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Tough choices loom for Broncos in free agency


INDIANAPOLIS -- **Retaining as many pending free agents as is reasonably possible has been a priority of the Broncos since they signed cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a five-year extension in December.

But it's a near certainty that the Broncos won't be able to retain all of an unrestricted free-agent group that includes eight starters: wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas, left guard Orlando Franklin, center Will Montgomery, nose tackle Terrance Knighton, linebacker Nate Irving and safety Rahim Moore.

Throw in key backups like tight ends Virgil Green and Jacob Tamme, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and safety Quinton Carter, and add a restricted free-agent list headlined by linebacker Brandon Marshall, and it's easy to see how the Broncos' $26 million of salary-cap space could shrink fast, and force some difficult choices.

"The key in this business is holding your football team together and getting better at the same time," Kubiak said. "I know we're going to do everything we can to hang on to our players, but at the same time you have to put yourself in position through free agency and the offseason to get better as a football team."

And tough decisions ensure that the Broncos will have to show faith in their young, cost-controlled players on their first pro contracts. No team can achieve balance and success under the salary cap without players on their first contracts flourishing, and the Broncos wouldn't have won 38 regular-season games in the last three years without players like Marshall, Harris, Franklin, the Thomases, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan and others outplaying their contract value.

Knowing this, the next players in the pipeline and the Broncos' faith in them will help determine their course of action in the next few weeks.

"I know there are some good young players on the team that they think a lot of, and we'll see what happens. Like the young center, (Matt) Paradis, I think a lot of him. I visited with him the other day," Kubiak said. "I remember coming to Denver [in 1995 as offensive coordinator] and there was a guy on the practice squad in Tommy Nalen.

"So 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."

Two other players in whom Kubiak expressed optimism were the Broncos' second-day draftees last year: second-rounder Cody Latimer and third-round offensive lineman Michael Schofield. The Broncos used Latimer sparingly last year and didn't use Schofield at all, in spite of their midseason issues at right tackle, a position he played at the University of Michigan.

The Broncos thought highly of Latimer, a sentiment made obvious by their selection of him. Kubiak said he and the Ravens felt the same way.

"I spent a whole day with him in Baltimore. We really liked him. I think a lot of his ability -- I know he didn't play very much, I think he had a couple of issues, maybe an injury (concussion), but he played well on special teams, he played very aggressive. Usually a player like that is going to make their biggest jump from year one to two."

Schofield is a bit more of a projection, but Kubiak and the Ravens were high on him, as well.

"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."

And those last two words define life for every NFL team as they head into the flurry of roster moves in March.

Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak met with the media and made the rounds Wednesday in Indianapolis

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