Denver Broncos 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Positions of Need

Offensive Tackle

Ryan Clady missed essentially the whole 2013 season with a foot injury, but Chris Clark played well in Ryan Clady’s absence in 2013 and the Broncos were very excited about their offensive line with Clady returning in 2014. They moved Clark to right tackle and Orlando Franklin inside to left guard, where he would replace the overrated Zane Beadles, who signed in Jacksonville. However, the only player who really worked out was Franklin, who played well in his first season at left guard. Clady graded out slightly below average in his first season back. He’ll be given another chance in 2015, but the Broncos need right tackle help. Chris Clark graded out 52nd out of 84 eligible before being benched. Louis Vasquez moved from right guard to right tackle and played alright, but he’s one of the league’s best guards so they should keep him there long-term. Finding a new right tackle who could possibly play left tackle in 2016 and beyond should be a priority of their off-season and somewhere they could go in the first round.

Tight End

Julius Thomas and Virgil Green were #1 and #2 on the Broncos in snaps played by tight ends, but both are free agents this off-season. Green could easily be back, but he’s only a blocking tight end. Julius Thomas has been their primary pass catching tight end over the past 2 seasons, but he’s not expected to be back as a free agent. Finding a pass catching replacement will be a need this off-season, assuming he does, in fact, leave.

Defensive Tackle

The Broncos will be moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. They have good personnel for it. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller will play outside linebacker. Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and Sylvester Williams will rotate at defensive end. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan will be the middle linebackers. Their only hole is nose tackle. Re-signing Terrance Knighton would fill that hole, but it sounds like he’s going to chase the money and go elsewhere. He probably wants to play in a 4-3 that would give him more pass rush opportunities anyway. Finding a true nose tackle will be on the Broncos’ list this off-season.

Center

Manny Ramirez struggled last season at both center and right guard. If he’s back as a starter at center next season, it will be at a position where he graded out 28th out of 41 eligible in 2014 in 8 starts. He’s also going into his age 33 season. They should try to find an upgrade. He could also be a cap casualty, a move that would save them 3 million in cash and cap space in 2015. Will Montgomery played well at center in his absence last season, but he’s a free agent and he’s also aging, going into his age 32 season.

Safety

Rahim Moore is a free agent. With the Broncos having already committed significant money to Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and TJ Ward in their secondary, it’s widely assumed they won’t outbid the highest bidders on the open market and that Moore will not be back in Denver. They’ll need to find a replacement safety in that case.

Guard

As I mentioned earlier, I expect the Broncos to move Louis Vasquez back to right guard in 2015, not because he was bad at right tackle, but because he’s so much better at right guard. However, the Broncos will still have a problem at guard if left guard Orlando Franklin leaves as a free agent, which he could easily do.

Wide Receiver

Wes Welker is not expected back as a free agent, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a down season thanks to age and injury. 2014 2nd round pick Cody Latimer will play a bigger role in his absence, with Emmanuel Sanders picking up more snaps in the slot. The bigger issue would be if, for whatever reason, the Broncos don’t bring back Demaryius Thomas, as they’d have to find some way to replace him. He’s widely expected to be franchise tagged though so that almost definitely won’t be an issue. Thomas, Sanders, and Latimer are expected to be their top-3 wide receivers in 2015.

Key Free Agents

WR Demaryius Thomas

Demaryius Thomas has put up absurd numbers over the past 3 seasons, playing all 48 games, catching 297 passes for 4483 yards and 35 touchdowns. Playing with Peyton Manning at quarterback and being a target monster has definitely helped him, but he’s graded out 2nd, 5th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in his own right in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. No other wide receiver has graded out in the top-5 in all 3 of those seasons. The 2010 1st round pick was also productive with Tim Tebow in 2011, as he had 35 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games, including playoffs. That’s 80 catches for 1703 yards and 9 touchdowns extrapolated over 16 games. Along with Antonio Brown and Calvin Johnson, you can make a case for him as the best wide receiver in football. He’s widely expected to be franchise tagged so he’ll be back in 2015. He’s also a candidate for a massive long-term deal.

DT Terrance Knighton

Knighton was a 3rd round pick by the Jaguars in 2009. He started 49 games in 4 seasons with the Jaguars, but ended up grading out slightly below average in all 4 seasons. Knighton signed a 2-year, 4.5 million dollar deal with the Broncos in his first trip to free agency two off-seasons ago, a move that paid off in a big way for the Broncos. Knighton proved to be a late bloomer, grading out 9th in 2013 and proving himself again in 2014, grading out 12th. The 6-3 330 pounder is a fierce run stopper and can rush the passer as well. His 2nd trip to the open market should be much more lucrative than his first and he’s expected to be priced out of the Broncos’ budget. He’ll probably want to stay in a 4-3 where he can get more pass rush opportunities anyway and the Broncos are moving to a 3-4 and need more of a true nose tackle. A reunion with Jack Del Rio in Oakland makes a lot of sense. The Raiders have a ton of cap space and a huge need at defensive tackle and Knighton has played his entire career with Del Rio, first when he was Jacksonville’s head coach and then when he was Denver’s defensive coordinator. Del Rio is now the head coach in Oakland.

TE Julius Thomas

Julius Thomas played 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, catching 1 pass, after the incredibly athletic former basketball player was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. He broke out in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was limited by injuries in 2014, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Thomas is a poor run blocker, has never played all 16 games in a season, and a lot of his passing game production was the result of getting to play with Peyton Manning. He’s a candidate to be overpaid on the open market this off-season.

G Orlando Franklin

Orlando Franklin has started 63 games since the Broncos drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011, 47 at right tackle from 2011-2013 and 16 at left guard last season. His versatility will serve him well on the open market, as will his abilities, as he’s graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, 12th among offensive tackles in 2012, 17th among offensive tackles in 2013, and 13th among guards in 2014. He should make upwards of 6+ million dollars on his next deal. Zane Beadles, another former Bronco offensive lineman, got 5-year, 30 million from the Jaguars last off-season. I think Franklin is a better player and that deal will be a floor for what he’ll get this off-season.

S Rahim Moore

Rahim Moore struggled as a rookie, but he had a fantastic 2012 season (the gaffe in the playoff loss to Baltimore aside), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. He still looked like one of the league’s better young safeties going into his 3rd year in the league in 2013, but he was only a league average starting safety that year before going down for the season with a frightening, rare injury that almost cost him his leg and his life. Moore returned in 2014, but was once again only an average starter. It’s obviously great that Moore has been able to resume his life and his career, but he goes to the open market as only a league average starter. He’ll make a good amount of money in a weak safety market though.

C Will Montgomery

With the Redskins, Montgomery graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked center in 2011, 5th in 2012, and 15th in 2013. However, he was still released by the Redskins last off-season with a new regime coming in with a new blocking scheme and he only got a cheap, 1-year deal from the Broncos. Montgomery made 8 starts down the stretch for the Broncos and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked center. He’s going into his age 32 season and he’s not a good fit for a power blocking scheme, but he deserves to be a starter somewhere in the NFL in 2015. A return to Denver could make sense as Gary Kubiak is a Mike Shanahan disciple and Montgomery had his best years under Shanahan in Washington.

TE Virgil Green

Green, a 2011 5th round pick, has played 1127 snaps in the last 4 seasons combined, serving as a valuable run blocking tight end, grading out above average as a run blocker in all 4 seasons. However, he’s graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons in pass catching grade, totaling 23 catches for 206 yards and a touchdown. He’ll come cheap this off-season and could easily return to the Broncos as a blocking specialist.

WR Wes Welker

Once again, the Patriots cut ties with a player at the perfect time. Letting Welker go looked like a mistake in 2013, when the Broncos were breaking records and beat the Patriots easily in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because of Peyton Manning’s huge season, Julius Thomas’ breakout year, and the loss of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez by the Patriots. Obviously, that script flipped in 2014. Overall, over the course of his 2-year, 12 million dollar deal, Welker caught 122 passes for 1242 yards and 12 touchdowns, missing 5 games with injury. His replacement in New England, Julian Edelman, had 197 catches for 2028 yards and 10 touchdowns over that time period. Statistically, Welker had the worst season of his career since 2005 last season, catching 49 passes for 464 yards and 2 touchdowns. Now he hits free agency, going into his age 34 season, with a serious concussion history, and coming off an awful season and the Broncos have already said they won’t be bringing him back. If he decides to keep playing, it’ll be on a cheap, one-year deal and he could have to wait a while. Retirement, either unforced or forced, is another possibility.

Cap Casualty Candidates

C Manny Ramirez

Ramirez struggled at both guard and center last season, including 28th out of 41 eligible centers in 8 starts. He’s been better in the past, but he’s going into his age 33 season. If the Broncos aren’t planning on bringing him back as a starter at any position, they’ll probably cut him and save 3 million in cash and cap space, which will be very valuable, given how many free agents they have to either lock up or replace.

OT Ryan Clady

Clady will probably be back, but moving on from him wouldn’t be a terrible move. He missed 14 games with a foot injury in 2013 and wasn’t the same in 2014, grading out below average. The Broncos can save 10 million in cash and 8.8 million on the cap by letting him go. He’s a good fit for new Head Coach Gary Kubiak’s blocking zone scheme, so, more likely, he’ll be given a chance to bounce back in 2015 and cut before 2016 if he struggles again.

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