By Rick Jussel
Welcome to Season Three of a rebuilding plan created by two Johns.
It appears three weeks too soon, but the Johns, Elway and Fox, are already hard at work trying to make next season better than the one that just ended.
That won’t be easy after a 13-3 regular-season and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. And it won’t be easy grabbing now-required multiple playoff wins and a Super Bowl title.
I’m sure they don’t need my help, but I am, as always, available – and here’s a blueprint:
First up, get your quarterback in the fold. Peyton Manning has just completed a possible MVP season, been named to the Pro Bowl and an AP first-team All-Pro – that after four neck surgeries and joining a new team. He and team officials need only to rubber stamp the next two option years of his contract.
Once done …
The team needs to protect Manning’s blindside by keeping the No. 1 free agent on the market, left tackle Ryan Clady, another All-Pro. Clady’s long-term employment with the Broncos is being addressed, the team says. The worst-case scenario is to franchise Clady for nearly $10 million, guaranteeing his return next season, but his possible, even likely loss the season after.
Also needing addressed is replacing Fox favorite Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator. McCoy was hired early in the week as the next head coach of the San Diego Chargers. His departure will also likely take some of Denver’s long-time assistants away.
Once the staff is addressed, it becomes time to figure out what needs happen with the rest of the roster.
Besides Clady, other key free agent starters are slot receiver Brandon Stokley, center Dan Koppen, defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan and middle linebacker Keith Brooking. Others include running back Lance Ball, wide receiver Matt Willis, corner Tracy Porter and safeties David Bruton and Jim Leonhard.
Vickerson and Bannan would be the toughest to replace.
As it looks at present, the Broncos are in good shape nearly $19 million below the salary cap. Keep in mind the signing or franchising of Clady will take up nearly half of that and Manning’s option will pay him an additional $2 million over what he made last season. Thus, the Broncos have roughly $7 million to mess with – a fluid figure pending additions and subtractions.
Still, Elway, Fox & Co. have house money to play with.
They have, as it stands now, the 28th spot in the first round of the draft and five picks after that, missing only a sixth rounder.
What do they need to make this a better team?
The loss to Baltimore tells us they still need beef up front on both sides of the ball. That’s good timing because the draft is heavy in talented big folks.
The free-agent market is also heavy in linemen, particularly on the defensive side. Henry Melton of Chicago is only 26 and, while he would command big bucks, he would make a huge impact. Randy Starks of Miami, Jason Jones of Seattle and even the legendary Richard Seymour of Oakland are also available.
There is also the possibility of moving rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe to tackle and bring in another defensive end, Michael Bennett of Tampa Bay, Cliff Avril of Detroit, Michael Johnson of Cincinnati, even old fart Dwight Freeney of the Colts, among others.
Middle linebacker may also be addressed, with youth needed. There are no quality free agents out there, and the draft will be a tough place to find immediate help at the 28th spot. Brooking may be brought back and the injured Joe Mays returns. Still …
The team also could use more speed to the offense and add it with Danny Amendola, St. Louis slot receiver who is a free agent, or think about, gulp, Reggie Bush, the Miami running back. If size at running back is a priority, Steven Jackson, the longtime Ram standout, is also available.
Thinking drafting speed for the offense and you’ve got Tavon Austin of West Virginia, a 5-9, 175-pound Percy Harvin clone from the slot. If there is a desire to add running backs to a talented but maybe brittle corps, maybe pick up Montee Ball of Wisconsin, a Willis McGahee type who does nothing but score touchdowns, or Alabama’s bruising tailback Eddie Lacy, who may be available even in the second round.
Options abound. Denver has the building blocks in place, Elway and Fox have the vision and say they are ahead of their original pace.
With Manning healthier and stronger and more roster tweaking done, Season Three of this grand plan may indeed be something to behold.