The Denver Broncos are a team in transition, after going one and done in the 2015 NFL playoffs. While the team has earned a bye in each of the last three years, their coaching staff has been completely overturned, Peyton Manning’s future remains a question mark, and some of their top players are set to become free agents.
After Denver was upset by the Indianapolis Colts in their divisional playoff game, head coach John Fox and the organization mutually agreed to part ways. He was replaced by Gary Kubiak, but both offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio also left the club. Rick Dennison will now lead the offense, and Wade Phillips replaces Del Rio, who will face the Broncos twice as a the new Oakland Raiders head coach.
Denver finds itself in a precarious position. After losing the 2014 Super Bowl, the team was favored to win the championship at the start of this past season. The Broncos went 12-4, getting the No.2 seed in the AFC, but they were easily beaten in the postseason, and Manning looked like a quarterback in the twilight of his career.
When the season ended, Manning would not commit to returning in 2015. The odds point to the signal caller putting off retirement for another year, considering he’s reportedly prepping for next season and he’s set to make $19 million next year. However, it’s unknown what kind of performance the Broncos will get out of Manning if he comes back.
Manning completed just 26 of 46 passes for 211 yards in the postseason loss, after struggling to end the season. It was later revealed that the quarterback had been playing with a quadriceps injury for a month, but there’s no guarantee he will return to his old form in 2015. Even before he suffered the injury, Manning’s numbers weren’t up to his standards, and he could be without some of his top weapons.
In each of the last two years, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker have been three of Manning’s top four targets. All three of those players are without contracts for 2015, though the team does have some money to spend, since they’re projected to be at least $25 million under the salary cap.
Demaryius Thomas has been the Broncos’ No.1 receiver in all three years that Manning has been with the team, and he might not be likely to play elsewhere next year. According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Denver is ready to use their franchise tag on Demaryius Thomas, if the two sides can’t come to terms on a new deal. The wide receiver has averaged 1,494 yards and 12 touchdowns per season with Manning at the helm. He made $3.275 million in base salary last year, and the franchise tag would pay him approximately $13 million.
Julius Thomas and Welker are much more likely to leave the Broncos this offseason. Walter Football reports that Thomas is looking for a big payday and is likely to move on, having caught 24 touchdown passes in his last 27 games. According to Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports, Welker is contemplating retirement. The 33-year-old has a history of concussions, and he's seen his production decline in Denver, posting just 1,242 receiving yards in 27 games.
After signing the likes of DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib last offseason, Denver’s defense has a chance to remain largely intact. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is set to become a free agent, having two sacks and 30 combined tackles last year. He could be headed elsewhere, as the six-year veteran told Sirius XM NFL Radio that he isn’t sure the team wants him back.
If Denver lets a few of their players walk, they’ll have money to spend on free agents. However, the team must decide if they want to overpay veterans that might have already peaked. With a healthy Manning at quarterback, the Broncos will likely be a playoff team, but his performance at the end of last season and the potential departure of key players could indicate that the Broncos’ current Super Bowl window has closed.
The Broncos have a chance to add young talent in the draft, though they won’t pick until No.28 overall. With both Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme set to hit free agency, Denver might draft a tight end in the first round. Michigan’s Devin Funchess and Minnesota’s Maxx Williams have been advertised as the best tight ends in the draft, and there’s a good chance the Broncos will have the opportunity to take one of them.
Denver was one of just two teams that averaged over 30 points per game in 2014, and the organization could look to upgrade their defense in the first round. A linebacker like Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinny or Clemson's Stephone Anthony could also be on the Broncos’ radar.
The Broncos have used their last four No.1 picks on a defensive player. They haven’t selected higher than No.28 since they took Von Miller at No.2 overall in 2011.