DENVER — When the Broncos' alarming spiral of ineffectiveness ended with four straight losses and a third consecutive season with no playoffs, general manager John Elway began sorting through the mess. He wanted a new coach, and landed on first-timer Vic Fangio, engineer of the game's best defense last season. He welcomed new coordinators, including first-timer Rich Scangarello, who has never called plays at the professional level. And he made a bold move, acquiring Baltimore's Joe Flacco, which will become official on March 13, and preparing to move on from Case Keenum.
Elway admits he's not afraid to keep swinging when it comes to finding a quarterback. Flacco will mark the fifth starter since Peyton Manning retired. If Flacco fills the air with footballs and magic like it's 2014, the Broncos will contend for a postseason berth. If not, well, they could be looking for their sixth starter since Manning in the 2020 draft.
Acquiring Flacco is the first of many upcoming moves. As the Broncos prepare to head to the NFL Combine next week, my Denver7 questions facing the team:
What's next for Emmanuel Sanders?
When healthy, Sanders was the Broncos' second-best offensive player behind Phillip Lindsay. Sanders finished with 71 receptions for 868 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown and threw for another. Had Sanders played 16 games — he ruptured his Achilles running a route in practice after the 12th game — he projected to finish with 95 catches for 1,157 yards. Those are elite numbers for an offense that has spent the past three years bereft of caffeine. So there's an argument to keep the veteran, even as he turns 32 in March. On March 12, $1.5 million of his $10.25 million 2019 salary becomes guaranteed. There's clearly a scenario that involves the Broncos exercising that option to buy them more time to see how Sanders, who has been ahead of schedule in his recovery, heals from his injury. He has no injury guarantee in his contract, so the Broncos, if they choose, could slow play it with Sanders for months and into training camp.
The other option is clear. Sanders already said he will not restructure his contract. Denver could pursue his replacement in free agency — like Pierre Garcon or Golden Tate — and cut ties with the accomplished veteran. Regardless, the Broncos need at least one experienced receiver, if not two, to help Flacco's adjustment to his new team.
What's up with Derek Wolfe?
Like Sanders, Wolfe is a fan favorite and a link to Super Bowl 50 glory. He showed improved health last season after neck surgery. However, he has 3.5 sacks over the past two seasons with a $9.5 million salary this year. He is a core player on the field and in the locker room. As it stands, it's more likely the Broncos keep Wolfe, guaranteeing the $1 million option bonus of his salary by March 8. It would be cool to see Wolfe receive an extension, perhaps paving the way for him to retire as a Bronco. More plausible is that they keep him and let him play on the final year of his deal.
Will Matt Paradis return?
All signs pointed toward him staying last summer as the sides talked contract and appeared to be moving toward a resolution. Now? Not so much. Paradis played 3,850 consecutive snaps before breaking his right fibula on Nov. 4. He told me this week his leg "feels great," and that he's making notable strides in his recovery. The Broncos will let him test free agency. In the past, that means the player is unlikely to return. The Broncos like Paradis, but are reluctant to give him a contract similar to that of Ryan Jensen. As the top free agent center last year, Jensen, a former Fort Morgan High and CSU-Pueblo star, received $10.5 million per season and $22 million guaranteed. If Paradis finds strong interest, he is expected to move on, leaving Connor McGovern as his replacement.
Do Brandon Marshall, Domata Peko have futures in Denver?
Marshall told Denver7 last week his agent let him know the Broncos are prepared to move on without him. The Broncos have no intention of paying him $6.5 million this season. Domata Peko is a free agent, and not currently in Denver's plans. This was always the blueprint. If Peko remains available after the first few waves of free agency, the Broncos might consider bringing him back. I have never covered an athlete with a better attitude and energy. However, Peko is 34 and entering his 14th season. Denver will look to go younger in the draft or possibly with a free agent like Jonathan Hankins, per Benjamin Allbright.
Who is the free agent the Broncos could sign first?
Among their own free agents, lineman Billy Turner makes the most sense given the dollars involved. He's versatile, showing the ability to play tackle or guard. With Jared Veldheer's future uncertain — the Broncos could wait him out to see where his market settles — Turner provides depth. The Broncos have talked with his reps recently. I spoke at length with linebacker Shaquil Barrett last week, and he has talked with the Broncos about meeting new linebackers coach Brandon Staley. He told me he would like to stay, but he wants to start, "and I don't know how that would happen here" with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb entrenched.
Would it make sense to give Chris Harris Jr. an extension?
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sets the tone with his play. He is a coach on the field. As the Broncos shift to a no-nonsense approach under Fangio, Harris makes sense to lock up longterm. Before that happens, they need to figure out who is going to flank him. Harris has reached a point in his career where winning is paramount. If I am him, I wait to see how the offseason unfolds before determining how he fits going forward and the money that would take to extend him. He projects as a future Ring of Famer, so seeing him end his career in Denver would be fitting.
What are the draft needs to eye at Combine?
The Broncos pending acquisition of Flacco makes it unlikely they draft a quarterback 10th overall. They would have to fall in love with one of the prospects, and that hasn't happened or Flacco would not be headed this way. The Broncos' holes are obvious: They need a cornerback with Bradley Roby not expected back. There are multiple players in the conversation at the 10th pick overall, among them Washington's Byron Murphy, Georgia's DeAndre Baker and LSU's Greedy Williams. They could land an inside linebacker like LSU's Devin White, who is effective in the run and pass game. Or trade back and pursue multiple needs, perhaps a right tackle, with an extra pick.