ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- This is where the agonizing choices begin to loom.
The consequence of winning in the salary-cap era is the potential loss of Eric Decker to free agency. A two-time 1,000-yard receiver, by every measure, Decker was a smash hit of a third-round pick from a 2010 class. Of the 27 wide receivers drafted in that year's draft, just four have posted 1,000-yard seasons -- and two of them are Broncos, in Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
But Thomas' success -- as well as that of 2011 tight end Julius Thomas, another mid-round home run -- explains why Decker might have played his last game as a Bronco.
"When you look at where we are and what we have coming up -- Julius and, both Thomases are up next year. And Wes (Welker) is, too -- all that plays into it," said Executive Vice President and General Manager John Elway.
And by pointing out the planning for coming years, Elway notes how complicated the puzzle of roster construction is, and why it's not as simple as paying Decker enough to keep him off the market.
"Fitting pieces. The hard thing is you're doing it with personalities. You're doing it with people," Elway said. "That's the hardest part of it, because we'd love to have Eric back, and I know Eric has made the comment that he'd like to be back, but it's just a matter of he's got to do what's best for Eric, too, and vice versa."
And one year after adding Welker in the first hours of free agency, the Broncos might find themselves in the same position as Welker's old team: looking to the market to replace a proven commodity in their offense. The Patriots overcame it well; the Broncos hope for the same.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Eric Decker, Denver:** His production puts him at the top of this list. Although there will be some critique of his emergence as a function of working with Manning, consider that he was leading the AFC in touchdown receptions through four games of the 2011 season, before the change from Kyle Orton to Tim Tebow. The signs of an emergence were showing even before the notion of Manning as a Bronco were conceived, and he's grown from there.
James Jones, Green Bay: Jones will face many of the same critiques as Decker, given his work with Aaron Rodgers in recent years. While he hasn't had the spectacular single season, he has been steady -- even last year, without Rodgers for most of the season, he had the highest yardage total of his career (817). His average of one touchdown every 6.7 receptions will also attract attention. The biggest negative could be his age; he turns 30 next month.
Hakeem Nicks, N.Y. Giants: His reduced production the last two years is cause for concern, particularly his lack of touchdowns in 2013 after scoring just three times in 2012. Giants coach Tom Coughlin offered a similar sentiment for Nicks as Elway did for Decker. "He's a free agent and who knows. You'd basically like to have all of your free agents back, that doesn't happen," Coughlin said. "I'm sure that the market will be where Hakeem will go and we'll see what happens." But Giants general manager Jerry Reese might have set the tone better; he told Newsday that there will be "significant differences" between last year's Giants roster and the one he'll construct in the coming months.
Julian Edelman, New England: The Patriots found the injured Rob Gronkowski and incarcerated Aaron Hernandez to be irreplaceable, but Edelman's emergence helped the Patriots replicate the production of Wes Welker and ensured that the disappointing production of free-agent pickup Danny Amendola didn't hamstring the offense. Edelman's 105-catch season as Tom Brady's new "Slot Machine" ensures that if the Patriots don't pay him, somebody will.
Anquan Boldin, San Francisco: Multiple reports indicate the 49ers are closing in on a deal to retain Boldin, who doesn't require separation to make plays and remains a highly effective short-to-intermediate target into his mid-30's. Without him compensating for Michael Crabtree's absence in the wake of a torn Achilles tendon, the Niners likely don't return to the NFC Championship Game. Since Boldin's game doesn't depend on space and separation, he should remain effective as long as he stays healthy.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia: He missed the 2013 season due to a torn ACL suffered in training camp, but if he re-signs with the Eagles -- as has been reported by multiple outlets, but refuted by others -- he will get a chance to show how he can flourish in the Eagles' explosive offense. Maclin has never had a 1,000-yard season, but has been steady, averaging 64.5 catches a season and always finishing between 56 and 70 receptions.
Riley Cooper, Philadelphia: As with Maclin, there are multiple reports that he will return to the Eagles -- a resolution that seemed impossible six months ago, when his future appeared murky after he was caught uttering a racial slur at a concert. CSNPhilly.com reports that Cooper will sign a four-year deal with the Eagles. He effectively replaced Maclin in Chip Kelly's offense last year.
Golden Tate, Seattle: While best known for his catch of the infamous "Fail Mary" against Green Bay in 2012, Tate has steadily improved his production in his four seasons. The widely reported, expected release of Sidney Rice -- which leaked during the Combine -- could pave the way for Tate to return.
Andre Roberts, Arizona: Demoted to No. 3 receiver last year in favor of 2012 first-rounder Michael Floyd, Roberts' numbers declined from his career highs of 64 catches, 759 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. "I don't think the Cardinals are going to re-sign me," he told FOXSports.com. Roberts doesn't have eye-popping measurables, but he is reliable and could be a bargain. With steadier quarterback play than he had most of his time in Arizona, the 26-year-old receiver could be the sleeper of the free-agent class.
Kenny Britt, Tennessee: He will be a calculated gamble for some team. He hasn't been the same since tearing his ACL three games into the 2011 season against the Broncos, and fell out of favor the last two seasons. Britt doesn't have a 1,000-yard season to his name, and his career high is just 45 receptions.
Andre Caldwell, Denver:** If the Broncos lose Decker, Caldwell could prove to be a more valuable asset to them than to any other team, given his two years of work with Peyton Manning and his knowledge of the offense. Caldwell acquitted himself well in fill-in duty in December when Wes Welker was injured, and if he doesn't return to Denver, should land somewhere.
Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh: It was Antonio Brown, and not Sanders, who made the leap to No. 1 receiver after Mike Wallace's free-agent departure last year, and that could leave Sanders expendable and leave teams looking at him as a complementary target. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was non-committal about Sanders. "Where he goes in free agency and what his market is, we don't know at this point," Colbert said at the Combine. "He certainly performed for us last year. We will see where he is in the future."
Mario Manningham, San Francisco: If healthy, Manningham can be effective, but knee injuries have kept him from developing into more than just an occasional threat. He has only played all 16 games once; not coincidentally, he had career highs in receptions (60), yards (944) and touchdowns (nine). But that was in 2010.
Brandon LaFell, Carolina: Although he had career highs in receptions (44), yards (677) and touchdowns (four) last year, he never developed into the move-the-chains complement to Steve Smith that the Panthers hoped he would become. But the Panthers have two other free-agent receivers and uncertainty regarding Smith's contract and whether to restructure it, and the desire to not start from close-to-zero next year could help ensure LaFell's return.
Danario Alexander, San Diego: After an unexpected surge at the end of 2012 after joining the Chargers midway through the season, Alexander tore his ACL during training camp last summer and recently underwent another surgery. The emergence of Keenan Allen could make him expendable in San Diego, and whoever signs him might not get him on the field for a few months, depending on his recovery from the recent procedure.
Robert Meachem, New Orleans: After a year in San Diego, Meachem returned to the Saints for 2013, but not return to the production of his 2009-11 seasons with the Saints. Meachem turns 30 this season and at this point, appears to be a No. 3 or 4 option.
Jacoby Ford, Oakland: The explosion he displayed on kickoff returns in 2010 -- three touchdowns in 53 returns and a 24.2-yard average -- has rarely translated to offense, and he finished last year with just 13 receptions for 99 yards.
Domenik Hixon, Carolina: A member of the Broncos' excellent 2006 draft class, Hixon has overcome multiple injuries and persisted through eight seasons, although his production last year was scant: seven receptions, 55 yards and a touchdown. His returning background could give him a shot somewhere.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Indianapolis: The Colts picked up the 2009 first-round pick of the Raiders after Reggie Wayne's season-ending torn ACL in Week 7, but he struggled, and caught just 29 of the 62 passes targeted for him. The speed that made him a first-rounder ensures he will get another shot, but he will likely have to sign a prove-it contract and play his way back up the depth chart.
Devin Hester, Chicago: All of his work was on returns last year, and he was held without a reception for the firs time since his rookie year. That helped him recapture his old effectiveness on returns; he averaged 27.6 yards on 52 kickoff returns and 14.2 yards on 18 punt returns last year.
Dexter McCluster, Kansas City: As with Hester, McCluster has been a bigger threat on special teams than offense. And while McCluster remains a big threat on punt returns, the Chiefs used Quintin Demps and Knile Davis effectively on kickoff returns last year. McCluster could be redundant and might find better opportunities elsewhere.
Ted Ginn Jr., Carolina: His only season with the Panthers was arguably the best of his career. It was easily the most productive in scoring; his five total touchdowns, all on receptions, were a career high, and he helped Carolina overcome the late-season injury to Steve Smith.
Jacoby Jones, Baltimore: Like Ginn, McCluster and Hester, his reputation is built at least as much on his returning work as his offensive production. For a team seeking a No. 3 or 4 option and a consistent returner, Jones will be a good fit.
Josh Cribbs, N.Y. Jets: His dominant days as a returner appear to be in the past. Cribbs hasn't scored in the last two seasons, will be 31 in June and might have to wait into the late spring or summer before getting another shot.
Others: Seyi Ajirotutu, San Diego; Deion Branch, Indianapolis; Dezmon Briscoe, Washington; Plaxico Burress, Pittsburgh; Arceto Clark, Seattle; Terrance Copper, Kansas City; Austin Collie, New England; Jerricho Cotchery, Pittsburgh; Chad Hall, Kansas City; Lavelle Hawkins, San Diego; Adam Henry, St. Louis; Jerrell Jackson, Kansas City; Brandon Kaufman, Buffalo; Josh Lenz, Indianapolis; Marc Mariani, Tennessee; Marlon Moore, Miami; Josh Morgan, Washington; Santana Moss, Washington; Louis Murphy, N.Y. Giants; Kevin Ogletree, Detroit; Kassim Osgood, San Francisco; Taylor Price, Jacksonville; Jerome Simpson, Minnesota; Micheal Spurlock, Detroit; Brandon Stokley, Baltimore; Julian Talley, N.Y. Giants; Brandon Tate, Cincinnati; Tiquan Underwood, Tampa Bay; Kevin Walter, Tennessee; Bryan Walters, Seattle; Joe Webb, Minnesota; Damian Williams, Tennessee; Kyle Williams, Kansas City.
STREET FREE AGENTS:
Nate Burleson, Detroit: If you combined his last two seasons into one, his production was solid: 66 catches for 701 yards in 15 games. But it's the fact that he missed 17 games in those two seasons that helped lead to the Lions' decision to cut the 32-year-old, 12-year veteran this month.
Sidney Rice, Seattle: He has not been released yet, but is expected to be released by the Seahawks, according to multiple reports, as they attempt to reduce their cap commitment. Rice has missed 28 games the last four seasons to injuries and has never come close to matching his 2009 production in Minnesota with Brett Favre as his quarterback.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Doug Baldwin, Seattle: A 15-catch, 202-yard postseason -- including a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVIII -- appears to solidify Baldwin's growth into a prominent target. If the Seahawks let Golden Tate depart in free agency, Baldwin could be counted upon to carry the load as Russell Wilson's top target.
Andrew Hawkins, Cincinnati: Marvin Jones' emergence left Hawkins in a reduced role last year; his catch total dropped from 51 to 12 and his touchdowns from four to zero. At 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, he has to rely on his speed to make plays underneath.
Others: Tandon Doss, Baltimore; Kris Durham, Detroit; Lestar Jean, Houston; Joe Morgan, New Orleans; Dane Sanzenbacher, Cincinnati.