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Mason's Mailbag: A look ahead to free agency

Posted Jan 8, 2017

As the coaching search continues, the Mailbag focuses on the Broncos' key free agents, thoughts on Cody Latimer and Jeff Heuerman, and the author's dim view of rumors and hearsay.

You can tweet questions to me with the hashtag #AskMase or use the submission form to your right (if you're viewing on a standard browser) or at the bottom of the page if you're on the mobile site.

Mase, I was really impressed with the downfield blocking of Cody Latimer, do you think he showed enough Sunday to warrant another year in Denver? Also, I though Jeff Heuerman played really well, do you think we may be seeing the beginning of two good careers finally?

-- Jonathan Jenkins

Latimer has always shown enough on special teams to warrant a role, and his physicality on the outside in run blocking cannot be overlooked. His work helped the Broncos average 5.0 yards per carry in the 87 rushes for which he was on the field, compared to 3.26 yards for the running plays in which he did not take part.

What looms over Latimer is that the clock is ticking -- loudly. Next year is the last on his rookie contract. And although he's a dependable blocker and special-teamer, he's at the now-or-never point of his career as a receiver, and his career totals remain disappointingly low: 158 yards and a touchdown on 16 receptions. Late breakouts can happen; Miles Austin ended up with a 10-year career, two Pro Bowl appearances and over 5,000 receiving yards in spite of catching just 18 passes in the 37 games in which he played over his first three seasons. And you saw Saturday what Paul Richardson did for Seattle after three quiet seasons; he was picked 11 selections ahead of Latimer.

Heuerman looked the part in the last three games when he was pressed into service. Whether it was a corner-turning moment or not will depend on whether he can stay healthy and what the 2017 coaching staff thinks of him. For Heuerman, Latimer and many others on the roster, the jury is not simply out -- it hasn't even been seated, because the next head coach will help determine the offensive philosophy and staff.

Exclusive-rights free agents: Players with two or fewer seasons of service time with expiring contracts. Retaining these players takes only tending a qualifying offer -- a one-year deal that can be at the league minimum. Denver's exclusive-rights free agents this year include two first-teamers -- long snapper Casey Kreiter and center Matt Paradis -- and a host of key backups, most notably WRs Jordan Taylor and Bennie Fowler and OLB Shaquil Barrett.

Restricted free agents: Players with three accrued seasons and expiring contracts. Teams place tenders on RFAs at various levels that correspond to the compensation from another team if they are signed; if they do not place a tender, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. Two first-teamers are RFAs: kicker Brandon McManus and ILB Todd Davis.

Unrestricted free agents: Players with four or more accrued seasons and expiring contracts that are not slapped with the franchise or transition tags. Denver's UFAs this year include RB Justin Forsett, long snapper Thomas Gafford, WR Jordan Norwood, OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Dekoda Watson, DEs Vance Walker and Billy Winn, CB Kayvon Webster and NT Sylvester Williams.

I don't detect that mindset at all, although the departure of Gary Kubiak and the potential changes that could come with a new head coach and assistants. And with those changes, discerning the needs and priorities for free agency and the draft is something that is in flux; systemic changes and the priorities for any new coaches could dictate what comes next.

As mentioned earlier, scheme and priorities for the coaching staff will determine what type of players the Broncos seek -- and whether the answers are on the roster already or not.

But on the offensive line, you've got some possibilities. Start with Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth; he's 35 years old, but playing the best football of his career. He has said he wants to return to Cincinnati, but he could be an ideal complement to a raw, athletic tackle in the draft who needs a year or two to get up to speed. Whitworth's teammate, Kevin Zeitler, is perhaps the best guard on the market; as a veteran of four seasons, he's in his prime and will command a hefty price. If the Broncos retain their current scheme, Baltimore right tackle Ricky Wagner could be a nice fit; he had his best season in 2014 working in Kubiak's offense. I'd also expect a lot of teams to look at Dallas left guard Ron Leary, who reportedly requested a trade last spring after losing his job to La'el Collins, but then did well stepping back in after Collins was injured.

I keep hearing from my cousin, though I don't live in Colorado anymore and don't get local news. He keeps telling me that talks are generating around Tony Romo going to Denver. Is this a wise choice for Denver to make given Tony's recurring injuries.

-- Christopher Abad

Well, my best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with a girl ... Sorry, you gave me a Ferris Bueller's Day Off flashback.

Unless your cousin works for the Broncos, I wouldn't put any stock in anything he says on this subject. The Romo chatter is just that -- chatter from fans, media, etc.

Further, there's too much at the moment to even think about Romo, even if he didn't have a massive cap number and a litany of injuries that have cost him nearly all of the last two seasons. The first task is getting a head coach. The second task is upgrading the offensive line, which could chew up a huge portion of the available salary-cap space if the Broncos opt for an overhaul of the unit -- space that would prevent the addition of Romo.

Even if DeMarcus Ware does not return, I don't think another edge rusher is a pressing need, not with a starting-quality outside linebacker set to work as a reserve behind Miller and Shane Ray. What the Broncos need to ease the burden on Miller is more pressure from the inside. They had some success with a "NASCAR" package of speed rushers that included three outside linebackers with Derek Wolfe or four OLBs, but what they need is the kind of consistent interior pressure they had with Wolfe and Malik Jackson playing off of each other in 2015.

What is the plausibility of the Broncos hiring a person like Payton Manning as the head coach?

-- Carter Ward

I don't know about "Payton Manning," but as for Peyton Manning, it's an implausibility.

No.

The 2013 Broncos would win that hypothetical matchup.

Both teams had explosive offenses that helped define their eras. The 2013 Broncos are the apex of the air-centric, precision-passingstyle that helps define 2010s football. Washington's high-octane, versatile attack took the "Air Coryell" concepts Joe Gibbs learned from his days with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers and added a power-running game with John Riggins, showing the value of balance that would be a key characteristic of the most efficient offenses of the next dozen years -- the 1980s and 1990s 49ers, the 1990s Cowboys, etc.

But the difference was their defenses. Even with Champ Bailey grappling with injuries and Von Miller suspended for six games and lost to a torn ACL, the Broncos remained a mid-table defense, ranking 16th in yardage allowed per play. Washington ranked 24th of 28 teams in that same statistic, and was weak at cornerback, with future Hall of Famer Darrell Green still just a rookie learning his way and Anthony Washington struggling on the other side.

No. If we penalized every college-basketball team that won on a missed call -- especially with crucial missed calls happening throughout the game -- you'd have so many wins turned into losses you might be left with Missouri at No. 1.

Submit a question for the next Mailbag!

The analysis, opinion and speculation in this story represents that of the author, gathered through research and reporting, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Denver Broncos organization.

Mason's Mailbag


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