John Elway’s Super Bowl hangover needs to be a thing of the past as of right now. It’s time for Denver’s vice president of football operations to batten down the hatches and get to work. Elway has a blustery storm to weather this offseason.
On the offensive side, Denver’s Hall of Fame quarterback is in retirement limbo and his heir apparent is an unrestricted free agent. The top two running backs on the depth chart are free agents – one restricted, one unrestricted. The offensive line also needs to be rebuilt.
On the defensive side of the ball, Elway needs to negotiate the most lucrative defensive deal in NFL history. He must also decide what to do with both starting inside linebackers and a starting defensive end; all are in need of new contracts.
Denver fans hope Elway can find the cap space to retain the key contributors. In a dream world, that would happen. But the NFL salary cap isn’t built on hopes and dreams. It’s a nonnegotiable number; there’s no luxury tax or loopholes to work around. In all likelihood, the Denver Broncos are going to need to find cheap replacements for starters lost to the riches of NFL free agency.
Running back, inside linebacker, offensive line and defensive end are the four position groups most in flux. Elway could potentially be looking for replacements to fill the roles of Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Evan Mathis and Ronnie Hillman, who are all free to walk on March 9. Brandon Marshall and C.J. Anderson’s futures aren’t nearly as uncertain as both are restricted free agents.
Losing all of those players may be unsettling, but not all is lost. There are plenty of low-cost options with upside on the open market. Here are the five players Elway should have on speed dial:
1) Bryce Brown, RB
No need to split hairs, Hillman is all but gone. He showed flashes of game-changing ability but not enough for Denver to give the 24-year-old a substantial raise. At best this could leave the Broncos in need of a backup behind Anderson. If contract negotiations with Anderson sour, Denver could be looking for a starting running back as well. Brown could fill either role. He has plenty of tread on the tires at 24, having only carried the ball 62 times over the last two seasons. Brown has a similar build to Anderson and his running style, one-cut-and-go, is perfect for Gary Kubiak’s system. Brown shined in the few opportunities he was given with the Eagles but always seems to be stuck behind an All-Pro on the depth chart. Room to grow may be just what Brown needs to succeed, but more importantly he’d be cheap.
2) Richie Incognito, G
Incognito kept his nose clean this year in Buffalo while turning in solid performance after solid performance. He is considered one of the best run-blockers in the league and would be a great replacement for Mathis. The Broncos think highly of Max Garcia, but if this year proved anything it’s that depth at offensive line is needed. Incognito would be an upgrade to the Broncos offensive line without costing them more money.
3) Casey Matthews, ILB
Trevathan may end up the odd man out when it comes to getting a contract offer from the Broncos. Denver has the upper hand in the Marshall negotiations and it appears they covet Jackson much more. Matthews may not have put up the numbers of Trevathan but he has the one thing Wade Phillips needs in an inside linebacker, speed. The former Oregon Duck can get sideline-to-sideline just as effectively as Trevathan, if not better. Matthews was in and out of the starting lineup his first four years with the Eagles and spent all of last season on the IR in Minnesota. Denver could provide him a fresh start at pennies on the dollar.
4) and 5) Andre Branch and/or Kory Biermann
Price may be the biggest obstacle in signing Jackson, as he all but said he’d be testing free agency. If his value starts escalating into the $7 or $8 million range it’ll be unlikely he returns. Branch or Biermann could serve as productive replacements at a fraction of the cost. Each player would bring something different to the Broncos. Branch has the potential of Jackson but it’s yet to be fully tapped. Could Phillips do for the 26-year-old Branch what he did for Jackson? Biermann is more like Derek Wolfe; he has a motor that never stops. Seeing what Wolfe did in this defense, it’s hard to imagine Biermann couldn’t be a difference maker.
Salary cap causalities are part of life in the NFL. Winning the Super Bowl exacerbates this problem, as NFL general managers love plundering a champion.
It’s time for Elway to put the Super Bowl behind him because he has some serious work ahead of him and is looking at the real prospect of losing multiple starters on both sides of the ball.
Elway has proven the ability to attract star free agents to Denver. This season his ability to pull replacements from the bargain bin will be tested. Being on a budget isn’t always a bad thing. If and when Elway starts looking for cheaper options, these five players should be on his short list.