Broncos' roster holes exposed in skid may require hefty free-agency fix

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There is a bit of the unknown concerning what’s to come for the Denver Broncos.

This is, after all, trending toward the Broncos’ first losing season in John Elway’s tenure as the team’s chief football decision-maker. Denver is 3-8 and has lost seven straight for the first time in 50 years.

So, even people who know Elway best, those who would quickly label him as the most competitive person they know in any facet of life, don’t actually know how he will react in the coming offseason. They know he will do something to address the massive list of repairs, but they also know it will be unlike any offseason in his tenure.

But history has shown it may require the team to open its checkbook and dish out guaranteed money -- lots of it. That's because the Broncos are sporting similar holes in their roster as they did the last time Elway waded as forcefully into free agency as he is expected to this time around.

The Broncos set the league’s single-season scoring record in 2013, with 606 points, they won their third consecutive division title and even won the AFC Championship Game. But then the Broncos weren’t competitive in Super Bowl XLVIII, losing by 35 points to the Seattle Seahawks.

And a highly-agitated Elway plowed into free agency with a fervor, signing DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders to deals worth a combined $128 million. Those players were each named to at least one Pro Bowl with the Broncos and two seasons later they won Super Bowl 50.

Ware had said, “You knew that [free-agent haul] was going to change things. It told everybody the Broncos would do what it takes, showed a commitment.’’

But it was a necessity because when Elway took the job, he had a roster that didn’t get as much help from the draft as it needed to. The 2008, 2009 and 2010 drafts -- the three before Elway was hired -- should have provided players who were in their primes in 2013.

Instead, the 2013 roster had just seven players from those three drafts combined after tackle Ryan Clady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the offseason. And only four of those players were starters -- Demaryius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker and Zane Beadles -- hence the free-agency binge in March 2014.

There will be no Super Bowl loss to fuel the fire this time around, but the Broncos have a similar roster problem -- this time on Elway’s watch. And he has already expressed his angst.

"As a player you can do a little bit more about it,’’ he said of the mounting losses earlier this month. “As a GM, you sit back and watch, and so that's why it's very frustrating for me.’’

But the Broncos haven’t drafted a player who has been named to a Pro Bowl -- not as an injury replacement -- since Von Miller, the Broncos’ first pick in 2011. And the players from the team's 2015 and 2016 draft classes haven’t moved into prominent roles as only four members of the '15 class are still on the roster.

The Broncos selected 17 players in those two drafts combined and seven are currently starters, including punter Riley Dixon. But two of those starters -- quarterback Trevor Siemian and guard Max Garcia -- have been moved in and out of the lineup either in training camp or the regular season.

Five selections from those two drafts are on the roster, but not starters. Include the difficulty the 2017 draft class has had in making an impact -- Garett Bolles is the only starter among the eight picks -- and it’s likely to force Elway into a spending spree that will be far bigger than was planned last summer.

Elway has always said his goal was to “stack those draft classes.’’ Clearly, that hasn't worked out. And with their roster needs appearing to far outweigh the number of picks they'll have in the 2018 draft, the Broncos will be forced to be major players in free agency.