The Denver Broncos believed that this was their year. The 2012 playoff disappointment sparked the Broncos to chase Wes Welker, Shaun Phillips and others in free agency -- missing pieces for a team that entered the season off back-to-back AFC West titles and was set as a prohibitive favorite to win the conference.
But winning the conference did not prove much of a problem. Denver rolled to another division crown, then manhandled San Diego and New England in the playoffs, only to implode against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII.
This coming offseason will be a busy one for the Broncos, who may be down to the final year of their Peyton Manning window. Here's an early look at what is to come:
It could be tight. Even if the league's salary cap bumps up a bit to around $123 million, as expected, the Broncos could be right up against that line. Relief, though, could come from a couple sources:
1. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's contract voids at the end of this week, which will clear $5.5 million off the books.
2. Denver reportedly has some decent carryover money saved from this season -- around $6 million, according to Forbes. Applying that to next season's cap would give the Broncos a little more wiggle room and, combined with Rodgers-Cromartie's transaction, could leave the Broncos with an extra $12 million or so.
That's helpful but not problem-solving. Some decisions could further help the cause. The most obvious: cutting or renegotiating the contract of cornerback Champ Bailey. He is in line to earn $10 million next season but none of it is guaranteed, meaning Denver could cut ties with no penalties.
There are a few more obvious potential cap casualties here -- Chris Kuper ($4.1 million savings if he's cut), Jacob Tamme ($3 million), Joel Dreessen ($2.5 million), Kevin Vickerson ($2 million) among them.
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The Broncos face decisions aplenty here, too, with 16 players and no less than nine starters about to hit the free-agent market. The toughest to keep may be wide receiver Eric Decker, who figures to land a healthy deal despite his Super Bowl disappearing act. Though his position may be less coveted, running back Knowshon Moreno is in a similar boat following a bounce-back 2013 season and subsequent no-show in the Super Bowl. As it is, the Broncos have 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball ready to take over the No. 1 gig, with 2012 draft selection Ronnie Hillman behind him.
Reports already have the Broncos ready to re-sign defensive end Shaun Phillips, who unexpectedly became an irreplaceable force this season. Doing so certainly will cost them more than the $1 million they paid in base salary for the 2013 season. Robert Ayers also is on track to be a free agent, although Von Miller should make his way back into the Broncos' plans for 2014.
And what of starting guard Zane Beadles? He enjoyed a stellar 2013, but did he price himself out of Denver's budget? Keep in mind that the AFC champs spent some dough to add fellow starting guard Louis Vasquez last offseason.
Yet another tough call awaits on linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who opened the year calling plays for the defense. He ceded those duties to Danny Trevathan after suffering a couple injuries, but he's still a valuable Bronco. Like several other players mentioned here, he simply may find more money outside of Denver.
The secondary could face the most turnover. Bailey's and Rodgers-Cromartie's futures are in limbo, as mentioned above. It's a safe bet that at least one returns for 2014; keeping both could come down to the numbers game. Safety Mike Adams, a part-time starter alongside Duke Ihenacho in the secondary, will want a bump over the $2 million he made this season ($1.75 million base plus $250K bonus).
Denver's focus may fall on the cornerback and safety spots once free agency opens full-bore. From there, the offensive line and possibly the skill positions could be the next priorities.
John Fox's contract likely will be one of the first things the Broncos tackle this offseason. He has just one season left on his current deal, at a very cheap $3.5 million. That number could be close to doubled -- $7 million is what Pete Carroll reportedly made this year.
All the other key players should be back, including offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who earlier withdrew from the Cleveland Browns' head coaching search. Gase helped the Broncos to record-setting numbers in his first season calling the plays; his stock could shoot through the roof with a repeat in 2014, especially if Denver avoids a playoff meltdown like the one put on display Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio once was rumored to be a USC coaching candidate. With that job now off the table, Del Rio should return. The Broncos defense stepped up late in the season and throughout the AFC playoffs.
Everything's by the book right now -- Denver will pick 31st in each round on account of its Super Bowl loss, and it holds each of its original seven picks. Using a couple of those choices to address some of the aforementioned problem spots almost certainly will be a main strategy. This is a particularly deep receiver class, too, so if Decker bolts in free agency the Broncos could look for a cheap replacement in one of the first three rounds.
The AFC West draws the NFC West for next season's crossover games, which not only means that Denver faces a rematch with Seattle (in Seattle, no less) but also that it must contend with arguably the toughest division in the league. It's possible that the NFL will send the Broncos to Seattle for its traditional season-opener, but the Broncos' participation against Baltimore in that game this season and the lopsided Super Bowl outcome might scrap that plan.
Denver also travels to St. Louis and hosts San Francisco and Arizona in that West-vs.-West setup.
Also on the slate are four games with the AFC East -- at New England and the Jets; home against Buffalo and Miami. The other non-AFC West games send Denver to Cincinnati and bring Andrew Luck's Colts to Mile High.
Few teams will have a harder slate awaiting them in 2014, so the Broncos will have to work for a fourth straight AFC West title. [si_video id="video_05DD4B6E-72A1-C673-548F-F970B52ACB9E" height="475"]