ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Here is a breakdown of the first week of free agency for the Denver Broncos:
Most significant signing: When the Broncos reeled in guard Ronald Leary on the day the market opened, the team got an ascending player headed into his second contract who fills a gaping need. Leary will start and, if he improves only a little from this past season, the Broncos will have made a sound investment. Leary is the kind of presence the Broncos desperately need in the middle of the offensive line, given they were near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game last season. Leary played left guard for the Dallas Cowboys but said he believes he could play either side in the Broncos' offense.
Most significant loss: The Broncos were only lukewarm to their own free agents this time around. They re-signed safety Darian Stewart before the 2016 season drew to a close, and he would have been the priority if he had he not agreed to that deal. Nose tackle Sylvester Williams and special teams captain Kayvon Webster, who signed with the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Rams respectively, had significant roles that will need to be filled. Williams was a starter, and the Broncos have signed Domata Peko and Zach Kerr as potential replacements. The Broncos declined the fifth-year option on Williams’ deal last year, and though they would have brought him back at their price, he figured to move on all along.
Player they should have signed: Only defensive tackle Calais Campbell and his wife know how close he was to returning to his hometown, but the Broncos believe they were close to signing the Denver native. The Broncos went after Campbell hard and, in the end, Denver’s interest likely got Campbell plenty more money in Jacksonville. He signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Jaguars; that’s a $15 million per year average. The Broncos were closer to the $13 million to $14 million range and stuck to their budget. Their discipline has served them well, as they have kept their salary business in order, even with five division titles and two Super Bowl trips in the past six seasons, but Campbell likely would have been worth the splurge.
What’s next: Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said over and over again he believes free agency is where a team should sign for need so the draft can be used to acquire the most talented players on the board, regardless of position. The Broncos need a left tackle, a returner and a consistent third target in the passing game. Elway has said he isn't finished with the makeover of the offensive line, but neither Watson nor Donald Stephenson is the likely solution. Also, Elway hasn’t used a draft pick on a return specialist in his tenure. If the Broncos don’t believe players such as Bennie Fowler or Jordan Taylor are ready to make a significant jump in their play, they need some wide receiver help. Other than Demaryius Thomas (90 catches) and Emmanuel Sanders (79), no Broncos wide receiver had more than 21 receptions last season. Defenses will keep doubling Thomas and Sanders until the Broncos find somebody who forces them to do otherwise.
Overall grade: B. The Broncos weren’t going to plow into free agency in binge mode like they did in 2014. The roster is in a different place than it was then, and they have spent most of their free-agency money on their own guys, including Thomas, Sanders, Chris Harris Jr., C.J. Anderson, Von Miller and Stewart in recent seasons. The Broncos needed productive players at some positions. Leary will be a starter in the offensive line, and tackle Menelik Watson can be if the Broncos can somehow solve the riddle of a gifted player who has been slowed by a string of injuries. Peko has been a durable, productive pro for more than a decade and should start on the defensive line. Zach Kerr should get situational work in the defense, and linebacker Kasim Edebali should, at minimum, be a regular on special teams.