After 5-11 finish, Broncos players know 'nobody is safe'

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When he was a fixture in the Denver Broncos' locker room, wide receiver Rod Smith said there was one place in the team’s complex he didn’t go unless he was asked -- no, ordered -- to go.

“And that was upstairs," Smith said. “Upstairs is where they decide if you stay or go, whether you’re outside the wall or inside the wall. I never went up there unless they told me. Hey, man, I didn’t want them to see me up there walking around and say, ‘Why ain’t he working?’ So, hell no, I never went up there, especially after the season was over."

Well, things are going to pop upstairs in the weeks and months to come. That is where John Elway’s nicely appointed office is, after all, and while Elway will listen to a variety of opinions as the team tries to dig out of its 5-11 finish, the decisions will ultimately come from Elway’s desk.

Though the fact is now somewhat lost in the team’s Super Bowl win that closed out the 2015 season, most of the Broncos’ players from before that season who are still on the roster know there is no move Elway won’t consider, no contract he won’t give a second look to, no player who is off limits.

Because in the weeks before the Broncos players reported for their offseason workouts in 2015, Elway asked none other than Peyton Manning to take a pay cut. The two sides eventually agreed on a $4 million reduction, money that Manning eventually earned back with $2 million bonuses for wins in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl 50.

But Manning was Manning, a Mount Rushmore type of player who was coming off a 39-touchdown season in 2014 -- the third-highest single-season total of his career -- and Elway not only broached the topic, he followed through. That was almost three years and two playoff misses ago for the Broncos, but the waves still reverberate.

“We know nobody is safe," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said when the Broncos players exited for the offseason. “We all have to see what the direction is, what they decide. They’ve said some of the players here will be the ones to help get it back, but they said 'some.' There’s always change, but it feels like this year could be more than we’ve had."

In that regard, as much as the Broncos marquee players have said they’d like to see their “core" group remain, back-to-back playoff misses mean that might not be the case. Elway has promised to do what’s needed to return the team to the postseason conversation.

And while his move in the preseason to release Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward to get Justin Simmons into the lineup was the target of plenty of criticism, both inside and outside the team, Simmons proved to be an impact player on defense and Ward made just five starts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Elway has said of those kinds of decisions: “You look at different players and how you evaluate players that got better and played as well as you thought they should or other players who didn’t play as well as you thought they should.

“It’s a tough situation. Evaluations are always tough. We continue to learn. I think every time you make a choice or make a decision on a guy, you see how it turns out. Then you look at it and ask, ‘How could I have gotten better? What did I miss? What did I get?"

This time, the statuses of running back C.J. Anderson, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and cornerback Aqib Talib -- each with two years remaining on his contract -- will bear watching. Even a player such as Demaryius Thomas, who has been a team captain and is the longest-tenured player on the roster as a first-round pick by the Broncos in 2010, could get a look, as well.

Thomas is due a bonus of $4 million, and the Broncos have to pick up the bonus between Feb. 10 and the first day of the new league year in March. If the Broncos don’t pay the bonus, that would void the final year of the five-year contract Thomas signed in 2015, and he would be a free agent.

Linebacker Von Miller was asked earlier this month if there was any move Elway wouldn’t give some thought to, and Miller said simply:

“None; it’s all out there to him. He’s John Elway. He signed Peyton, he signed DeMarcus [Ware], he’s let people go. He’ll do anything, and we know it, we trust in that, we know that’s how it is."