plug 'n' play starting capability late in the first round. If no veteran arrives to replace Decker and/or Caldwell, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews is a brainy, sure-handed prospect who can learn Peytonspeak quickly and step into a role. West Virginia's Charles Sims or Baylor's Lache Seastrunk could replace Moreno in the rotation. The Broncos should be aggressive about trading up in any of the first three rounds to get ready-to-play prospects. What are they saving their 2015 draft selections for?
Despite a long list of potential free agent defections, the Broncos have a good chance to hold their ground this offseason, thanks to the return of Clady, vagaries of the market and better-than-appreciated defensive depth. The Broncos must do better than hold their ground, of course.
Problem: Maintaining AFC West Supremacy.
Solution: Counteract the Chiefs pass rush.
The Chiefs must take a step before they can climb up to truly challenge the Broncos. The Chargers are in the same boat, but even further from harbor. The best thing the Broncos can do to make sure the Chiefs don't spring any upset surprises on them is prepare for Bob Sutton's Tamba Hali-Justin Houston-Both Safeties outside blitz onslaughts.
Since the Broncos are juggling their offensive line, let's give them an insurance policy and developmental player at tackle. North Dakota State's Billy Turner is big, strong, agile and tough. He's a small-school guy, so I don't want to get too bogged down in the scouting jargon (I don't watch much NDSU, and when I do, I have no concept of how many of the opposing defenders will be working in an Apple Store this September), but he has all the basic tools from which to build a very good tackle. If someone gets hurt, Turner can step in on the right side (maybe at guard), and everyone else can Rubik's Cube themselves back to their old roles.
Now, let's insert a blocking tight end into the depth chart. There is no need for Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen on the bench behind Julius Thomas, after all: The Broncos can be better served by a pile mover at the goal line or extra pass protector. Notre Dame's Troy Niklas is a fine blocker with the tools to be an all-around threat, but he will leave the board by the middle of Day Two, and the Broncos have other early-round priorities. Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz is an excellent all-purpose blocker who catches the ball well but won't make anything happen more than 10 yards downfield. The Broncos don't need anyone else for 10 yards downfield. They need a quick-footed, ornery bodyguard to stymie speed rushers. Fiedorowicz should be there on Day Three.
Problem: Stay ahead of the Patriots.
Solution: Make the front four nastier.
If Giants-Patriots Super Bowls have taught us anything, it's that the best way to beat Tom Brady is to pressure the daylights out of him with your front four. The Broncos put their own spin on that strategy in last year's AFC Championship Game, when Terrence "Pot Roast" Knighton had a career game which took the Patriots running game out of the equation and provided enough pressure to eradicate the Patriots' already-depleted downfield game.
Pot Roast will be back, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio must make certain that he is not bigger than ever. Phillips and Ayers, as mentioned earlier, could return to their rotation roles. Derek Wolfe, injured late in the year, is a capable disrupter. Sylvester Williams has his own tide system; Malik Jackson is a serviceable wave defender with some pass rush skill. Quanterus Smith spent last year recovering from an ACL injury and could be an edge rushing secret weapon. And of course, Von Miller sparks the whole chain reaction as a linebacker/edge rusher. With Miller, Wolfe and Smith in the mix, the Broncos could have an excellent defensive front, even if Ayers and/or Phillips is gone.
But the Broncos cannot leave anything to chance. Jared Allen may be too rich for their blood, but Julius Peppers could come cheaper if and when the Bears finally cut bait. Will Smith could also play a Phillips-like role. Remember that the Broncos are not looking for a starting end, but 20 snaps per game or so of extra nastiness. Wily old veterans often thrive in such a role.
If the Broncos do not spend their first round pick elsewhere, Louis Nix could slide due to his knee problems. Nix provides Pot Roast insurance and competition for Williams. Nix's Notre Dame teammate Stephon Tuitt might be around a little later. Tuitt is a 300-pounder with the bulk to play nose tackle but enough quickness for some work at the three-tech. Tuitt has weight issues, but Del Rio already has a cafeteria table between the salad bar and the laser security system picked out for Pot Roast, so Tuitt would have a designated lunch buddy.
There are a lot of balls in play here. The bottom line: the Broncos can build a deadly, diverse defensive front that can take down the weaker offensive lines of some AFC contenders (throw the Chiefs and Colts in with the Patriots here) and take heat off their patchwork secondary. They must exploit every possible advantage on the defensive line.
Problem: Beating the Seahawks or 49ers.
Hey, you watch the replay of that Super Bowl and try to come up with a magic formula that turns the Broncos into Seahawks beaters.
Actually, the first three solutions moved us a little closer to this fourth one. The first solution kept the Broncos good enough to reach the Super Bowl. The second improved pass protection, which helps against the Seahawks, and a blocking tight end can make the Broncos more offensively diverse: you need a Plan C against the Seahawks, even when Plan A is Peyton and Plan B is More Peyton. The beefed up D-line in the third segment helps against any team, and the 2013 Seahawks' greatest weakness was their so-so offensive line.
After that, it comes down to exploiting every possible marginal gain: improving the kick coverage units, tweaking route combinations and play concepts that grew too predictable by the Super Bowl, bringing jet engines and snow machines into the practice facility. The two things the Broncos cannot do are drag their feet or pretend that doing everything the way they did it last year will be sufficient. Everyone, even Peyton Manning, must push beyond his comfort level. It's either that or hope the Rams or Cardinals do some dirty work for them.