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The Denver Broncos proved they were not as invincible as once believed, and the team will be forced to make some major decisions in free agency and in the draft this offseason if they want to reach the Super Bowl next year.
Two of their major offensive weapons — running back Knowshon Moreno and wide receiver Eric Decker — are set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, and both are expected to test the market.
Moreno, who was once believed to be a trading chip or a candidate for release, proved to be a valuable part of the Broncos’ stellar running game. But because the former first-rounder enjoyed such a breakout campaign, his value will likely be inflated as a free agent.
Will the Broncos overpay to retain the veteran? It doesn’t seem likely. The team drafted Montee Ball in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and Ball’s role grew as the season progressed. Instead of paying Moreno big bucks, Ball could be inserted as the team’s starter and Denver could nab a complementary back in this year’s draft.
Largely, Denver may be able to address this position between the second to fourth round, as this year there are no standout backs projected to go early in the first rounds. Because Ball is a downhill runner, perhaps a player like De’Anthony Thomas of Oregon or Tre Mason of Auburn could provide the Broncos with a change-of-pace sort of back.
It may seem insane that Denver would have to draft a wideout, but it seems very likely Decker will find a home elsewhere and get the payday for a top-tier receiver. The New York Jets are wide receiver-hungry and may have to overpay to get a veteran like Decker, leaving Denver to find a younger player to split out wide opposite of Demaryius Thomas.
Like the running back position, aside from top prospect Sammy Watkins the wide receiver class is deep. Many top-10 prospects may not begin to drop until Round 2, when the Broncos may have to make their move. USC’s Marquise Lee or Texas A&M’s Mike Evans are considered some of the best outside options, and if Denver elects to wait a bit perhaps a Jordan Matthews may be available in the third round.
On the defensive side, Champ Bailey is getting another year older and Von Miller may be seeking a restructured contract.
Bailey, 35, is a free agent after the 2015 season, and injuries already took a toll on the veteran for a lot of 2014. Perhaps upgrading in the secondary should be Denver’s main focus with their first-round pick. Among the top cornerbacks in the draft are Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State, unanimously considered the elite prospects in 2014.
In terms of pass-rushers, it’s pretty obvious the team won’t be able to grab Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 31 pick. But perhaps there could be a find in the later rounds who can serve as an insurance policy if the team can’t reach an agreement with Miller.
Carl Bradford of Arizona State thrived down the stretch run of his junior season, and Trent Murphy of Stanford was an exceptional rusher all season long in the Pac-12. Both could be targets for Denver in the third or fourth rounds.
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