Scouting the Broncos: A first look at free agency

It’s that time again - almost spring - when a young man’s fancies turn lightly to free agency and the draft. Equally, it’s much like love in that there’s often more wishful thinking than reason to the players that are mentioned. That being the case, I thought I’d jot some things down regarding important areas of the Broncos' rebuilding project.

John Elway has confirmed exactly what a lot of our readers have expressed hope for - that the Broncos intend to build through the draft and fill gaps in free agency. The thing is, just as it is with Denver’s own, that most free agents would just as soon not move and have to rebuild relationships without a lot of good reasons, most of them green. The Carl Nickses of the league aren't likely shots, to put it mildly, although you never really know who will become available or have a tiff with their team. However - there are a lot of good players available who can help Denver immediately via either free agency or the draft. I’ll be covering this by position, post-Combine, to add some draft options, but here are some rarely stressed basics to think seriously about.

First on the list? Remember to check for unrestricted free agents (UFA) vs. restricted free agents (RFA). Folks should keep in mind that taking on an RFA would cost the Broncos a draft pick as compensation to the former team, in addition to the monetary value of whatever contract they give the player. It could happen with the right deal, but it's highly unlikely. Those valuable picks are going to be the basis for the rebuilding process - I can seen trading out of the 25th-overall pick for a couple of second-rounders, for example. Denver needs more picks, not less.

Linebacker

We’ve talked, for example, about the need for a much stronger middle linebacker for the Broncos if, in fact, Denver isn’t as bullish on Nate Irving as Andrew Mason has said that they are (I’m hoping they are - it would solve one problem easily). An RFA Mike would cost the draft pick that Denver needs for other players on top of his salary, so perhaps there’s some upside to the RFA player, but it would have to be very substantial. No worries - after the current CBA went into effect and many folks hadn’t even read it all yet, teams were very conservative and offered mostly very short term contracts. That’s fine - it means lots of unrestricted free agents this year as well. Denver has their eye on a few, said GM Brian Xanders recently. I’m sure they do.

Players, like most folks, like to do business with people they trust. If John Fox and LB coach Richard Smith still have a good relationship with UFA Dan Connor, for example, the Mike problem could be solved for a long time to come by bringing him in (even if they like Irving, it’s one time I’d consider moving him to Will). Both players noted above (Nicks and Connor) are UFAs, as are potential MLBs David Hawthorne (Seattle), E.J. Henderson (Minnesota), D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland), and Curtis Lofton (Atlanta), who has never seemingly played to his full potential in skill. Jameel McClain (Baltimore) plays both inside and out: he’s been effective at Mike, Will and RILB. Stephen Tulloch of Detroit, although short for a Mike, would be a potentially good option, but his price tag seems to have gone up quite a bit over last offseason - he played well in 2011, and consistently. He’s due a large payday, but he might be worth it if he bolts from Detroit.

By the way, I’m big on Hawthorne as well as Connor. If I do mention a RFA I’ll either tell you why I think he might be worth it or you can point out that I screwed up. It happens, and I appreciate the help. Even with Doug’s brilliance at editing, some things slip through.

Why go the free agency route on a Mike at all? Simple - you have limited draft picks, a need to maximize player talent, and weak areas in the draft at certain potential areas of need, just for openers. For any other positions, the same factors could come into play. For example, it’s a very good year for guards in the draft, but less so for tackles, or so goes the conventional wisdom. I personally think that Denver might want to look at their interior line combinations including center - and if you can add a tackle from FA, it makes the rest easier. I’ll have a full article on FA and draft options for Mike in a short while, and others will be coming.

Offensive Line

I’m sure it’s a shock to no one that I’m doing a full article on the FAs and draft options along the line, probably broken out by position. Center, like the rest of the line, is definitely on the table for me - even if Denver loves J.D. ‘Trash Can’ Walton, he’s struggling with bigger players and functional strength - his effort and mentality aren’t in question. As far as a center, I’d like to create an option for Walton - I’ll talk specifically about why in the position piece - and go back to the future: Texans C Chris Myers never should have been let go by Denver, especially since he’d started to play center in 2007, starting all 16 games there. Yes, he’s 30 now. He’s probably got five more years or more in the game (zone blocking centers at times last longer) and Walton should either be raring to go or dropped long before then.

Another option is Scott Wells, from the Packers. He’s also 30, and seems to continue to improve. He’d be costly - and worth it. Same thing with Myers - the middle of the line has to be rock solid. Even with an unusually good guard class, you could take one, develop him over a year or two and take a veteran guard like Evan Mathis (Philadelphia) in FA until then. He’s 30, peaking and had an excellent season in 2011. Will Chris Kuper be back by then? I don’t know - and that bothers me. It’s not like Denver’s OL rotation is superb. I’d like to see a couple of veterans to balance out these young guys while they’re developing.

How about tackles? Some folks, including Ted, want to move Orlando Franklin to left guard. I think it’s a fair idea and you need a decent RT to accomplish that, preferably a FA. Why? The line is the second youngest in the league - adding more rookies isn’t an approach I’m comfortable with, because veterans, as the Broncos found out with WR last year, know things that college guys don’t, and can pass them on. No veterans means no passage of that knowledge. Denver doesn’t have that extra RT on the squad, so do you take on a veteran or go to the draft? It’s a good question, and I’d try to go FA first. There are several FA tackles who could be effective - Demetrius Bell (Buffalo) hasn’t shown his best game so far, but I think that line coach Dave Magazu can remedy that. He’s one option.

I’d love on several levels, to take Jared Gaither from San Diego - they need him more than Denver does, so there’s more than just divisional rivalry angst there. Marcus McNeill is probably going to be gone even at his fairly young age, so they need badly to retain Gaither, and he’s a UFA. McNeill may have to retire after multiple injuries and this at only age 28 - he’s been a tough, talented opponent for Denver, and I hope he heals well. Other options include Willie Colon (Pittsburgh), Doug Free (Dallas), and Marshal Yanda (Baltimore. Damien Woody (NY Jets) is 34 years old and a G/C. He’s a good man to have around, but there are better options for Denver. If a solid team needed a swing backup, though, he’s a potential solution. Denver requires guys who can push the ones above them - it’s been a while since they’ve really had that.

Maybe they never have, truth be known, and that’s due in part to history. The value of the OL - financially and schematically - wasn’t really understood across the league (most coaches understood it quite well - most owners did not) until 1993, when Denver's Pat Bowlen famously paid G Brian Habib and tackle Don Maggs about $1.5 million each to protect the best QB in football. As an aside, this means that John Elway really understands what the OL means on a deep level - he’d been sacked 331 times by the time that happened. This incident occurred in a market where one of the best left tackles in football, Anthony Munoz, was arrogantly denied a $500K contract a few years before and practically tossed from the owner’s office just for asking. Bowlen’s foresight started a trend that became a floodgate in terms of payment for that left tackle position and in part along the line. There’s an increasing modern move to a more even pay grade for linemen, based on production instead of just position. Left tackles still hold a substantial advantage, though - most QBs are right-handed, and the LT guards that vulnerable blind side. It’s usually your best offensive line player.

All of those options will have advantages and disadvantages - we’ll get into more detail as we get closer to the FA period, but feel free to add anything. I’ll talk about how I see things and options that I like, but there are dozens - probably hundreds - of ways to go about fixing the line. One is to let them mature as they are, and some people are going to see it that way. I don’t, but I can tell you that the longer a group plays together, the better their communication and cohesion becomes. There are advantages to a lot of approaches. I wouldn’t take anything off the plate at this point - it’s too early - but the basic battle plan is probably already in place. The rest will be filled out after Combine.

Defensive Line

Everyone is going to be looking to see if Denver takes a DT in the 1st or 2nd round this year. It’s an interesting question - neither Brodrick Bunkley nor Marcus Thomas (both of whom are UFAs) got a sack last season, although Ryan McBean impressively came up with four sacks from the nose tackle position, and the much-maligned Robert Ayers had three (plus two more in the playoffs against Pittsburgh), and PFF credited him with with five QB hits and 20 pressures for a very good year, including playoffs. He moved well between positions and was also very solid against the run. Do you recall looking at the power and athletic ability of the Giants in the SB? Ayers is developing those kinds of skills, and he already has that kind of muscular size.

DE Cliff Avril of Detroit may be on the move and seems superficially enticing: his downside is that his number of penalties (11) equalled his number of sacks, although according to PFF he had an eye-popping 40 QB hurries, for a total of 61 total QB pressures (including playoffs). His run defense is his weaker area, but Denver could let Ayers concentrate on UT (he’s turning into a bit of a beast there, undersized or not) and handle run D on the outside, use Denver’s bigger-type (not huge - just bigger) NTs (Bunkley, Ty Warren, Thomas, McBean) and let Avril play LDE on passing downs next to Von Miller and across from Elvis Dumervil. It would make for a very tough group to stop, especially with Bunkley and/or Thomas, Warren, or McBean at NT. I honestly don’t think much of Warren’s chances of getting through the season healthy, although I’d love to be proven wrong. You plan without him and he’s a big added bonus that you’ve scripted some plays for, if he manages to get and stay healthy.

Kevin Vickerson is also going to be back, and we’ll get to see if he can get up to the level he was playing at while a 320-lb player and make sure he can rush the passer at 295 lb. It’s counterintuitive, but he seemed less athletic than he did when he was heavier (until he became injured). Recovery is an individual thing, and I’d expect that he’s training heavily in explosion and hand placement. Even so - I’m not sure that he’s the answer. I liked him a lot as a 320-lb NT. I’m unsure of him as a 295-lb UT.

If he doesn’t pan out, McBean might not transfer well to UT, and Warren (who gets pressure on the QB well) is oft injured, so Denver badly needs a penetrating DT right now who can get more pressure on the QB. Jason Jones of the Titans may want out, and he’s an unusual but talented player. Put him at undertackle and he’s explosive and talented, if somewhat undersized. He’s similar to Robert Ayers, in that, but even faster off the line. He probably doesn’t belong at NT either. Ben Garland may be fighting for playing time in that mix, if his remaining Air Force commitment is converted to reserve duty. They may bring in a veteran, but I’d expect them to deal with DT in the draft, if only for the variety of it. Things are calming down around Denver, and that’s a very good thing. Even so - not taking on a DT might cause heads to explode in Denver. The media will jump on it even if Denver takes a top undertackle in FA.

Conclusion

I’m not going to get into a lot of detail here - it’s not important for today, since we'll cover each position in depth. What it comes down to, in starting to study these players, the FAs, and draft options to come, is just a few simple reminders:

  1. If they’re an RFA, they’ll cost you a draft pick on top of cash. Think long and hard before suggesting that Denver do that for any player - as Elway said, the draft is going to be their key vehicle. Those picks can’t be used unless it’s a unique trade.
     
  2. Highly sought after players are going to be highly costly, with large guarantees and long-term cash and cap implications. It's not just about getting the player now, it's about how such a transaction will affect the team financially in future seasons.
     
  3. Most players want to stay where they are unless they’re really unhappy or stuck behind a guy that they can’t beat out, and most sign with their current team. They could be the second best in the league at a position (note - deliberate rhetorical overstatement), but if they’re behind #1, they might want to move. Otherwise - the team they’re on will usually keep them. It’s hard to get those players, and you’re best waiting for a story on the player wanting to take interviews and visiting around. Even then...
     
  4. This isn’t news, but lists of favorite players aren’t helpful in this particular area. Suggesting players you like is both enjoyed and requested - just don’t list 10 expensive FAs or top draft picks and think that’s useful, to you or the other readers. If you dump a lot of scratch on X player, you have less for the rest. How do you spread around those funds? You’ll need some for next year, too. Thankfully, from everything that Doug, TJ and Ted have said, Denver is in a fairly unique situation right now - they have both cash and cap reserves that could potentially improve the entire team (For the record - that’s not my specialty. Doug and TJ have understood more of that than I ever will). There’s a lot of FA talent available this year, and Denver is in a very good position to take advantage of it.
     
  5. Last - Scheme matters, and it matters hugely. Denver needs help at CB - but how much zone, versus how much man? Does the guy you like play press - and like it? He’d better. The Broncos have two fine man-coverage CBs who are both 33 years old - obviously the team needs to deal with that, so what’s the skillset of the CB you’re looking at? It’s the same issue with any position - making sure that the guys you talk about wanting would fit, or ask any staff guy about them. We like talking football, so you won’t offend anyone.

A lot of what started this line of thought is material that I picked up out of the scouting books that I like to read. I’m particularly wearing out a book from Steve Belichick, rest his soul, called Football Scouting Methods. It’s a very dense book - he doesn’t waste any time. His wife had a gift for languages; she spoke several and worked as a translator and as a teacher of that art. She edited the book, and as a result it has a special, effective pace to the verbiage. You understand the essence of what he talks about. He’s got a very terse style that can be very laconic at times. There aren’t a lot of books on the subject that are much better, though;  there’s been a lot of excellent press on it that was well-deserved. The American Football Coaches Association's Football Coaching Bible also had a lot of excellent information, as did Daryl Johnston’s Watching Football.

I’d also recommend Brian Billick’s book, Developing an Offensive Game Plan very highly. Billick’s text is a well-written, highly organized but very comfortable, ambling walk through all the basics of setting up an offense, whether for a Pop Warner squad or an NFL program. Reading it gave me a lot of insights into what Mike McCoy was doing in X situations throughout the year. It was enjoyably eye-opening. As long as we’re on the subject, I thought that Bill Walsh’s The Score Takes Care of Itself had a similar vibe and I’d recommend that one too - it’s about how football is more than just football, a subject that I love to listen to. There’s a beautiful game hidden deeper within these games, my friends. Have a great week.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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