DENVER -- During the final week of the Broncos' season, a huge blue dumpster sat in a parking lot adjacent to the practice field. It sat there as a catch-all as the team continues to overhaul inside meeting rooms at their Dove Valley headquarters.
However, the symbolism remained impossible to miss. Somewhere in the bottom of that steel box a diver figured to find interceptions, sacks, unused red zone gift cards and third downs lonelier than one sock.
Broncos general manager John Elway, humbled by the spectacular failure, promised a rebound in 2018. The recovery begins with a starting quarterback. It remains the question hanging over this offseason like an anvil. This is an organization not interested in starting over from scratch. The preference remains finding a veteran quarterback. But what if the Broncos are unable to land Kirk Cousins, the Hope Diamond of the free agent class, if you believe, like most, that Drew Brees will not become available?
Does the answer lie in the draft, finding a franchise arm with the fifth pick overall?
This is the first of many offseason stories about the position as I prep for the Senior Bowl next week. The focus today is on potential veteran solutions:
The case for Kirk Cousins is easy to make. And I first presented it on Dec. 20 prior to the Broncos facing Washington. If the 15th game of the season was an audition, Cousins crushed it. He threw for 299 yards behind an injury-ravaged offensive line and without top receiving weapons. Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller stoked the flames after the loss in his effusive praise of the quarterback, which echoed what multiple players said in the lead-up to the game. "I’m with everybody else. A lot of teams would kill to have a quarterback like that,” Miller explained.
Cousins, as I have said, is a top 10 quarterback. He is durable, tough, brings passionate leadership -- the Broncos desperately need an emotional rudder on offense -- and has produced eight game-winning drives over the past two seasons. He will attract a battery of suitors. The Broncos, Cardinals, Bills, Jets and Jaguars are among those with strong needs.
The contract creates squirms. It should not. It's the price of doing business at this position. CBS Sports' Joel Corry, a former agent, projected Cousins' contract this way before the season. And, um, the price has only gone up: five years, $130 million, $84.25 million guaranteed with a $22.5 million signing bonus.
To make those numbers work, the Broncos will have to move puzzle pieces. It is why I have suggested it's possible only one between Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders returns. Cornerback Aqib Talib would likely require a restructure, and multiple players could be asked to take a pay cut, such as safety Darian Stewart.
Of all the Broncos' issues offensively the past two years, the most damning is the lack of identity. The Broncos ranked 25th in touchdown passes last season with 19. They sat 31st in interceptions with 22. The offensive line allowed 52 sacks, third worst. A full year of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave calling the plays will help. But nothing provides a boost like a proven quarterback. Sign Cousins and he becomes the Broncos' offensive identity. That's all part of the price.
If not Cousins, then what? It is an unnerving question. This is where the strategy becomes more tricky. The Broncos might have to land a placeholder to keep the seat warm for a top pick. These options are not as sexy, but will be more affordable. The pros and cons:
Alex Smith, Chiefs: He is reliable. He takes care of the ball. He posted 26 touchdowns against five interceptions last season. However, he has yet to lead a home playoff win for Kansas City, no longer runs as much as he once did, and was surrounded by dynamic threats in Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill that don't currently exist in Denver.
Case Keenum, Vikings: I believe he sealed his return to Minnesota with last Sunday's miracle finish. Keenum is 13-3 this season as a starter, and deserves a four-year, $72-million deal. The argument against pursuing Keenum is his past: He was 9-15 with a 24 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in the previous four seasons.
Tyrod Taylor, Bills: He played arguably the best game of his career in a win over the Broncos last season. He is mobile and, like Smith, limits turnovers (14 touchdowns, four picks last year). But he has left the Bills always thinking there's somebody better. They need a quarterback, and are ready to move on from him.
Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings: A former first-round pick with leadership qualities and resilience. But what is the upside? Before a gruesome knee injury that limited him to one game the past seasons he had 28 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Eli Manning, Giants: Manning Part Deux. Sounds great. Manning has two rings, and has excelled in big games. The Broncos hiring of quarterback coach Mike Sullivan, at the very least, cracks the door open. However, Manning has not aged well. He has thrown 128 touchdowns to 84 interceptions over the last five seasons and he sits 13 games under .500 as a starter during that stretch. He has a $5 million roster bonus due this offseason that could determine his future in New York. As said before, he makes a lot of sense for Jacksonville.
Andy Dalton, Bengals: Would Cincinnati be willing to move in a different direction? Dalton's contract makes him vulnerable. He has played at a high level at various times, but not last season. He has also never won a playoff game.
Nick Foles, Eagles: I crowd sourced this suggestion on Twitter and, in more than 50 replies, received roughly 45 no-votes. Foles would be a placeholder for a top pick.