Earl Mitchell's visit shows Broncos' continued focus on defense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Throughout his tenure as the Denver Broncos chief football decision-maker, John Elway has routinely offered one verbal nugget early in each offseason that sets the course for the following weeks and months.

One year it was “there’s no Plan B.” Another year it was, “we want to win now -- on.”

This year, he has offered two major missives. The first is to “go forward” with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch with Elway saying: “I’m excited about the quarterbacks that we have.” Veteran quarterbacks like Tony Romo and Tyrod Taylor are expected to be in the open market in the next two weeks. It remains to be seen whether Elway will hold his ground when free agency opens March 9.

The other nugget Elway has offered in recent weeks was about the importance of upgrading the Broncos’ struggling offensive line -- and the offense in general -- and where it fits on the offseason to-do list. Among the team’s faithful, fixing the line is likely the top priority, with an continental-sized gap until the next item.

Elway, however, has said: “The priority is to continue to be great on defense. The No. 1 priority is to stay there. That’s to not take a step back defensively.”

To that end, it shouldn’t really be a shock that the first free agent the Broncos have met with, at least with their full-court press technique of dinner in Denver, is defensive lineman Earl Mitchell. Mitchell was among the players the Miami Dolphins released to create salary-cap room.

Mitchell also fits the Elway profile in free agency -- a productive player who fits what they do, who's under 30 years old and still has some room to grow on the developmental curve. Mitchell has also played for current Broncos defensive line coach Bill Kollar when the two were with the Houston Texans. Broncos head coach Vance Joseph was also on Gary Kubiak’s staff during that time.

Mitchell is coming off a calf injury last season which put him on injured reserve for seven games. He returned to play in the last nine games of regular season and he started the last five.

At the moment, the Broncos are the only team with a 3-4 defense that Mitchell is scheduled to visit -- the 49ers, Seahawks and the Falcons were expected to be the others by the time Mitchell had made his tour.

Mitchell signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the Dolphins in 2014, so this is Elway working toward a value signing to fill a need with defensive linemen Sylvester Williams and Vance Walker scheduled for unrestricted free agency. It is worth noting, Walker was in the team’s group that went to dinner with Mitchell on Wednesday night.

Free agency doesn’t open for two more weeks, but the salary cap is expected to take another jump and the chatter around the league is it’s going to take big money to snag the upper-tier offensive linemen on the open market.

That's especially the case for the guards and tackles in the under-30 club, such as the Bengals' Kevin Zeitler, the Lions' Larry Warford, the Cowboys' Ronald Leary, the Jaguars' Kelvin Beachum, the Packers' T.J. Lang and the Vikings' Brandon Fusco and Matt Kalil. Kalil is coming off hip surgery (Sept. 23) and is expected to be ready to participate in offseason workouts.

There’s plenty of work for the Broncos to do, and they have the salary-cap room to jump in when they see their chance. But Mitchell’s visit has been a tidy little reminder that Elway likes to stick to his plan.