ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --It's wide open now.
With the release of Champ Bailey and the pending free agency of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and, on a restricted basis, Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos hit March unsure of exactly how their cornerbacks will stack up.
The release of Bailey is painful from an emotional perspective, but was necessary in the cold calculus of roster construction in the salary-cap era. An outlay of $10 million to the NFL's third-oldest active defensive back -- and one coming off a season in which he missed 11 games to a bothersome sprained left foot that left him in pain throughout the year -- was just too high.
But the premium cornerbacks on the market won't be cheap, either.
The market has already been set by the Dolphins, who re-signed 30-year-old Brent Grimes to a four-year deal reportedly worth up to $32 million, half of which is guaranteed. Grimes is a two-time Pro Bowler, including a selection to January's game, and was the second-highest rated cornerback in the league in 2013 by ProFootballFocus.com's metrics, trailing Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis.
Whether it's re-signing Rodgers-Cromartie or adding another elite cornerback, the Broncos will have to use a good chunk of their bolstered salary-cap space get one of the top names on the market. And while they expect 2013 draft pick Kayvon Webster to handle an expanded role this year, you need at least three quality cornerbacks. The Broncos' depth at the position saved them last year after Bailey's foot injury, and they'll want that same sort of depth again in 2014, even if the names change.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Denver: The physical gifts and boundless promise that Rodgers-Cromartie always possessed blossomed last year, as he arrived as a top-flight cover cornerback -- even without Bailey on the other side to help his cause. Retaining Rodgers-Cromartie won't be easy; if he hits the market, there will be a frenzy for his services.
Aqib Talib, New England: Talib's impact was clear in the two Broncos-Patriots games last season; he neutralized Demaryius Thomas until late in regulation in Week 12, and his absence for most of the AFC Championship Game was felt, as the Broncos began moving the football more effectively after he succumbed to injury. The discipline problems of the past appear to be well behind him, but might depress his market value nonetheless.
Alterraun Verner, Tennessee:At 25 years old, Verner had a breakout season and should have better days in front of him. The Pro Bowler was one of the league's stingiest cornerbacks, and according to ProFootballFocus.com, opposing quarterbacks had a 55.8 rating when they threw in Verner's direction. Only three cornerbacks were better. Verner told The Tennesseean that he doesn't necessarily need an eight-figure annual payday, but that he wants to feel "respected."
Vontae Davis, Indianapolis: If Grimes could get a potential $32 million deal at 30, what could Davis, a comparable cornerback in performance, receive at 26? The Colts' massive cap room would indicate that they have room to retain Davis, but they opted to not slap a franchise tag on him. Per ProFootballFocus.com's metrics, he is the highest-rated cornerback on the market after Grimes was signed, and has been well worth the second-round pick the Colts sent to the Dolphins in a trade for him two years ago.
Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina: At the Scouting Combine, the watchword for cornerbacks was size. Everyone is looking for bigger cornerbacks with longer arms that can make up for being a tenth of a second slower in the 40-yard-dash than a smaller cornerback. But Munnerlyn compensates with his speed and aggression. He's one of the league's best cornerbacks against the run, and led all NFL cornerbacks with three sacks last year.
Sam Shields, Green Bay: He was caught up in the Packers' overall defensive struggles last year, but still allowed a 72.7 quarterback rating on passes thrown at him, per ProFootballFocus.com. He will test the market. The only concern is his durability; he has never participated in all 16 games in a season.
Charles Tillman, Chicago: Tillman has intangibles in spades: leadership, community presence (he was the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year for 2013), and intelligence. But he's 33 and is coming off a torn triceps muscle that ended his season in Week 10, and even before the injury was not as effective in coverage as he was just a season earlier. Some of that stems from the Bears' overall defensive deficiencies. The triceps issue is the big question; if he can overcome it, he could return to the form he displayed as recently as 2012 with better support from safeties and a pass rush.
Brandon Browner, Seattle: Whoever signs Browner must make contingency plans for their first four games, during which Browner will complete his suspension. However, another slip-up seems likely to end his career, and he admits to a pair of positive marijuana tests.
Walter Thurmond III, Seattle:He was a No. 3 cornerback in Seattle, but will likely move up in free agency, assuming that he moves on. There is little question about his coverage ability, but he's already served a four-game substance abuse suspension, and another positive test will cost him an entire season.
Tarell Brown, San Francisco: Brown was hindered by a rib injury suffered at New Orleans last November and was not the same after that. Before then, he was fairly effective in coverage, although he projects as a No. 2 cornerback, and not a No. 1 shutdown type.
Corey Graham, Baltimore:The Broncos got a close glimpse at Graham's abilities in the divisional playoffs in January 2013, when he intercepted a pair of passes, returning one for a touchdown and setting up the game-winning field goal with the other. Graham plays within his abilities, makes few mental mistakes and also contributes on special teams. He might get lost in the shuffle among higher-profile free agents, but he would be a solid addition elsewhere if the Ravens don't bring him back.
Nolan Carroll, Miami:The Dolphins' contract offer to Grimes likely means there won't be room for Carroll, a steady, solid cornerback who played some of the best football of his four-year career down the stretch last season. He's a solid No. 2 cornerback who should have no trouble landing somewhere.
Mike Jenkins, Oakland: The 2008 first-round pick is one of the league's better cornerbacks against the run, but had his ups and downs in coverage. He struggled against the Broncos in Week 3, when he allowed 116 yards in receptions. Oakland's copious salary-cap room likely means Jenkins could move on in favor of an upgrade.
Terrell Thomas, N.Y. Giants: Now that he's made it through a full season after missing 2011 and 2012 because of torn ACLs, Thomas should find a spot somewhere as at least a No. 3 cornerback. But he attracted notice last month when he told Newsday that he would "probably not" have an issue with a gay teammate, but added, "Nobody wants that attention."
OTHERS: Michael Adams, Tampa Bay; Phillip Adams, Oakland; Javier Arenas, Arizona; Aaron Berry, N.Y. Jets; E.J. Biggers, Washington; Will Blackmon, Jacksonville; Zack Bowman, Chicago; Curtis Brown, Pittsburgh; Chris Carr, New Orleans; Antoine Cason, Arizona; Chris Cook, Minnesota; Drayton Florence, Carolina; Dominique Franks, Atlanta; Brandon Ghee, Cincinnati; Danny Gorrer, Tampa Bay; Quentin Jammer, Denver; Willie Jefferson, Buffalo; Mike Jenkins, Oakland; Elbert Mack, Houston; Richard Marshall, San Diego; Derrick Martin, Chicago; Rashean Mathis, Detroit; Bryan McCann, Arizona; Trumaine McBride, N.Y. Giants; Sherrick McManis, Chicago; Chris Owens, Miami; Tracy Porter, Oakland; Aaron Ross, N.Y. Giants; Sam Shields, Green Bay; Cassius Vaughn, Indianapolis; Josh Wilson, Washington; Eric Wright, San Francisco.
STREET FREE AGENTS
Champ Bailey, ex-Denver: The release of Bailey was not a surprise, but still jarring, given the stacks of plaudits he accumulated in his decade as a Bronco. Bailey will be 36 this year, and going into his 16th season, is entering career-length territory that only a handful of cornerbacks have reached.
Cortland Finnegan, ex-St. Louis: Finnegan tweeted the news of his imminent release Wednesday, and it was no surprise. He didn't live up to a contract that could have been worth $50 million over five years, and struggled last year, as he tried to play through a fractured orbital bone. Finnegan has enough on his resume to get another shot somewhere, but it will be at a considerably lower price tag.
Jabari Greer, ex-New Orleans: Greer was still an above-average cornerback last year before tearing an ACL in November. If he recovers fully, he can still contribute, but the injury plus age (32) do not work in his favor, and will likely keep him on the market a while.
Dunta Robinson, ex-Kansas City: He didn't live up to his contract with the Chiefs, and was limited to two starts and just eight games played last year before being released last month, one year into a three-year contract. He turns 32 in April, and there are questions as to whether age has finally caught up with him, as he struggled even in his limited repetitions last year.
Asante Samuel, ex-Atlanta: He was limited to 11 games in 2013 because of a thigh injury, and his pickoff prowess was hamstrung as a result; he had averaged 6.3 interceptions per season from 2006-12, but got just one last year. If he's recovered, he can still be an asset, but his age (33) will likely keep his contract reasonable.
OTHERS: Derek Cox, San Diego.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Chris Harris Jr., Denver: The release of Bailey makes it a virtual certainty that the Broncos will want him back. He's coming off a torn ACL suffered in the divisional-round win over San Diego, but "it wasn't completely torn," Head Coach John Fox said at the Combine. "They (medical personnel) said he could have played (after the injury). But the problem is that if you further injure it, you could get meniscus damage." The nature of the injury should ensure Harris' return by training camp.
Robert McClain, Atlanta:The Falcons' nickel back last year could move into a more extensive role after Samuel was cut -- unless the Falcons pursue another cornerback in free agency.
OTHERS: Chimdi Chekwa, Oakland; Perrish Cox, San Francisco; Josh Gordy, Indianapolis; Marcus Sherels, Minnesota; Darrin Walls, N.Y. Jets.