The status of Denver's Terrance Knighton has been a talking point for months, from when he declared on Dec. 15 that he wanted to remain a Bronco "if they're in the ballpark," to a series of tweets and comments in January and February about his status.
But in the final days before the 2015 free-agent signing period begins March 10, Knighton -- and every other pending Broncos unrestricted free agent other than cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- remains unsigned.
The Broncos' coaching transition -- particularly on defense, with new position coaches, a new coordinator and a new 3-4 scheme -- didn't help speed the process along. The new staff needed to make its evaluations before the Broncos could proceed.
But after two stellar seasons in which Knighton made the leap from rotational tackle to elite run stuffer, he knew he would attract interest if he hit the market. And as one of eight starters set to become UFAs next week, his team faced a situation in which its cap room could vanish fast given the quality of players it would try to re-sign.
"Obviously players want all the money, and they want to play where they want to play, and heck, I've been a player, I understand that," Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway said on Feb. 19 at the Combine. "But I can't calm the frustration, because we have to do what's best for the Broncos.
"I know that we'd love to have him back, but we've got to know what that (cap) number is, and we've got to see how the puzzle works. We're now going through the process of figuring out what we're going to do with our money and where we are, and with our cap space where we are, what we can fit and who can fit in there."
And that understanding is why Knighton remained pragmatic whenever he expressed a desire to stay in Denver.
"I don't want to leave. I want to be here. But I've been in the position before, I know how it works," Knighton said on Dec. 15. "So you've got to do what's right for your family. But you've also got to do what's right for your career."
The same could be said of fellow interior lineman Mitch Unrein, who spent 2011 training camp with the Gary Kubiak-led Houston Texans before moving on to Denver after being released.
"Hopefully I can be back in Denver because this is the place I want to be and the only place I want to be," Unrein said Feb. 26. "Only time will tell, but it's been a good offseason."
For Unrein and the other defensive linemen around the league facing free agency, the offseason will soon become interesting.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
DT NDAMUKONG SUH, DETROIT:The closest thing to a "force of nature" among defensive tackles, he hits the market in part because of what would have been a monstrous franchise-tag number ($26.9 million). On the market, he can expect elite quarterback-like money -- perhaps in the neighborhood of $20 million a year, which will give many teams sticker shock, despite his talent. Few teams can afford Suh given their cap situations, and even among those that can, that's a lot to pay one player that can be at least partially neutralized through scheme and tactics.
DE JASON PIERRE-PAUL, N.Y. GIANTS (franchise tagged 3/2):As effective a pass rusher as he was last year -- he notched 12.5 sacks, the second-highest total of his career -- he was equally stout against the run, easily putting a disappointing 2013 season behind him. He came into the NFL raw, with little football experience, and is just now becoming a fundamentally sound, well-rounded defensive end.
DT NICK FAIRLEY, DETROIT:In the months prior to the 2011 draft, Fairley was considered to be one of the elite front-seven players in that class, along with Von Miller and Buffalo's Marcell Dareus. Miller and Dareus each have multiple Pro Bowl selections and have been first-team All-Pros, living up to their billing as the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Fairley dropped to the 13th pick because of character concerns, and missed the last eight games of 2014 because of an MCL injury.
DE GREG HARDY, CAROLINA:It's not about whether Hardy can be an effective pass rusher at his next stop; it's whether a team can absorb the baggage that he brings: charges of assault that were dismissed on Feb. 11 after the ex-girlfriend he allegedly assaulted couldn't be tracked down to serve as a witness in a trial. He's been on the Commissioner's exempt list since September, although a reinstatement seems imminent after last week's Adrian Peterson ruling. Hardy dropped to the sixth round in the 2010 draft because of character concerns, and although some team will take a chance on him, it isn't likely to come with a massive guarantee.
DT STEPHEN PAEA, CHICAGO: **Credited with 31 quarterback hurries by ProFootballFocus.com last year -- including 21 in the last six games of the regular season -- the 2011 second-rounder came into his own in 2013, with a career-high six sacks that matched his total from the first three seasons of his career. He lacks the bulk to be a potential nose tackle, but has the speed to work as a 5-technique.
DL JARED ODRICK, MIAMI:In a 3-4, he's an end; in a 4-3, he's the kind of swing defensive lineman that the Broncos have had with Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe. That versatility will make him a valued commodity, and he hits the open market at a perfect time for him, having established his credentials as a consistent pass rusher -- although his production tailed off late last season.
NT DAN WILLIAMS, ARIZONA:A prototypical run-stopping nose tackle, Williams has become of the league's best at drawing double-teams and freeing the linebackers behind him to make plays. He's not the kind of nose tackle who you frequently use in stunts and twists, and projects well to any 3-4 alignment.
DT HENRY MELTON, DALLAS:His quick recovery from a torn ACL brought him close to the level he reached in 2012, when he made the Pro Bowl, but the prohibitive cost of the Cowboys' option on him for 2015 ($9 million) puts him back into the free-agent pool for a second consecutive year. At 290 pounds, he would project as a 3-4 defensive end -- something he has not done in the NFL, with all of his work coming in 4-3 alignments in Chicago and Dallas.
DL CEDRIC THORNTON, PHILADELPHIA:As a pure run defender, the 309-pounder is among the best on the market, but his lack of consistent pass-rush production will likely keep his market price reasonable.
DE ADRIAN CLAYBORN, TAMPA BAY:In the two seasons (2011 and 2013) in which the 281-pounder played all 16 games, he had 7.5 and 5.5 sacks. But he missed 13 games in 2012 to a knee injury and 15 last ear because of a torn biceps. The Bucs did not pick up the fifth-year option on the 2011 first-round selection.
NT B.J. RAJI, GREEN BAY:If this were 2012, Raji would be one of the most coveted players on the market, and perhaps worthy of a franchise tag. But the 337-pounder hasn't had a sack since Thanksgiving Day 2011 and missed last season due to a torn biceps muscle.
OTHERS OF NOTE:
DL Cory Redding, Indianapolis
DT Tom Johnson, Minnesota
DT C.J. Mosley, Detroit
DT Corey Peters, Atlanta
DT Pat Sims, Oakland
DE George Johnson, Detroit
DT Kevin Vickerson, Kansas City
DT Dwan Edwards, Carolina
DT Mike Patterson, N.Y. Giants
DL Tommy Kelly, Arizona
NT Ahtyba Rubin, Cleveland
DT Kevin Williams, Seattle
DL Jarvis Jenkins, Washington
NT Letroy Guion, Green Bay
DE George Selvie, Dallas
DT Sione Fua, Cleveland
DE Osi Umenyiora, Atlanta
DE Da'Quan Bowers, Tampa Bay
DL Tim Jamison, Houston
DE Jairus Wynn, Buffalo
STREET FREE AGENTS:
DE/DT DARNELL DOCKETT, EX-ARIZONA:A $9.8 million salary-cap hit, recent injury history (he missed 2014 because of a torn ACL) and his age (34 on May 27) didn't help, but the fact that Arizona's elite defense didn't appear to miss him last year ensured that his release came as no surprise. Dockett began showing signs of age in 2013; he graded out at minus-25.7 in ProFootballFocus.com's measurements for that season.
NT BARRY COFIELD, EX-WASHINGTON:Effective in 2013 but plagued by multiple injuries last year, Washington cut Cofield last week, and an ESPN.com report noted that he is "dealing with an undisclosed injury issue." That could keep his price down, making him a good value -- but only if there is another quality option in reserve in case he misses at least half the season once again.
OTHERS OF NOTE:
DT Kendall Langford, ex-St. Louis
DE Stephen Bowen, ex-Washington
DL Chris Canty, ex-Baltimore
NT Terrence Cody, ex-Baltimore
DE Robert Geathers, ex-Cincinnati
RESTRICTED/EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS:
DT Damon Harrison, N.Y. Jets
DL Tyrunn Walker, New Orleans
DL Lawrence Guy, Baltimore
DE Derrick Shelby, Miami
NT Sealver Siliga, New England
DE Justin Trattou, Minnesota
NT Alameda Ta'amu, Arizona
NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, Cleveland