With the countdown to free agency in its final stages, it’s time to take a look at the Denver Broncos' top needs in the open market.
The Broncos are expected to aggressive once the signings formally begin Tuesday. Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need, and the draft is then the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.
Plenty of folks in the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets, then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial wave of signings has passed.
It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.
Tuesday: Running back
Why it’s an issue: For most of the past six seasons, when the Broncos had a problem at linebacker and circumstances demanded they do something, they usually moved Wesley Woodyard somewhere in the formation to try to make things right. When it was an injury, a D.J. Williams suspension or a Von Miller suspension, or just the desire for a little something different, Woodyard was often the man for the plan.
Woodyard is an unrestricted free agent, coming off a difficult season when he suffered a stinger and eventually lost his starting job. The Broncos appear to be moving on as he goes in search of a starting job.
The player who replaced Woodyard in the starting lineup a middle linebacker, Paris Lenon, 36, was a stop-gap signing last August and is an unrestricted free agent.
Nate Irving, who the Broncos have tried at middle linebacker on multiple occasions, has shown himself to be a far better on the strong side. Von Miller is working back from ACL surgery, and Danny Trevathan is a foundation player in the defense on the weak side.
The Broncos need/want somebody in the middle, somebody with enough power to bring some presence to plays in and around the line of scrimmage yet with enough athleticism to drop into coverage. With the right player, the Broncos could go from having a middle linebacker who is simply a situational player (as they did down the stretch with Lenon) to a player who plays the middle on early down and stays in the formation with Trevathan in the nickel. Woodyard did this with success before his injury.
The Broncos had two games this past season -- against Washington and Tennessee -- when they were in a base 4-3 look more than they were in their specialty packages. They had four games this season when they were in the base defense, with three linebackers, for 12 or fewer snaps. That could change in 2014, because the Broncos will have the rough-and-tumble NFC West on their schedule.
The best out there: It is not a deep group of inside linebackers poised for the open market, and the Broncos have already worked out a player -- Lofa Tatupu -- who has not played in three years.
The Broncos would have taken a look at Donald Butler, but the San Diego Chargers signed Butler last week to deal that is worth almost $20 million over the first three years with a team option for four additional years. The Broncos also had D'Qwell Jackson in for a visit, but Jackson then signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts. The Buccaneers also re-signed Jonathan Casillas to a one-year deal this past weekend.
The Colts' Pat Angerer is set for the open market, but has had foot and knee injuries over the past two seasons to go with a concussion. The Colts’ Kavell Conner is a free agent, and played in 10 games this past season as a reserve at inside linebacker.
Jon Beason played for Broncos head coach John Fox in Carolina -- Beason was the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2007 -- and is acting as his own agent. He sent an e-mail to teams saying he was the contact for any contract talks, but by rule teams could not respond to that e-mail, because Beason is a player and players cannot have direct contact with team officials until Tuesday.
Only agents could negotiate this past weekend before the formal opening of free agency.
But the biggest risk/reward riddle for the Broncos among inside linebackers is Karlos Dansby, who will require some of the biggest money that will get spent at this position. Dansby is coming off a 114-tackle, 6.5-sack, four-interception season at inside linebacker in the Arizona Cardinals' 3-4 scheme. But Dansby will be 33 in November and never has been named to a Pro Bowl despite having been a franchise player multiple times in his career.
He has the kind of range and lower-body power, even at about 230 pounds, to flourish in the Broncos’ defense, but it will take blue-chip money if the Broncos choose to pursue him.
Bottom line: With fewer college linebackers fitting as an NFL middle linebacker because of the proliferation of spread offenses in the college game, the Broncos will look hard at the free agent market to fill this hole.