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The free agency period is quietly looming over the Denver Broncos as they continue to celebrate their Super Bowl 50 victory and players remain on vacation. The World Champions have numerous free agents to consider re-signing if they intend on trying to repeat in the 2016-17 NFL season. While Von Miller and Brock Osweiler accrue the most attention in the early going of the process, the starting inside linebackers for Denver are both up for grabs so to speak and Brandon Marshall has earned a lot of attention and a potential big pay day.
Marshall has gone from a practice squad member waived by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013 to one of the most crucial pieces to the historic Broncos defense. He led the team in tackles in 2014 and recorded 106 tackles last season. He has become the play-caller on defense and a versatile linebacker that does not shy away from big hits, is exceptional against the run and has shown vast improvement in pass coverage.
The last two seasons he has worked under one-year contracts first from $495,000 in 2014 to $585,000 in 2015 according to Spotrac.com. His two straight seasons of 100-plus tackles with garner much attention around the NFL but he remains a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Broncos can match any offer made to him by other clubs to retain him. The asking price will not be cheap.
The Broncos would certainly love to retain Marshall’s services. He and Danny Trevathan (the leading tacklers from the previous two seasons) came into the season with big question marks to their durability after suffering serious injuries in 2014. Both played extremely well, Marshall started every game and played in 83.4 percent of defensive snaps. After ranking fifth overall at inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus in 2015, Marshall’s asking price will be anywhere a multi-year deal anywhere from $3.5 million to $6 million annually with an emphasis on guaranteed money. The Broncos only leverage lies with Marshall’s foot injury that required surgery and hardware installed, 1 1/2 screws were taken out Feb. 19.
If the Broncos can’t or won’t resign Marshall they can hope the depth behind him is enough, sign another free agent to replace him or draft a new inside linebacker to the NFL and hope he can take over quickly.
The depth at inside linebacker is substantial for the Broncos but the experience is not. Todd Davis and Corey Nelson would be the likely front-runners to replace Marshall but played in 11.8 percent and 5.8 percent of the defensive snaps respectively in 2015. In his rookie season of 2014, Davis played admirably in two starts with the Broncos after being waived by The New Orleans Saints when Marshall and Trevathan went down with injuries. He started an additional two games in 2015 and appeared in every game but is also an exclusive restricted free agent this offseason. The Broncos may believe in both players but they would likely sign and draft more help if Marshall departs Denver.
The free agent pool is stocked with big names and some value players to watch for. With the limited cap space, the Broncos will be dealing with, free agents Derrick Johnson, Stephen Tulloch, James Laurinaitis, DeMeco Ryan sans Rolando McClain would likely be out of consideration but their experience and leadership may garner them a look if other players fall into place. Those players age (except for McClain) is primarily against them but they would be asking for annual deals around $4-7 million. Players like Tennessee Titan Zach Brown and New York Giant Joseph Brinkley are trending up but will likely cost much less than an accomplished player like Johnson or Tulloch. Their price tags may fall between the $1.5-3.5 million range due to a lack of career starts and some injury issues.
The NFL Combine taking place this week in Indianapolis is certainly a platform for the Broncos to look to the draft for Marshall’s possible replacement and there is no shortage of players that team’s will want at inside linebacker next season. The linebackers will be performing their tasks Sunday morning and General Manager John Elway and Head Coach Gary Kubiak will certainly be in attendance.
The Broncos have recently drafted several linebackers and this season may be no different. They have seven picks and possibly three more compensatory picks for past player transactions. With picks in the first, second, third, fifth and three picks in the seventh round, the Broncos have a plethora of positions to take an inside linebacker.
University of Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith and Alabama University’s Reggie Ragland are the cream of this year’s linebacker crop. Smith can play inside and outside linebacker but suffered torn ACL and MCL ligaments after an explosive season. His talent may place him high in the draft despite possibly missing his rookie season recovering from his injuries. Ragland appears to be overweight at around 255 pounds. Both have tremendous talent and some downside that may see them slip to the Broncos 31st overall pick. However, needs at other positions will likely take Denver’s first pick. More likely candidates for the Broncos to add at inside linebacker may be Kentrell Brothers of the University of Missouri and Beniquez Brown of Mississippi State University. Both players are slightly undersized but have made up for it in football acumen and toughness. They are both flying slightly under the radar and could be great value picks in the middle of the draft. Each were tackling machines, recording 152 (top tackler in the nation) and 99 respectively in their 2015 seasons.
The Broncos seem to be leaning toward resigning Marshall and letting Trevathan test the unrestricted free agent waters but with 26 free agents, there will be some very tough decisions to make. Marshall has played his way to a payday but his lingering foot injury and the big name inside linebackers in free agency may allow Elway to convince him to come back to Denver for a few more years and build his resume even more. If not, the draft and free agency will have numerous options to fill the void.