The NFL is a cut-throat business and behind the curtain of the game is the dollars and cents mentality that suggests that anyone is replaceable. With that said the Broncos face some immense challenges concerning their roster in 2015 and obviously everyone cannot return to the orange and blue for another Super Bowl run.

Of the unrestricted free agents on the Broncos roster, Orlando Franklin and Terrence Knighton not only have excelled at two of the most imperative positions of the team, but they also have the attitude necessary for a championship run. With Demaryius Thomas likely getting the franchise tag, it leaves the two big boys as priority No. 2 and 3 for John Elway to sign. The tight budget will be tough to maneuver through but he must recognize these two leaders before the Broncos are left with marginal alternatives.

The old adage says, “Games are won and lost in the trenches” and even in today’s pass-happy NFL it remains true. Every legitimate Super Bowl contending team is stout on both sides of the line of scrimmage and the Broncos have been no different in recent years.

Orlando Franklin has started all but one game since his arrival to the NFL and been was an outstanding right tackle from 2011-13 and left guard in 2014. Even more astounding is the reports that the Broncos are willing to let him walk in free agency. Franklin has not only shown his versatility through changing positions but has also been an excellent blocker in both predominantly run and pass offenses.

While playing through injuries and adjusting to a position he seldom played in his entire football career this past season, he never complained or made excuses. When he arrived in 2011 he played in the Tim Tebow, run-first offense. In his rookie year he struggled to pass protect with Tebow behind center but put up a respectable 4.6 run blocking rating on Pro Football Focus (PFF) while playing in over 1,000 snaps.

Since Peyton Manning’s arrival Franklin has flourished. He has only allowed seven sacks in the last three seasons while continuing to play in over 1,000 snaps each season. He has been steady as an all-around player and showed that he can move around the line in a pinch. In 2014, after struggling early with the change to guard he finished strong. He gave up only one sack and was ranked the third-best left guard in the NFL according to PFF.

The alternative to signing Franklin seems to be either drafting a tackle or guard and letting last year’s unproven third-round pick, Michael Schofield take a shot at either right tackle or left guard. That would still leave two spots along the line still in question.

Knighton has been equally impressive since his arrival in Denver and has yet to miss a start. There is a reason that most intelligent football fans can only name a handful of big run-stopping tackles in the NFL. That reason is because they are tough to come by and tough to quantify with stats but make no mistake, Knighton is on the list of the best.

As a dominant defensive tackle he has made a living at taking on double teams and allowing the linebackers and defensive ends to make plays. In the last two seasons he has been in the top 12 of defensive tackles according to PFF and has made his presence known on Sundays. His role in the middle is arguably the biggest reason the team finished as the second-ranked rushing defense in the NFL.

In 2014, his teammates constantly raved about his impact from Dove Valley.

“All I need to see in front of me is the ‘Knighton’ on his jersey. He keeps me clean. That’s all I care about,” Irving said earlier in the year after a big week eight win against the San Diego Chargers. As a direct result of Knighton’s play, Irving was the leading tackler for the Broncos before his injury and Brandon Marshall later took over that honor as the starting middle linebacker.

At the end of the 2014 regular season the Broncos allowed an average of only 79.8 rush yards per game. While Sylvester Williams, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson played well, it was Knighton’s ability to stuff the middle of the field that was the difference.

In Wade Phillips 3-4 defense the nose tackle has been called the most important position on the field and therefore it is baffling that Knighton has not become a higher priority for Elway to sign this offseason. If “Pot Roast” is not signed back, the team will likely just give the job to the remaining group of tackles.

Both players have been undoubtedly dynamic, consistent and healthy for the Broncos. Equally as impressive has been Knighton and Franklin’s leadership and tenacity, something Elway continues to claim is vital to his team.

Knighton was named a captain of the team at the beginning of the season and was a constant voice in the locker room all year. He took the responsibility seriously.

“It’s just humbling and it’s just a good feeling walking around the locker room and knowing you’re respected a certain type of way by your teammates being that you’re a captain of the best organization in the NFL,” Knighton said of the accolade in September. “Everybody feeds off you and once you know you have that ‘C’ on your jersey, you’re almost obligated to do things right and you want to do things right because guys are going to follow and that is not a problem for me.”

Franklin was also a leader in the locker room since his arrival. The Broncos offensive line has always been notoriously tight lipped with the media but when Franklin talked he was always professional and focused on trying to improve as a team. He also grew a reputation for being the toughest and nastiness member of the offensive line.

Elway famously stated weeks ago that the team didn’t go out “kicking and screaming” the past few seasons and he attributed that to a lack of toughness. It would be counterproductive to see two of the main leaders, at arguably the two most challenging positions on the football field to leave the roster.

Elway recently stated at the NFL Scouting Combine that he will let the players hit the market to assess their value. That is good in theory but making weak and brief attempts to sign Knighton and Franklin before other teams are allowed to reach out to them is both unwise and wasteful.

At the end of a disappointing season both players made it clear that they would like to remain Broncos and come back in order to reach the team’s collective goal. Franklin disputed rumors Wednesday that said he did not want to return to the Broncos while Knighton’s situation seems to be going in the other direction.

Tuesday, Brandon Spano of Mile High Sports Radio reported that he had spoken with Knighton via text and the tackle said he would not be returning to Denver.

Regardless of rumors or speculation both players are seeking similar deals. Their positions, coupled with their recent play, dictate that they will be looking for contracts of three or more years with a salary ranging from $6-8 million a year.

After spending an outlandish amount of money last season on flashy positions, this year the Broncos should be looking to shore up the line of scrimmage and they do not need to look further than their current roster. Keeping both players is surely wishful thinking but on the other side of the coin, it is simply naive to think that letting Knighton and Franklin walk, two proven commodities, would be an easy fix. If Manning restructures his contract and dead weight is released from the roster the salary cap could become clearer. Elway should be shaking hands and crunching numbers leading up to March 10th in order to keep “Pot Roast” and “Big O”.

Email Sam at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SamCowhick.

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