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Broncos still need to shop efficiently in free agency before draft

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway has had moments when he looks slightly -- pick the word -- perturbed, agitated, mad, frustrated, when the Denver Broncos' free-agency work is framed as a two-day affair when the biggest deals do or don't get done. But the Broncos do still have work to do before they get to the April draft if they want to get the depth chart closer to what they want.

Elway's response this week about what the Broncos haven't done yet in free agency? "Last time I heard, we don't go to camp until July."

But free agency hit the one-week mark Thursday. That means it has downshifted substantially from the frenzied contractual gymnastics of the first 48 hours to a more plodding pace where the players who remain unsigned try to salvage the best deal they can. Since he was hired as the team's chief football decision-maker, Elway has always said free agency is when the Broncos should fill the biggest needs. He has tried to fill some of those needs in Week 2 of free agency and beyond -- most notably last year with the addition of a player such as defensive end Jared Crick, who was signed in early April.

As he put it earlier this month: "I feel more comfortable if we can take care of some needs in free agency. I think that we can supplement some needs that we have through free agency because I don't like going into the draft with big needs. If we go into the draft [with big needs], we have the propensity to reach. We try to stay out of the situation."

To this point the Broncos signed offensive linemen Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson, and defensive linemen Domata Peko and Zach Kerr. That's four players in their two areas of biggest need.

They are still needy in some spots, and in a perfect football world they could use help at others.

Left tackle: OK, they don't have one, at least one who comes without the potential of concern. Michael Schofield, Watson and Donald Stephenson could each line up there if needed, but none is the preferred solution. If the Broncos look to the draft, they will see a board loaded with edge-rushers, cornerbacks and pro-ready running backs but would probably have to use their first-round pick on a tackle from a thin class who would have the best chance to start as a rookie. But the market is thin as well for veteran players, especially when it comes to proven players who haven't battled injuries in recent seasons and remain unsigned.

No. 3 pass-catcher: Defensive coaches who faced the Broncos this past season said they felt as if they could double Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and not worry about anyone else all that much. In the end, no other Broncos wide receivers had more than 21 receptions last season. The 10 touchdown catches between Thomas and Sanders -- five each -- were also the same as the rest of the Broncos players combined. The Broncos need another impact player at wide receiver or tight end -- or even a running back -- who can stress a linebacker or safety in coverage.

Cornerback: One of the strengths of the Broncos' defense, over the past two seasons especially, has been that the unit was simply deeper at cornerback than almost every other team in the league. The Broncos could create matchups, especially in man coverages, that made things difficult on quarterbacks and set their own pass-rushers free. The departed Kayvon Webster had injuries that limited him and he was stuck as a No. 4 cornerback behind Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby. But athletically. Webster could run with teams' No. 3 and No. 4 wide receivers. The draft could provide help -- the defensive backs lit up the scouting combine with their workouts -- but the Broncos need depth.

Returner: Since Trindon Holliday went from high-impact returner to too unreliable to keep two head coaches ago, the Broncos have been little more than a frustrating collection of mix-and-match returners often selected to simply catch the ball. That's too much lost yardage, too much lost field position for a team that routinely considers itself part of a Super Bowl discussion. Elway has not used a draft pick on a return specialist in his tenure. While there are players on the draft board, at running back especially, who could be situational players and returners -- Christian McCaffrey, for one, is the returner-receiver-runner on the draft who would check several boxes -- the Broncos should still look in the open market.