With the free-agent period beginning Tuesday, the salary cap had yet to be finalized by the league. But whatever the cap turns out to be, the Broncos will have more room than almost anyone else -- as much as $40-$50 million, depending on which cap estimate you use.
Even with that cap room -- which includes the $27 million of space the Broncos rolled over from 2011 -- the Broncos aren't expected to spend willy-nilly.
"We plan on being aggressive and smart at the same time and try to get some good signings in here, some value signings," general manager Brian Xanders said in January.
That's what Xanders, executive vice president John Elway and coach John Fox did during the lockout-truncated signing period last summer. They only signed two unrestricted free agents from other rosters (tight ends Daniel Fells from St. Louis and Dante Rosario from Carolina), scrounged around the cut list for unwanted players (defensive tackle Ty Warren, defensive end Derrick Harvey and running back Willis McGahee) and traded for Eagles defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley after a deal between Philadelphia and Cleveland fell through because of medical concerns.
But those were mostly short-term answers. Fells, Rosario and Harvey only signed one-year deals; Bunkley had one year left on his contract. Of those acquisitions, only McGahee and Warren had multi-year deals.
The expiring contracts of last year's pickups extends the Broncos' to-do list heading into the start of free agency March 13. Their list of 16 unrestricted free agents includes seven first-teamers, the special-teams captain (Wesley Woodyard) and one of their Pro Bowlers, safety Brian Dawkins.
The Broncos could opt for continuity and try to re-sign as many of their pending free agents as possible. But none of the free agents could be considered particularly irreplaceable. Even Bunkley, who emerged as the steadiest run defender on the Broncos' defensive line last year, isn't considered a complete answer to the Broncos' defensive questions; he didn't provide much pass-rush punch and finished without a sack in 2011.
Bunkley and Marcus Thomas, the Broncos' other first-team defensive tackle, are free agents. The Broncos have expressed interest in bringing both back, but they don't represent the full answer at a position that has been problematic for the Broncos since they released Trevor Pryce six years ago.
"Defensive tackle is, no question, an area where we want to get better," Elway said.
Improvement on the defensive line's interior might have to wait until the draft. The free-agent crop of defensive tackles is low on players who represent a pass-rushing upgrade from Bunkley and Thomas, but a deep draft crop of defensive tackles means the Broncos could find help there.
McGahee was the Broncos' most successful pickup of the free-agent period last year; he returned to the Pro Bowl, had his first 1,000-yard season in five years and led the league in 100-yard games with seven. But the Broncos know the 30-year-old back can't reasonably be expected to have six 20-plus carry games in future years, as he did in 2011.
Fox would like to platoon McGahee with another effective back. Knowshon Moreno wasn't the answer to that conundrum before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament at Kansas City last Nov. 13. Backup Lance Ball was intermittently effective in a reserve role, but wasn't nearly as effective as McGahee.
What Fox would like is what he had in Carolina -- two effective running backs. He won an NFC title with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster splitting carries in 2003; he went 12-4 five years later with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart dividing the repetitions.
"Having a stable of running backs is important. If you just look at our track record -- my track record -- I believe in that." Fox said. "We're going to try to continue to build that."
But with an overall roster still shy on depth -- a problem that was exposed during a 1-4 start to 2011, when four defensive starters were injured, including Pro Bowlers Champ Bailey and Elvis Dumervil -- the Broncos don't have the luxury of being able to spend their cap room on one or two free agents.
So when the signing period begins, "value" will almost certainly continue to be their watchword.
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