KUSA—John Elway is not afraid to make a polarizing decision with his starting quarterback.
Following the 2011 season, Tim Tebow was a national sensation after he pulled out a streak of miraculous comebacks. Elway quickly discarded Tebow in favor of Peyton Manning, a 36-year-old quarterback who missed the entire 2011 season because of a neck injury.
Only revisionist history has deemed the swap a no-brainer to even Tebow’s most ardent supporters. It was far from universally received then.
Five years later, Elway is in a similar predicament. Trevor Siemian had a very nice first year as a starter for the Broncos in 2016, his second year overall. His backup, Paxton Lynch, was a first-round rookie last year who showed flashes of enormous potential.
And the quarterback who is now a contender to replace them, soon-to-be-released Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, has had his share of detractors even in his best of times.
It was until the Broncos missed the playoffs in 2016 for the first time in Elway’s six years as general manager that Romo became a possibility for Denver. Siemian played well, but not in the do-or-die Christmas Night game in Kansas City. Lynch didn’t push to show he was ready for year two.
Yes, Elway understands Romo has never played as well as Manning, and Siemian and Lynch have far more passing potential than did Tebow. Still, Elway wants to make the playoffs.
And his Broncos can’t win the Super Bowl if you’re not first playing in the postseason. Would a healthy Romo give the Broncos their best chance of reaching the playoffs in 2017? Most would say yes. Could Romo hurt the development of the Broncos’ current young quarterback situation long term? The answer again is probably, yes.
But when free agency and the 2017 NFL calendar season officially opens at 2 p.m. Thursday, the priority will be improving the Broncos for this season. Besides Romo, the Broncos priorities are a left tackle, right guard and 5-technique defensive end for their 3-4 front.
Here are nine free agents the Broncos have somewhere on their wish list (ages as of season-opening Sunday, Sept. 10.)
1. Tony Romo, QB, 37, Dallas, 6-2, 230
Expected to become a “street” free agent Thursday. It seems like this might be the Broncos’ best bet. Romo is represented by the same Creative Artists Agency (CAA) that represents Brock Osweiler. Can’t imagine CAA would lead Romo to Houston.
2. Calais Campbell, DE, 31, Arizona, 6-8, 300
If he gets past $12 million a year, he might be too rich for the Broncos. And even then. Still, he is the best 5-technique for the 3-4 system, the Broncos’ No. 1 defensive position of need. The Broncos could hold his introductory press conference in the Denver South High School gymnasium.
3. T.J. Lang, guard, 29, Green Bay, 6-4, 318
The best of the rest in a guard market led by Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler. A six-year starter who has played at left guard, right guard and right tackle.
4. Chris Baker, DE, 29, Washington, 6-2, 333
Former Bronco who has come into his own the past two years in Washington where he had 9.5 sacks from the inside position. Would be younger, and more affordable alternative than Campbell at the 3-4 defensive end spot.
5. Kevin Zeitler, G, 27, Cincinnati, 6-4, 320
A five-year starter, he is expected to command a $12 million a year deal as a first-time free agent. Familiar with Broncos head coach Vance Joseph, who coached two years in Cincinnati.
6. Larry Warford, G, 26, Detroit, 6-3, 332
A four-year starter for the Lions, all at right guard.
7.Ronald Leary, G, 28, Cowboys, 6-3, 324
He could help Romo with the transition. Must be a great run blocker if he was part of those great Cowboy offensive lines. Problem is he’s a four-year starter at left guard, and Broncos need a right guard.
8. Andrew Whitworth, LT, Cincinnati, 35, 6-7, 335
The best left tackle for the power schemes the Broncos want to utilize in 2016. But also the oldest. He also may ask for a contract worth more than $10 million per year, which would be too much.
9. (tie) Menelik Watson, RT, 28, Oakland, 6-5, 315
A starter at right tackle when he was healthy, which wasn’t often. He missed all of 2015 with a torn Achilles.
9. (tie) Russell Okung, LT, Broncos, 28, 6-5, 310
The Los Angeles Chargers are expected to show interest when the veteran, who is representing himself, becomes available to talk to other teams when the market opens at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon. The Broncos were hoping to re-sign him for less than the $8 million he made last year before the market opens. If Okung shops himself around, the Broncos may look elsewhere.
Others: Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City; Mike Harris, guard, Minnesota; D.J. Fluker, OT/G, Chargers; Danny Woodhead, RB, Chargers; Brandon Bolden, RB, New England; Chance Wormack, guard, Tennessee; Luke Joeckel, G/T, Jacksonville; Kelvin Beachum, LT, Jacksonville; Riley Reiff, G/T, Detroit; Matt Kalil, LT, Minnesota.
Bold: Played for Broncos' offensive coordinator Mike McCoy in San Diego or offensive line coach Jeff Davidson in Minnesota and San Diego.