John Elway has a few days to enjoy what he and his team have accomplished this year and then it's right back to work. And there is a whole lot of work to do - and it won't be easy. We often see the defending Super Bowl champions named as favorites for the next year as soon as futures odds are posted the day after the Super Bowl. That was the case with both Seattle and New England the last two years. This year, though, Denver sits at +1400 at BetOnline - well behind the Panthers at +800, and behind five other teams as well. It's not that they can't be competitive again next year. It's just that there is a whole lot they have to overcome before that can be considered a strong possibility. Let's look at the biggest hurdles they face:
That whole QB thing: At this point we don't know if Peyton Manning plans to return or not - though everyone seems pretty confident that he will leave while he is on top, and that is certainly the right thing for him to do from where I'm sitting. While he will be careful about how he does it, you can be sure that John Elway will let it be known somehow that he can't really have Manning back as things sit now. His cap hit would be reduced by $19 million if he isn't on the roster - money that the team could desperately use. It's hard to argue that he provides $19 million in value given his current level of play - at least not at his current level of play. Now, he reduced his cap hit last season with a renegotiation, and he could conceivably do so again, but there is still a big hit from a clearly diminished player.
It's not as simple as moving on to the next option if and when he does leave, though. Brock Osweiler is an unrestricted free agent, and he showed enough this season that he will be reasonably expensive to sign because there are so many teams that need to make a change or add proven depth, and the draft doesn't offer home-run certainties this year. So they either pay Manning money he doesn't deserve based on his play, and which they can't afford, they pay Osweiler money they can't afford, or they lose both and have to start from scratch with a limited budget. Does any of that sound very promising? Remember, if the most-likely scenario happens and Manning retires and they re-sign Osweiler then they still have a guy who only managed to play well for one half of most games he played, and they don't have a proven backup. Not ideal.
Von Miller: If you missed it, the Super Bowl MVP is pretty good at football. He's the kind of player the Broncos obviously want to have for a very long time - he's still only 26. He's also a free agent. Given recent contracts, he's due for a deal of about six years and well north of $100 million. That's a big raise over his current cap hit of around $10 million. Have I mentioned that they don't have a lot of cap space to deal with? This is a tough situation with only one real resolution - an expensive one. Both sides are making the right noises - that they want a deal done - but these things have a way of getting divisive and creating a distraction that can linger.
Running the ball: The team's two biggest rushers - their only real threats this year - were Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Both are free agents - Hillman a UFA and Anderson an RFA. They will need to spend a bit more money there or start over and hope they find a worthy replacement.
Offensive line: Three starting linemen - Evan Mathis, Ryan Harris, and Matt Paradis - are all free agents. That means Elway has more work to do on this front. On top of that, the line just wasn't as good as it needs to be - especially with a less-experienced starting QB likely. Improving the line requires a lot of money or a lot of luck - or both.
Other key free agents: Receivers Andre Caldwell and Jordan Norwood - both decent depth guys - are free agents. Both starting inside linebackers - Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan - are free agents, too. They made just over a million dollars combined last year, so the cost of the middle of the front seven is going up. Backup ILB Todd Davis is a free agent, too. Perhaps most significantly, though, defensive end Malik Jackson, who is coming off an excellent playoff run, needs a new contract. He made about $1.5 million last year and will be looking for about four times that this year - and will get it from others in a heartbeat if the Broncos can't or won't step up.
The bottom line: The Broncos have more free agents than they can sign, massive questions at quarterback, and a need for serious improvement in some important areas. They have a whole lot to accomplish before they can be viewed as a serious contender - or really be evaluated at all. They should keep the core of their coaching staff in place, and there is talent under contract, but it would be exceptionally tough to justify a futures bet on this team right now - at the price they are at now, anyway. If they do wind up being elite next year then Elway would deserve a medal the size of his head.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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