Yes, Super Bowl 50 just ended, but the NFL never sleeps, so it's time to take a look at what every team must do for a better season the next time around. We'll start with the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, who face several interesting and franchise-altering decisions this offseason.
In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos were thrashed by a Seahawks defense that constricted everything Denver’s league-leading offense tried to do. But following that beatdown, EVP John Elway built a defense reflecting that Seattle squad, and brought in Wade Phillips to direct it. The result? A third Super Bowl win for the Denver franchise, after they took apart Carolina’s league-leading offense in Super Bowl 50.
For much of the season, though, the Broncos leaned on that defense—because on offense, the Broncos were either struggling with Peyton Manning or learning a new way with backup Brock Osweiler while Manning was hurt. And what they do in the off-season will determine whether this iteration of the team is a one-off, or a potential dynasty.
Now comes the work for the defending champs.
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Key free agents
OLB Von Miller, DE Malik Jackson, OG Evan Mathis, ILB Danny Trevathan, ILB Brandon Marshall, QB Brock Osweiler, OT Ryan Harris, TE Vernon Davis, DE Antonio Smith, SS David Bruton, WR Andre Caldwell, RB Ronnie Hillman.
Player(s) that must be re-signed: Miller, Jackson, Mathis, Trevathan, Marshall
Miller proved his worth to the team in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 50, when he proved to be an unblockable force who could tilt a game by his sheer will. The Broncos won’t let the MVP of Super Bowl 50 go: they’ll either come to terms on a new deal, or slap Miller with the franchise tag. Jackson was one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL through the 2015 campaign, registering seven sacks, eight quarterback hits, 45 hurries, and 28 stops. The Broncos have already rewarded fellow end Derek Wolfe with a lucrative extension, so there may not be enough left for Jackson, but it would be unfortunate for that great Denver defense if he slipped out the door.
In addition, the Broncos may be facing the loss of one of their starting inside linebackers with Marshall and Trevathan as impending free agents, and both are exceptional in run-stopping and pass coverage. Mathis was a late addition to the team and became Denver’s best overall offensive lineman in a short period of time. QBOsweiler, on the other hand is a different (and more complicated) story...
Most important position to improve: Quarterback
Whether Peyton Manning decides to hang ’em up or not, the simple fact is that he doesn’t have enough left in the tank to be a top-level starter in the NFL, so the Broncos need to go elsewhere. They could stick with Osweiler and give him the kind of contracts given to quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton in recent years—big money per year, but essentially renewable or voidable at the end of every season. The Broncos wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl without Osweiler, who kept the team humming with impressive comeback wins against the Bengals and Patriots in the regular season.
Osweiler is an athletic player with a great arm, and he was selected by the Elway regime in the second round of the 2012 draft. He’s got a complete grasp of the system, and fits Kubiak’s system better than Manning did. Expect the Broncos to look for some veteran leadership in a backup, but the smart play here would be to re-sign Osweiler and make him their man of the future.
Other positions to improve: Running back, right tackle, guard
C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman did alright through the 2015 season—Anderson in particular had some transcendent moments—but the new-look Broncos offense could use the kind of every-down back Kubiak had in Houston with Arian Foster. Right tackle Michael Schofield was by far the most vulnerable member of that offensive line, with nine sacks, eight hits and 40 hurries allowed. In addition, if Mathis moves along, there will be a need for depth at the guard position. Of course, needs at end and inside linebacker will depend on how many of their priority free agents the Broncos are able to retain.
Top priority this offseason: Define life after Peyton Manning
In a lot of ways, the specter of life after Manning offers the Broncos a lot of freedom. Not only does it free up a lot of cap space, but Kubiak doesn’t have to split the difference between his under-center passing game and the pistol/shotgun concepts Manning prefers. Most likely, Denver’s offense will get tougher from down to down, with an improved offensive line and new pieces behind the quarterback in the run game. If the Broncos are able to match this with their truly transcendent defense, a trip to Super Bowl LI is not out of the question.