KUSA—As an offensive guard, Ron Leary didn’t generate much excitement during the local offseason news cycle.
If he can move defensive linemen during the fall, though, the Denver Broncos will have chosen wisely for their No. 1 get of the free-agent period.
In truth, Leary wasn’t the Broncos’ top choice in free agency. He was tied for first with 3-4 defensive end Calais Campbell.
The Broncos had Leary, a left guard from the vaunted offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys, locked up early Wednesday, March 8, the day before the official opening of free agency. The Broncos waited until later Wednesday, March 8, to make their first move on Campbell, the former Denver South High School and Arizona Cardinal star.
The Broncos’ bid of $13 million per year was apparently too much of a hometown discount compared to the $15 million per year the Jacksonville Jaguars offered Campbell.
The acquisition of Leary, and failure to beat out the cap-rich Jaguars for Campbell, made this a mixed free agent period for the Broncos, who ranked 16th in the 32-team NFL with $66.7 million in free-agent spending. The Jaguars were first with $167.97 million.
The five Bronco free-agent acquisitions: Leary (four years, $36 million), right tackle Menelik Watson (three years, $18.75 million), nose tackle Domata Peko (two years, $7.5 million), defensive end Zach Kerr (two years, $3.25 million) and outside linebacker Kasim Edebali (one year, $1.2 million).
On the flip side, the Broncos lost five free-agent players who received a combined $83.5 million worth of contracts: Left tackle Russell Okung (four years, $53 million); defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (three years, $16.5 million); cornerback Kayvon Webster (two years, $8 million); outside linebacker Dekoda Watson (three years, $6 million) and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (retired).
Until Tony Romo is released by the Cowboys, though, the Broncos’ free-agent work is incomplete. Romo, a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback, would move the needle like no other free-agent player since Peyton Manning in 2012.
Romo remains property of Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones, though, and until the quarterback is set free, the Broncos are through with their free-agent spending, with the exception of a minimum-type deal to fill needs as they arise.
Even if Romo does become a free agent, the Broncos may still be essentially finished with their free-agent spending and stick with their two young quarterbacks in Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
Here’s the good, bad and too-early-to-tell aspects of the Broncos’ free-agent period:
Throughout the 2016 regular season and into the offseason, Bronco followers repeatedly stated the team’s priority had to be upgrading its offensive line.
The Broncos then added two starting offensive linemen in Leary and Menelik Watson and the prevailing feeling is Broncos’ free agency was a dud.
The men up front may not sell tickets. But they can complete a championship team.
Dollar for dollar, the Broncos believe Leary was the best value in the guard market. Kevin Zeitler was considered the top guard but it took $12 million a year for Cleveland to sign him. Detroit got T.J. Lang who is older and with some health concerns, for $9.5 million per.
The Broncos picked up Leary for a $9 million average.
He will help the Broncos transition from the zone, finesse-type running scheme to more of a one-on-one, power system.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos also believe Peko, the former longtime Cincinnati Bengal, is a better nose tackle than Williams. In fairness, Williams is best suited for defensive tackle in a 4-3 front. That’s what he was drafted for.
Peko is a nose tackle through and through. Williams got a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Tennessee. The Broncos got Peko for two years and $7.5 million. Denver general manager John Elway no doubt feels he got more his money with Peko.
The concern is Peko is about to play his 12th NFL season at 32 years old. The Broncos believe he has two more good years left him in.
Instead of Campbell -- who was not only the best defensive end available, but the highest-paid, non-quarterback free agent in this class with his $15 million average salary – the Broncos got Kerr, who was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Indianapolis Colts.
And while Okung is a strong contender for this offseason’s Most Overpaid Player distinction after he got $13.25 million per year from the rival Los Angeles Chargers, he did leave a monstrous void at left tackle for the Broncos.
Too Early To Tell
In four seasons, Menelik Watson has played in 27 games and made 17 starts. That’s less than 8 games and just more than 4 starts a year.
The Oakland Raiders’ second-round draft pick out of Florida State, Watson’s most serious injury was a season-ending torn Achilles suffered in the preseason of 2015. He missed six games last season with groin and calf strains.
Still, the Broncos love his talent and size (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) as they transition to the power-blocking scheme.
Kerr is another player with potential who hasn’t quite done it yet.
Edebali is a better pass rusher than Dekoda Watson but it will be difficult to match Watson’s play as a special teamer.
The ultimate uncertainty, though, is Romo. It’s uncertain whether the Broncos will pursue the quarterback. If do go after him and sign him, it’s questionable whether the move would be considered good or bad.
The opinions of quarterbacks are stronger than they are of guards.