When the Broncos signed running back Willis McGahee last July 31, he was expected to provide relief for Knowshon Moreno and bolster the Broncos' goal-line and short-yardage presence, a similar role to the one he filled the previous two years with the Baltimore Ravens after Ray Rice emerged. Thus, the Broncos' signing of McGahee passed with little fanfare.
Instead, McGahee wound up powering the offense, tying Houston's Arian Foster for the league lead in 100-yard games (six) and running for 1,199 of the Broncos' league-leading and franchise-record 2,632-yard ground output last season. His $9.5 million contract, which included a $2 million signing bonus, no longer looked like a reach to bolster a flagging running back corps; it became a bargain.
Other teams, like the Philadelphia Eagles, treated last summer's compressed free-agent signing period as "Star Wars." The Broncos opted for "Storage Wars" and emerged from the pile with three starters: McGahee, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and tight end Daniel Fells.
Even with salary-cap room, the Broncos may take the same philosophy once again.
"We plan on being aggressive and smart at the same time," general manager Brian Xanders said, "and try to get some good signings in here, some value signings, to help contribute to wins."
Running back could be targeted once again, especially after Knowshon Moreno's torn ACL was followed three months later by a DUI arrest. The Broncos might sift through the market for another wide receiver to push 2010 draft picks Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker; Eddie Royal is an unrestricted free agent and is expected to test the market. Royal's output was hurt by the offense's philosophical shift; he finished 2011 with career lows in receptions (19) and receiving yardage (155).
Fullback Spencer Larsen is due to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13 and might opt to test the market. Larsen did post career highs in rushing and receiving yardage last season, but saw his snaps drop as the Broncos tweaked the offense to incorporate more shotgun snaps to Tim Tebow.
Tight end is not likely to be a position of focus in free agency, even though starter Daniel Fells and reserve Dante Rosario are unrestricted free agents. The Broncos remain high on 2011 draftees Julius Thomas and Virgil Green, even though Thomas's progress was hindered by a high ankle sprain that he suffered in Week 2 and failed to shake from that point forward. The Broncos might opt to retain Fells or Rosario, but not both.
While the Broncos' offensive line struggled at times in 2009, a desire for continuity could leave the position untouched in free agency. The entire starting complement is under contract for 2012; left tackle Ryan Clady's contract expires after the season, but the Broncos would like to sign the two-time Pro Bowler to an extension.
Denver's starting line of Clady, left guard Zane Beadles, center J.D. Walton, right guard Chris Kuper and right tackle Orlando Franklin started all 16 regular-season games. Early in the season, the quintet was mistake-prone; it collectively accounted for 135 yards on 15 penalties in the first half of 2011. In the second half of the season, the offensive line was flagged just nine times for 68 yards.
--S Brian Dawkins continues to take a wait-and-see approach to his future as he recovers from a neck injury suffered Dec. 11. He was medically cleared to play in the Pro Bowl. Dawkins is due to become a free agent, but has indicated if he does return for a 17th NFL season, it will only be as a Bronco.
--LB Von Miller bid farewell to the protective cast he wore for all games since suffering torn ligaments in his right thumb at San Diego on Nov. 27. Miller missed one game after the surgery to ensure that the wound didn't become infected, then played the next six weeks and the Jan. 29 Pro Bowl with a cast covering his thumb and extending to his right wrist.
--OG Chris Kuper underwent surgery after suffering a fractured leg Jan. 1. He is expected to return by training camp. Coach John Fox said the injury was similar to the one Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross suffered in 2009; Gross recovered and rebounded to play a full season and make the Pro Bowl the following year.
--The season-ending knee injuries to fullback Spencer Larsen and wide receiver Eric Decker are not expected to have any long-term impact. Both suffered sprained knee ligaments on Jan. 1 and 8, respectively, and didn't return to the field after being hurt.
--Third-year cornerbacks Syd'Quan Thompson and Cassius Vaughn ended the season on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon and broken fibula, respectively. Both are on schedule in their rehabilitation. The Broncos hope to have Vaughn back by organized team activities and expect Thompson to return by training camp.
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