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At start of free agency, don't forget about what's on the roster

Win 40 games. three division titles and a conference championship in three years, and your roster will change -- like it or not.

The salary cap and cash budget of NFL teams dictates that. Your players have enhanced value on the market for teams looking to bolster their own rosters -- and, from the perspective of less successful teams, to tap into the success you've had and attempt to make it their own by importing a player from that successful club.

It wasn't that long ago that the Broncos were among that second category of teams. Now they're in the first, and as with the draft, the salary cap -- and salary floor -- is designed to help the strugglers up, and hurt the teams at the top.

But you reduce or eliminate the damage if you draft and develop well -- well enough to create a deep roster that can withstand free-agent losses.

Realistically, the Broncos can't use free agency to fill all the gaps that this week's free-agency period will likely create with starters lost to the open market. They must do what the teams that have built long-term success have done: trust the options they develop from within their roster.

"That's the coaching staff, and that's Gary's mindset, the coaching staff's mindset. They're not afraid to play young guys," Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway said at the Scouting Combine. "So I think the guys that we draft and bring in this year, they're going to use them all and get them coached up."

But some veterans with untapped potential could be crucial to this equation, as well.

At safety, David Bruton Jr. could be an answer. The second-longest tenured Bronco -- and last remaining player from the 2009 draft class -- has been known for his special-teams performance, with only a scattering of starts. But in the last month of the regular season, the Broncos used him more in sub packages, and he turned in the best safety play of his career to date, using his speed, anticipation and experience to attack and defuse screen and swing passes.

In's metrics, he graded out at plus-4.4 for the last four weeks of the season -- a positive mark almost entirely based on his work in coverage and the range he showed. That's what the Broncos would ask of a free safety, and if Rahim Moore moves on in free agency, Bruton could be a viable option to expand his workload.

"I'm looking forward to that opportunity: not just to be out there on special teams, but also, to take advantage of my opportunity to play defense," Bruton said.

At wide receiver, Cody Latimer is in line for an expanded workload. Although he is not a pure slot receiver like free agent Wes Welker, his 57-yard reception from Brock Osweiler in the preseason finale came from out of the slot.

"Usually a player like that is going to make their biggest jump from year one to two," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said at the Scouting Combine.

Further, the presence of Emmanuel Sanders, who can slide inside to the slot in three-wide receiver sets, would give Latimer the opportunity to work on the outside on occasions he, Sanders and franchise-tendered Demaryius Thomas lined up together.

"We have high expectations for Cody," Elway said. "Obviously he didn't have the production that I'm sure he would have liked to have, as well as us, but he took advantage of all the opportunities he got last year and he'll get a lot more opportunities this year."

More opportunities could be in line for the pick that followed Latimer in the Broncos' 2013 draft class, offensive lineman Michael Schofield, as free agency plus the return of Louis Vasquez to his ideal right guard spot could create changes up front.

But Schofield never got a jersey after the preseason. Sixteen regular-season games and one postseason contest, and he was inactive every time. Even when the right tackle spot was clouded by instability, the didn't get a look.

"We were excited about Schofield coming out of preseason, and we couldn't get him a uni(form)," Elway said.

That figures to change in the coming months. He has positional flexibility, and worked at left guard in college, but Elway noted at the Combine that he sees him as "more of a right tackle."

"Especially when we look at where we are, and the offensive line, and right tackle's a need for us. That's what we drafted him for, is to play right tackle," Elway said. "We think it's a good fit for him. He's just a young guy, and those guys grow and mature. Having a year under his belt, age, as well as a year in the weight room, is going to make him that much better, too."

Kubiak concurs.

"I knew him well, because we liked him in Baltimore," Kubiak said. "I know he's a kid that needed some weight, but had the ability. I think everybody felt good about his progress, so we'll see."

Center Matt Paradis could also be an answer after spending last year developing on the practice squad. The cerebral, athletic Boise State product could be an ideal fit for a zone-blocking based scheme.

"I think a lot of him," said Kubiak, who visited with Paradis last month. "I remember coming to Denver years ago and there was a guy on the practice squad in Tommy Nalen."

It wasn't just Nalen that Kubiak inherited upon his arrival as offensive coordinator 20 years ago, but another eventual Ring of Famer, Rod Smith. They had to start somewhere. So did countless others who flourished once the opportunity arose.

"Hopefully we'll find some of those guys, but I know there are some good young players, and it's our job to get them going here, come April," Kubiak said.

This quartet isn't the end of Broncos who will get more opportunities, and some of their draft picks this spring might get their chances sooner than if they'd arrived in a previous year.

"They (the coaches) are going to train those young guys," Elway said. "They're going to have expectations for those young guys to come in and step in and be able to contribute early."

Early, often, and at a high level, the Broncos hope.

Centers, guards and linemen — who might the Broncos sign in free agency? Here are the options for improving the line in free agency.

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