ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- And now, the reality of building a championship-contending team in the salary-cap era looms.
"It's always hard to build depth because you're dealing with a salary cap. You've got to have depth but you've got to have young guys that you're developing," said executive vice president John Elway. "And when you develop the young guys, that gives you the long-term strength of your roster. So it's a constant process every year."
The price of success is that no more than a small core can be kept together for several years. And this offseason is when the bill comes due, as a collection of first-round draft picks from 2009 and lower-round picks from 2010 are all eligible for unrestricted free agency.
That group -- 2009 first-rounders Knowshon Moreno and Robert Ayers, and 2010 picks Eric Decker, Zane Beadles -- help headline the list of 18 players eligible for unrestricted free agency. Seven started in Super Bowl XLVIII: Moreno, Decker, Beadles, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips, Paris Lenon and Mike Adams.
Most on the list are beyond their second NFL contract; for them, the situation is different than it is for Moreno, Decker, Beadles and Ayers, although linebacker and captain Wesley Woodyard and Rodgers-Cromartie are also in their prime earning years. Rodgers-Cromartie, in particular, could fetch a massive contract after a 2013 season that was the best of his career.
For Moreno, Decker and Beadles, this is the moment where players of their experience and performance sign the most lucrative contract of their careers. Moreno was fourth among NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage in 2013; Decker has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and is arguably the best receiver on the market, and Beadles was a Pro Bowler in the 2012 season.
The Broncos' salary-cap constraints, the creation of space to retain other players, the room that must be cleared for this spring's draft class and the need to pursue upgrades from outside in free agency at other positions leads to some difficult decisions for team and player alike.
"There are a lot of tough decisions but they are good decisions to have because that means you have a good football team," Elway said.
But leaving does not appear to be a particularly desirable option to any of the three.
"I love the city of Denver, I love the organization here. I'd love to be a Bronco. But, we'll see what happens," said Beadles. "Denver fits my personality well. It is a great city. I love the outdoors, I love the mountains, the organization is unbelievable, the fan base is awesome. It is a great place to play football."
"I'm a Bronco," added Moreno. "We'll see what happens in the offseason and hopefully I'm still here with this team."
All three looked around the locker room Tuesday and, at some point, pondered whether it would be the last day they called Dove Valley their workplace.
It underscores the fragility of a team in this day and age. Despite the lousy ending, the 2013 Broncos were a special group, and by strict definition one of the most accomplished teams in the club's 54-season history. Bonds were forged, and soon will be torn asunder for new ones. The question for the Broncos' free agents is where those bonds are formed.
"You build a brotherhood, you build really that relationship throughout," said Decker. "To know it's not going to be the same next year – for me, I would love to come back. I don't know my future either. It makes it more real. And you just appreciate again what this year has meant to all of us.
Three others are set to become restricted free agents: Chris Harris, Jr., Mitch Unrein and Trindon Holliday. Of the three, Harris was the only one who did not play in the Super Bowl, and had surgery Thursday to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. A typical recovery from that surgery will make his status for the regular-season opener in seven months a wait-and-see proposition.
But at least the Broncos will have a chance to match any offer for Harris, a crucial component of their defense the last two and a half seasons. That won't be the case for their unrestricted free agents, and the potential for their departures means the Broncos must have plans to replace them.
Some are obvious, like the option of starting Montee Ball if Moreno departs; a second-round runner isn't drafted to play rotationally. Others could require a bit more shuffling -- or finding another option on the free-agent market.
It's a fluid process, and will define the next several weeks into the spring.