DENVER — Denver Broncos fans have been waiting for 2 p.m. Thursday with intensity for about 37 days and 18 hours. Why? It’s the team’s first chance to erase the embarrassment of Super Bowl XLVIII and start building toward Super Bowl XLVIV.
Free agency officially begins at 2 p.m. MST Tuesday. Starting then, the Broncos are expected to say goodbye to some old faces and hello to some new ones.
One of those new faces may very well be Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. St. Paul Pioneer Press Vikings beat writer Chris Tomasson cited a source who said he’d be “shocked” if the 32-year-old, considered one of this year’s top free agents, didn’t end up with the Broncos.
Allen also appeared on a Minnesota radio show last week, saying, “If you can play for one of the top five quarterbacks, that makes life easier.” Considering he broke every NFL regular season passing record last season, Peyton Manning would likely be considered in the top five.
All that speculation on Allen seems logical, as the Broncos were reportedly close to striking a trade for the defensive end just before the NFL deadline in October of the 2013 season. In order to strike such a deal, Allen would have likely needed to restructure his old contract — something he said he would be interested in doing “for the right situation.” The fact that the rumors on the possible trade were so pervasive might suggest Allen views Denver as a good fit.
The only problem could be the price tag.
Though he’s been prolific of late — Allen has logged 45.5 sacks over his last three seasons — there are concerns that whoever signs him may have to overpay for a player who, at 32 years old, isn’t getting any younger.
The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, considered by many to be a younger version of Allen, signed a deal to stay with the Seahawks this week that will pay him $10 million in his first season. And many considered that deal home-town discount. Allen made $8 million in 2013, and most expect him to make more than that in 2014.
The Broncos would have the available salary cap space to strike such a deal with Allen, but it could hurt their chances at signing other top-tier talent in free agency.
When the Broncos officially bid adieu to Champ Bailey late last week, they upped their available free agent budget to $24.7 million, according to Spotrac.com. And with Chris Kuper announcing his retirement earlier this week, that number is likely closer to $27 million.
In addition to defensive end, the Broncos have talked about wanting to address issues at linebacker, safety and cornerback in free agency. Cleveland Browns free agent T.J. Ward would fit part of that bill, and his name has been mentioned by USA Today’s Tom Pelissero in connection with the Broncos on numerous occasions this week.
Those reports also seems to make sense, considering Ward’s relationship with the Broncos’ front office. Denver’s Director or Pro Personnel, Tom Heckert, was the man who drafted Ward in Cleveland (Heckert was the General Manager for the Browns at the time).
Now 27, Ward has become a Pro Bowl safety, and could bring the kind of physicality to the position that the Broncos have lacked since the retirement of John Lynch and Brian Dawkins. Not only is Ward a Pro Bowler, ProFootballFocus.com rated him the third best safety in the NFL and the best available strong safety in this year’s free agent class.
But Ward also isn’t without his faults. Though stout against the run — ProFootballFocus.com ranked him as the top NFL safety in that category — Ward isn’t exactly the coverage safety that most teams covet in the modern, pass-happy NFL. Ward is considered the 12th-best cover safety in the league, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
There’s also the fact that Ward won’t come cheap, either. Most suspect he will command around an $8 million contract.
The Broncos also have stated their interest in bringing back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of their own free agents. And most expect him to command a deal worth around $7 million.
That could mean that as much as $23 to $25 million of the Broncos’ $27 million in available cap space could go to just three players. That’s stands in stark contrast to the team’s free agent moves a year ago, when they signed six players for under $22 million.
Wit that leftover $2 to $4 million, the Broncos could try to resign a few of their own free agents, including Shaun Phillips, who logged an impressive 10 sacks on a one-year, $1 million deal last season.
Denver could also go after help at linebacker in the form of New York Giants free agent Jon Beason, who played previously under current Broncos head coach John Fox with the Carolina Panthers, or Arizona Cardinals free agent Karlos Dansby. But if the Broncos offer big contracts to players like Allen, Ward and Rodgers-Cromartie, it could inhibit their pursuit of Beason or Dansby, both of whom are expected to be seeking contracts between $4 and $6 million.
And under any scenario in which the Broncos add big names to their defense, it may force them to say goodbye to one of their big-name offensive weapons — free agent wide receiver Eric Decker. Considered by most to be the top free agent wide receiver in this year’s class, Decker will likely command a deal worth about $9 million in 2014.