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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After all of the back and forth, all of the work done between the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning, to go with all of the hand-wringing across the Front Range about his return, the Broncos and Manning are all-in once again to chase a Super Bowl trip.

It's touchy business, this negotiating with a future Hall of Famer about taking less salary than you agreed to give him a few years before. But this is what the Broncos did at a meeting last month.

Manning arrived at the Broncos' suburban Denver complex to tell team officials, including executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, he was ready physically and mentally to come back for the 2015 season. That he was ready to work with the team's new coaching staff, that he believed he could still contribute at the level he needs to in the chase for his second Super Bowl ring and the Broncos' third.

And the Broncos told him they certainly want him back. But the Broncos, with a long list of free agents and plenty of cash commitments -- in terms of bonuses due and guaranteed salaries that had to be accounted for in escrow in the first week of free agency -- were also hoping for some relief.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning took a pay cut that he can earn back by winning another Super Bowl.
Often in the latin of NFL contract negotiations, "relief" usually means payus cutus, and when you're talking about one of the best to wear an NFL uniform, that can bring the potential for hard feelings and stepped-on toes on all sides.

Manning had his base salary trimmed from $19 million to $15 million and will have the chance to make that $4 million back with incentives if the Broncos go on to win the Super Bowl -- a $2 million incentive for a win in the AFC Championship Game to go with a $2 million incentive for a win in the Super Bowl.

In these matters it's always important to remember not so much the monetary total -- it's a lot of money either way -- but the player's perspective. And most players have heard teams talk of the importance and pledge of a signed contract when a player wants to renegotiate.

Players see other players throughout the league sent on their way with years left on a deal, no matter their stature in the game. Manning was, after all, released by the Indianapolis Colts before the Broncos could sign him in 2012.

So, any adjustment -- i.e., cut -- takes discussion, it takes negotiation, it takes some patience and some deliberate work on both sides. That work was done, deliberately and with a meeting somewhere in the middle.

Was it all sunshine and rainbows along the way? Probably not, but it's done because the Broncos believe Manning is still the guy to get them to the trophy the team desperately wants to present to owner Pat Bowlen, who is battling Alzheimer's disease.

Elway said as much at the scouting combine when he offered, "I think with Peyton, obviously, there is not much he can add to his legacy. I do think that the one thing he can add is another Super Bowl championship. … Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl. I think that's our goal, as it is for 31 other teams, but we feel like we've got a real good football team and Peyton Manning is the best player for us."

And Manning shows he believes, believes in the kind of team the Broncos have, the kind of coach Gary Kubiak is, the kind of offense the Broncos will run and believes the depth chart around him is good right now and will be better when the Broncos are finished with the draft and free agency.

He believes it all enough to invest $4 million.

On Kubiak, Manning has said, "Great respect for him as a football coach and a human being and looking forward to getting to know him a little better."

So pending a physical that all involved believe is only ornamental to go with Manning's signature on the contract -- both will come Thursday on a brief visit for Manning to the Denver area -- it is done.

The Broncos asked for help, Manning gave his blessing and a compromise was found. Now, they will all get down to the business of making sure everybody closes the deal next February the way they want to.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The 2014 NFL draft included 33 wide receivers. And, the class set enough records in their rookie season to warrant documentary talk from at least one GM.

"Last year's class was probably really, really good," St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead said. "They'll probably do a 30-for-30 on those guys."

The good news for teams like the Kansas City Chiefs who are looking for receiving help is that it might take all of a year for a group as good or better to come along.

[+] EnlargeOdell Beckham Jr
AP Photo/Julio CortezReceivers drafted in 2014, including Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants, combined last season for 814 catches, 10,547 yards, and 82 receiving TDs.
"You’re probably going to have 35 to 40 (wide receivers) drafted this year," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "It’s a strong group. There are some really underrated guys, under-the-radar guys.

"This is a really good group of wide receivers. There’s a lot of depth into the late rounds."

Drafted wide receivers combined last season for 814 catches, 10,547 yards and 82 receiving touchdowns. Those totals are all higher than for any rookie wide receiver class in the common draft era, which began in 1968.

It certainly doesn’t look like a coincidence that another strong group of receivers is coming in on its heels.

"I think the college game has really helped," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "It’s helped because they’re throwing the football more, and these guys are having more opportunity to run the routes that we run and go against these different coverages that are little bit more sophisticated at the college level, and have to make adjustments on those coverages. I think from a quarterback’s standpoint, tight ends and wide receivers, it’s a beautiful thing."

Wideouts in college were once primarily blockers in the running game. Even when teams did throw, the passing games and routes were often primitive compared to what the NFL offered, and that set back the development of receivers.

Now, some college offensive systems are as sophisticated as anything the NFL has to offer. College teams are spreading the field and throwing plenty.

"Bryce Petty threw (831) passes the last two years at Baylor," Kiper Jr. said. "Two years, (831) attempts. These guys are throwing the ball all over the lot."

Somebody has to run the routes and make the catches. They’re moving on in big numbers to become productive NFL players.

Last season, Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants finished in the top 10 in catches, yards, and receiving touchdowns despite missing four games with injuries. Miami’s Jarvis Landry, Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins, New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks, and Jacksonville’s Allen Hurns were rookies who caught at least 50 passes.

This year’s names to know include West Virginia’s Kevin White, Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Louisville’s Devante Parker. The Chiefs, picking 18th, won’t have a shot at any of those receivers unless they trade up.

"If he slides into that seven, eight, nine spot, I’d move up to get him," Kiper Jr. said of Cooper. "Or if you want to move to get Devante Parker, be active. I remember when the 49ers got Jerry Rice. Jerry Rice at that particular point had slid down, and they got him at 15 but they moved up to get him."

But by waiting even into a later round, odds are the Chiefs could get someone with plenty of potential.

"Colleges are producing a lot of receivers right now, which is good for our league," San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. "Each year is different. To me, what last year’s receiving class did has nothing to do with this year’s class. But I would agree with you. This is a very good class of receivers.

"It may be that so many (college) teams run spread offenses and throw the ball so much (but) we’re seeing more receivers at this level much more polished. Most of these kids through high school, they have seven-on-seven camps in the summer time. In college these receivers have been running routes, and a lot of routes, for a long time. It’s a repetition game.

"Maybe we’re starting to see some of that at this level. It would be back-to-back years that there has really been a deep receiver group. I’m not just talking first round, but really all the way through the draft."

Expect more deep receiver classes as long as the passing game is so prevalent in the college game.

"The way high school football is going, college football's going, there's a lot more passing of the football," Snead said. "So I think the development of wide receivers, I think coaches put some of their best athletes, at a young age, running routes and catching balls. So that's probably the evolution that you're seeing."
ESPN’s Josina Anderson is reporting that receiver Jacoby Jones is scheduled to visit the San Diego Chargers on Wednesday.

Jones
Jones reportedly has had visits with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tennessee Titans. Jones was released by the Baltimore Ravens last week. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, the 30-year-old Jones is one of the better return men in the NFL, a point of emphasis Chargers general manager Tom Telesco would like to improve for his team this offseason.

Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal shared punt return duties for the Chargers last season, while Chris Davis took over as the team’s kick return specialist. Jones would be an upgrade at both spots, allowing Allen to focus on his receiving duties.

Jones has four punt returns for touchdowns and five kick returns for scores over his eight-year pro career.
Some fans seemed to be comforted by the words of general manager John Dorsey Monday as the Kansas City Chiefs announced they had made linebacker Justin Houston their franchise player.

“Justin is a talented player and a key contributor to our defense,’’ Dorsey said. “Today was the deadline to designate a franchise player, and it was in the best interest of the club to place the tag on Justin. We will continue to discuss long-term options with him and his agent. Our goal is to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial. We want to keep Justin in a Chiefs uniform for years to come.”

Joseph
Houston
I heard from more than a few fans that they took this as a commitment on the part of the Chiefs to keep Houston around from the long term.

That might be. Houston might have a long, prosperous career entirely in Kansas City and at this point I don’t doubt the Chiefs’ sincerity in making that happen

Just don’t bank on it based on Dorsey’s words. Let this be a friendly reminder not to necessarily take seriously what’s being said publicly about contract negotiations.

As an example, I give you Dorsey’s words on March 4, 2013, when the Chiefs made tackle Branden Albert their franchise player.

“Today was the league’s deadline to designate a franchise player and we felt it was in the best interest of the Kansas City Chiefs to place the tag on Branden,’’ he said. “We will continue to negotiate with Branden and his agent to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial. We are looking forward to working with Branden in the near future.”

Albert played that season for the Chiefs but left shortly afterward as a free agent for the Miami Dolphins, who were happy to give Albert the long-term deal the Chiefs never would.

Albert was replaced at left tackle by Eric Fisher, the Chiefs’ 2013 first-round left tackle.

By the way, if Houston winds up leaving the Chiefs this year or even next, his likely replacement would be Dee Ford, the Chiefs’ 2014 first-round draft pick.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The more I think about it, one thing continues to bother me about the franchise tag the Kansas City Chiefs placed on linebacker Justin Houston. One of the NFL’s other 31 teams is going to steal him away.

The NFL’s reigning sack leader just turned 26. The odds are he’ll turn in several more seasons like the one he just had for the Chiefs.

Isn’t that kind of production worth a monster contract to a team and a couple of No. 1 draft picks? Some NFL team flush with salary-cap space, and there are a few of them, might think so.

Joseph
Houston
This has to have occurred to the Chiefs. They had to think of it and either they think no team will sign Houston to an offer sheet or they’re OK with it if he does.

Let’s review the franchise tag rules. There are two designations for a franchise player, exclusive and non-exclusive.

Houston is the latter, meaning he is free starting March 10 to sign an offer sheet with another team. If he does, the Chiefs can match and retain Houston’s services. If they decline to match, the Chiefs acquire a couple of first-round draft picks from Houston’s new team.

For additional money in their mandatory one-year contract offer to Houston, the Chiefs could have made him their exclusive franchise player. This would have kept Houston off limits to any other team.

But as things stand, Houston can negotiate with other teams. A team with plenty of salary-cap space would be able to craft a contract in such a way that the Chiefs, who will probably be snug against the cap on March 10, would have trouble matching.

If the Chiefs decline to match, they could play Tamba Hali and Dee Ford at outside linebacker next season, clear some significant money off their book to work with in free agency along with picking up a couple of extra No. 1 draft picks in the process.

It’s not a strategy I would endorse. Knowing general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid, it's one I would be surprised if the Chiefs endorsed.

But Justin Houston is good enough where it might happen. By their actions, the Chiefs don’t seem to be bothered by the possibility.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have enough salary-cap room at the moment to participate in the early hours of free agency when the biggest checks get written. But they do have to keep an eye on the bottom line as they have plenty of cash already spoken for in the first five days of the new league year.

Thomas
According to the NFL Players Association, the Broncos have an adjusted salary-cap figure of $150,066,980 for the 2015 season. That includes the salary cap released by the NFL Monday -- $143.28 million per team -- to go with some cap rollover the Broncos have from last season and some other adjustments. With cap commitments of $120.72 million for their top 51 contracts -- teams count the top 51 until final roster cuts are made to start regular season -- to go with $1.813 million in “dead money’’ for salary-cap charges for players who are no longer on the roster, the Broncos opened Monday with about $27.5 million worth of cap space.

With the Broncos using the franchise player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and the $12.823 million cap charge it carries, the Broncos, at the moment, have about $14.715 million worth of workable cap space even as that will have to include enough room for the team's draft picks.

With a week to go until free agency officially opens, the Broncos can still make some additional room with some contract adjustments, including quarterback Peyton Manning’s deal, to go with any players they may release as they work through their plan. One contract that may also get a look is tackle Ryan Clady's, which currently carries the third-highest cap figure on the team at $10.6 million, behind only Manning and Thomas’ franchise tag.

Clady also has a $1.5 million roster bonus due on March 14 and his $8.5 million base salary is also guaranteed on March 14.

The Broncos have several other players whose base salaries are guaranteed within the first week of the new league year, which means when those guarantees take effect the Broncos, by league rule, must put the cash to cover those guarantees into escrow. Manning’s current contract calls for his $19 million base salary to be guaranteed on March 9 while cornerback Aqib Talib has $5.5 million guaranteed on March 10, defensive end DeMarcus Ware has $3.5 million of his $7 million base salary guaranteed on March 14, the same day safety T.J. Ward is slated to receive a $2.5 million roster bonus as his $4 million salary is guaranteed.

All of that together, with Manning’s deal considered before any tweaks that are on the way, would constitute as much as $44.5 million in guaranteed money, in cash, that has to be accounted for by the Broncos within the first week of free agency, outside of any signing bonuses to new additions they bring in during those opening days.
The contract bloodletting season is in full swing. The Oakland Raiders have several veterans that they could easily cut and to increase their salary cap room.

As of Thursday, Oakland was set to have $53,280,995 in salary cap room. It could be become larger if the Raiders cut anyone. Thus far, they have not done so.

I believe one of the reasons why Oakland has not cut anyone yet is because of the minimum cash/cap threshold they must meet by the end of next season. The Raiders have to spend virtually all of its cap this year, Thus, they mightwait to see what they do in free agency to make cuts or might even hold onto a player or two.

Here is an update look at some of the candidates who could be cut:

Schaub
Schaub
Matt Schaub, quarterback

2015 salary cap number: $5.5 million

Schaub was acquired to be the starter and made $8 million. But he served as the holder instead. Logically, Schaub is an easy cut. However, Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie recently said Schaub could be in the picture. I’d still expect him to go but if they keep one of the player on this list, perhaps Schaub is one.

Maurice Jones-Drew, running back

2015 salary cap number: $2.5 million

Jones-Drew was signed to be the starter but ended up with just 96 yards rushing for the season. Even though he has history with Jack Del Rio from their Jacksonville days, I wouldn’t think Jones-Drew will be back. If he is kept, I don’t see making the 53-man roster.

LaMarr Woodley, defensive end

2015 salary cap number: $5.18 million

Woodley was not a good signing. He had five tackles in six games before he was lost for the season with a biceps injury. The Raiders can easily cut him and I expect that to happen.

Nick Roach, linebacker

2015 salary cap number: $3.7 million

Roach is still dealing with a concussion that cost him the entire 2014 season. It doesn’t seem like he will play this season.

Tyvon Branch, safety

2015 salary cap number: $9.65 million

Branch can’t stay healthy. He’s missed 27 games due to injury the past two seasons. The Raiders need to get younger at safety, and it wouldn’t shock me if the team moved on. McKenzie basically acknowledged that, at the very least, Branch could be a candidate for a pay cut based on his injury history.

Sebastian Janikowski, kicker

2015 salary cap number: $3.6 million

Janikowski will be 37 in in March and has a high salary for a kicker. But he missed just three field goal attempts this past season after missing nine attempts in 2013. I’d be a bit surprised if Janikowski is cut.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Whenever a name from the Denver Broncos' hefty list of prospective free agents has been tossed toward John Elway, the team’s executive vice president of football operations/general manager has almost always answered the same way.

Something on the order of, "Sure, we want (insert free agent’s name here) back," but then Elway added -- every time -- something about how the open market would set the price tag for the player.

He would then add something about how difficult it is to sign a player before the market value for the player has been established, and how difficult it is for a player to sign before he knows how much he can get. In short, he has characterized it as: How much you want? I don’t know, how much you got? I don’t know.

He has said that about every prospective Broncos' free agent except one -- wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas isn't going anywhere, and the franchise player tag is proof. The Broncos know what they have in Thomas, they know what he means in their offense, and they want him to stay.

Now, they have to close the deal. The franchise player tag essentially keeps Thomas on the roster.

It’s a one-year deal for $12.797 million guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it. And there is the rub.

A player, especially an elite player like Thomas, would always prefer a long-term deal with guaranteed money.

A franchise player tender is a hefty bag of change, but it’s not a long-term deal. And long-term deals for a player like Thomas look like the seven-year, $113 million deal Calvin Johnson signed in 2012 that is significantly back-loaded and includes $48.8 million in guaranteed money.

Or the seven-year, $67.8 million deal that Andre Johnson signed in 2010, or Mike Wallace's five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) signed in 2013.

Elway has said he could easily see a scenario where the Broncos used the franchise player tag, then the sides agree to a long-term deal after free agency opens.

After free agency opens the market will dictate what the likes of Randall Cobb. Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree receive, and those would only be handy reference points for where the Broncos will have to go on Thomas.

For Thomas, the team has tinkered with a five-year deal. So, start at the $12.787 million of the tag (UPDATE: the actual amount based on the confirmed 2015 salary cap is $12.823 million) -- the Broncos have already shown they believe Thomas is worth that -- and multiply by the years on any prospective deal, and bump it a bit.

So, the Broncos are likely looking at a deal averaging more per year than the recent deals for elite wide receivers, save for Calvin Johnson's $16 million per-year average.

Despite the temporary relief the Broncos get from the franchise player tag, at least in terms of keeping Thomas off the open market, it’s still eats a little less than half their current available salary-cap space, and it's still best for all involved to get a long-term deal done.

They have spent the past few weeks outlining to quarterback Peyton Manning how a new offense, with a new playbook and at least some new terminology, would be of benefit to him. And they have also likely outlined what they could do if they were to get some salary-cap relief by tweaking his contract.

Thomas is Manning’s No. 1 receiver, and as a quarterback who has long extolled the virtues of repetition in developing the on-field chemistry, Manning wants to throw to that No. 1 receiver -- a lot.

Thomas doesn’t have to sign the franchise tender any time soon, until Week 10 of the regular season in the most extreme of cases. The Broncos have until July 15, roughly two weeks before training camp opens, to sign Thomas to a long-term deal. If that deadline passes, they'd have to wait until they’ve played their last regular-season game in ’15 to try again.

Most players who receive the franchise tag don’t sign the tender early because they want time to work on a long-term deal. And those players usually, at minimum, take a pass on the team’s offseason work if no new deal is done.

That’s not something Manning would be excited about; that’s not something a team trying to put in a new offense should be excited about; and it’s not something that would help anyone on any side of the equation. The Broncos have had success in this position before, having used the franchise tag on tackle Ryan Clady and kicker Matt Prater in previous years before signing each to long-term deals before the start of training camp.

So, it means when free agency opens, the Broncos will really need to get down to the business of signing the guy they’ve already shown is their top priority.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The moment the Kansas City Chiefs and Justin Houston anticipated came on Monday when the team placed the franchise tag on its star linebacker.

The news is nothing the sides haven’t expected for months. They have been building to this as on-again, off-again negotiations for a long-term contract brought little in the way of progress.

In making him their franchise player, the Chiefs are obligated to offer Houston a one-year contract worth about $13 million. But he’s not obligated to sign it now, anytime soon or ever.

Joseph
Houston
The franchise tag effectively keeps Houston off the free-agent market. Assuming he has been designated as a non-exclusive franchise player, Houston could negotiate a long-term contract with another club and sign an offer sheet.

The Chiefs would then have the right to match the contract and retain Houston’s services. They would receive two first-round draft picks from the other team if they decline to match.

So while this move goes a long way toward ensuring Houston plays in 2015 for no other team besides the Chiefs, it doesn’t guarantee he will play for the Chiefs. His leverage toward getting a long-term contract, and more guaranteed money than the one-year, $13 million contract would provide, is not to sign the Chiefs’ offer and stay away from the offseason conditioning program and practice sessions that begin in the spring.

It’s worth noting that his absence from last year’s conditioning and practice sessions (he was protesting a lack of progress toward a long-term contract) didn’t hold him back once the season started. He set a Chiefs record and fell a half-sack short of the NFL record with 22 sacks.

In that sense, the Chiefs placing the franchise tag on Houston and Houston possibly deciding not to sign it is a part of the business. These things tend to sort themselves out. The Chiefs and Houston have until July 15 to agree on a long-term contract. If they don’t have a deal in place by then, they can’t agree on one until after the Chiefs have finished their 2015 regular season.

But these things don’t always sort themselves out. In this case, the lack of progress toward a long-term contract and Houston’s willingness to hold out of last spring’s activities make you wonder whether this one will.

Things haven’t always worked themselves out for the Chiefs and their franchise players over the years. Jared Allen was so mad at being named the franchise player in 2008, they had little choice but to trade him to the Minnesota Vikings.

Branden Albert, the Chiefs’ most recent franchise player in 2013, played for Kansas City that season. But he departed shortly afterward for the Miami Dolphins and the long-term contract the Chiefs were never willing to give him.

Those were different situations and their lessons might not apply to Houston. His situation still bears watching.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With John Elway at the top of the corporate flow chart on the football side of the Denver Broncos' day-to-day activities, the team has been more than willing to dive into free agency to see what it could do in what is a pricey auction at times.

Active, however, on its own terms. Elway has signed most veteran free agents to short-term deals, most of those one-year deals, especially early in his tenure.

They have usually reserved the high-dollar, multiyear contracts for those players in line for their second NFL contract where the potential to hit an ascending player, one who actually plays as well, or even a little better, after the deal than he did before it, are greatest.

So, on those terms, the Broncos will again be active in free agency when things officially get down business to next week.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesWhile a free-agent acquisition like Aqib Talib has paid off, the Broncos will continue to build their roster through the draft.
They have, before they drop roughly $12.9 million or so on the franchise player tag for wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, about $26 million worth of workable salary-cap space to participate. A potential tweak or two to quarterback Peyton Manning’s contract could add some additional room.

They would also add a little more room if they get the long-term deal done for Thomas the two sides have been unable to complete to this point. But after Thomas and Dez Bryant get the franchise player tags by Monday’s deadline, and perhaps Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree sign, the market gets defined a little better and the chances to find common ground for Demaryius Thomas and the Broncos improves.

All in all, however, that’s enough cap room for the Broncos to take a spin in the early frenzied days of free agency to sign a guard, center and tight end, the three most likely positions to get their attention this time around.

And free agents, because they are known commodities, often generate more buzz in the workaday world than the draft. The draft is potential, it’s an unknown in many ways, so folks are going to want to talk about free agency.

But whether the Broncos compete for trophies over the long term or not will always depend more on what gets done in April and May every year far more than what they do in March.

“The draft will always be the base for what we do,’’ Elway said. “That’s the approach. We’re always going to try to get players who improve our roster, who are better, who help us improve. But it has to make sense and we will always prefer we’re bringing guys along, who know what it is to be a Denver Bronco. We like good players in free agency and we’ve signed guys like that, good players who help us be a better team. But you have your core people and build around it.’’

Manning’s signing will always be the free-agent acquisition that tops any list made for the Broncos from now until, well, forever. But a Hall of Fame quarterback with elite football left in the tank on the open market is not something that had really been seen before and it would be shocking to see it again at any point in the reasonably near future.

So, that’s not the gauge. And no question the Broncos played the free-agency market about as well as it can be done a year ago. They signed four marquee free agents – Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders – and all four played in the Pro Bowl.

But key to remember is three of the four were 28 years old or younger when they signed the deals and two – Ward and Sanders – were signing just their second NFL contract.

That’s how to work free agency on long-term deals. To do it any other way is to invite cap trouble and a thin depth chart as a team watches the dead money pile up – those salary-cap charges for players who are no longer on a team’s roster.

For the upcoming season, the Broncos’ biggest dead-money charge at the moment is $812,500 for kicker Matt Prater. So, they have succeeded in avoiding that to this point, and the key for them moving forward is to have the free-agency discipline and the draft success to avoid it in the future.

Because often teams approach free agency as a way to try to repair their draft mistakes, to fill those roster holes they have not filled from within. And as the annual confetti tosses begin for teams who “win’’ free agency in March and then go on to eventually miss the playoffs, it’s probably a good time for a reminder.

In 2014, the Broncos’ leading rusher (C.J. Anderson) was a player the team signed as an undrafted rookie, their leading receiver (Thomas) was a first-round pick by the team in 2010, their leading tackler (Brandon Marshall) was a waiver claim who spent almost a full season on the Broncos’ practice squad, their best defender in coverage (Chris Harris Jr.) was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and their sacks leader (Von Miller) was their first-round pick in 2011.

In short, the Broncos can certainly help themselves, again, over the next two weeks, but the players they sign will be the bonus, not the foundation.
John Elway said it on Feb. 19 and the Denver Broncos will follow through with it on Monday when the team is expected to formally place the franchise player tag on wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

The designation will mean the Broncos' captain will get a one-year, guaranteed deal for the average of the top five salaries at his position. This year that figure will be just less than $12.8 million. The salary cap charge would be $12.797 million and the deal would be fully guaranteed the moment Thomas signs it.

Teams could use the franchise player or transition player tags beginning on Feb. 16 and the deadline to file the paperwork to the league to use the tag is 4 p.m. ET on Monday.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJohn Elway has repeatedly said his goal is to work out a long-term deal with Demaryius Thomas.
"If we can't get something done, yeah, we'll tag Demaryius," Elway said in Indianapolis at the scouting combine. "Our goal is to get something done with Demaryius ... that market is changing, that wide receiver market is changing, too, but the bottom line is we want Demaryius to be a Bronco."

The Broncos and Thomas' representatives have had the framework of a five-year deal on the table at times over the past year. Elway said he expected Thomas, as well as the Broncos' other potential free agents, to see what the price tags would be at their respective positions once free agency opened. Thomas would command a contract worthy of his status at the position.

Calvin Johnson has the largest contract for any wide receiver in the league, a seven-year, $113 million deal he signed in 2012 that is significantly back-loaded and includes $48.8 million in guaranteed money. Andre Johnson signed a seven-year, $67.8 million deal in 2010, while Percy Harvin signed a six-year, $64.2 million deal ($14.5 million guaranteed) in 2013 and Mike Wallace signed a five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) in 2013.

Free agency officially begins March 10, and teams can begin to negotiate with prospective free agents on March 7. Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are the Broncos' highest-profile players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

When the Broncos file the paperwork to the league, it is expected Demaryius Thomas will get the “non-exclusive'' franchise player tag. That means Demaryius Thomas could solicit offers from other teams and the Broncos would then have the right to match.

The Broncos would almost certainly match any offer Thomas would receive. And any team that would potentially sign Thomas would have to make a contract big enough to deter the Broncos, a tall order, and also have to send the Broncos their next two first-round picks.

Most players who receive the franchise tag would prefer a long-term deal, that would include more guaranteed money. They often do not sign the franchise player tender until the deadline, which by league rules this year is July 15.

After July 15 teams cannot sign those designated as franchise players to multi-year extensions until after the last regular-season game of the upcoming season. So, it is expected Thomas would miss the team's offseason program until he either signs a multi-year extension or July 15 arrives since his attendance, and the team's desire to have him working in what is a new playbook, constitutes his most significant leverage.

Elway has said he could see a scenario where Demaryius Thomas got the franchise player tag and then the two sides reached an agreement at some point after free agency when the contracts started to come in.

The other free agent, marquee receiver who has had comparable production is Dez Bryant. The Dallas Cowboys are also expected to use the franchise player tag on him . Other notable receivers set to hit the open market are Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree and Randall Cobb.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Demaryius Thomas is second in the NFL with 28 100-yard receiving games in the regular season and postseason combined, including 10 100-yard games this past season. Seven of those came in consecutive weeks. His 226 yards in the Broncos' Oct. 5 win over the Arizona Cardinals is a single-game franchise record and his 1,619 yards receiving this past season also set a single-season franchise record.

Demaryius Thomas has had three consecutive seasons with at least 92 receptions, 1,430 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. He is also only the third player in league history to have three consecutive seasons of at least 1,400 yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns. Marvin Harrison and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice are the others.

Hypothetically the Broncos could also use a franchise player tag on Thomas in 2016 as well if no long-term deal were to be worked out. And with the salary cap having taken an expected jump from $133 million per team in 2014 to an expected $143 million in the coming season, teams would be more inclined to look at that as an option.

But Elway has repeatedly said; “We want to get something done with Demaryius and we would like to get that worked out as soon as we can so it makes sense for everybody.''
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Linebacker Justin Houston was named 2014 Most Valuable Player and De'Anthony Thomas rookie of the year by the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday.

Cornerback Gary Green, who played for the Chiefs from 1977 through 1983, is this year’s entrant to the Chiefs Hall of Fame.

Thomas
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Houston
Houston, 26, had the greatest season of any pass rusher in Chiefs history. He led the NFL with 22 sacks, finishing a half-sack from the NFL record set by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants in 2001.

But Houston was more than just an outstanding pass-rusher. He also excelled at playing the run and in pass coverage. He was far and away the top-rated 3-4 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus in 2014 as an overall player and pass rusher. Houston rated fourth as a run defender and tied for fourth in coverage.

Thomas, the Chiefs’ fourth-round draft pick from Oregon, won the award mainly for his special-teams contributions. On offense, he caught 23 passes for 156 yards and rushed 14 times for 113 yards and a touchdown.

Thomas was one of the NFL’s most dangerous kick returners. He was third in the league in punt-return average at 11.9 yards and had an 81-yard touchdown in December against the Oakland Raiders. His 30.6-yard average on kickoff returns would have tied him for second in the league, but he didn’t have enough attempts to qualify.

Green intercepted 24 passes in his seven seasons for the Chiefs. Green was traded to the Los Angeles Rams after the 1983 season. He played two seasons for the Rams.

“This is the biggest award I’ve ever received," said Green, now a high school coach and teacher in his native San Antonio. “Growing up playing football, we always want to be the best. ... This is the culmination of everything."
In need of an every-down running back, should they let Ryan Mathews go in free agency, the San Diego Chargers picked a good year to find one in this year’s draft.

“You can get those guys pretty much at any point in the draft that you want because there’s such great depth this year at the running back position,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said, “Every year you can find them. You can get a guy like Javorius 'Buck' Allen from USC in the third or fourth round. I think even a T.J. Yeldon from Alabama drops down into the fifth or sixth round. Terrell Watson of Azusa Pacific will be a nice, late-round pick, as will Cameron Artis-Payne from Auburn. Mike Davis of South Carolina might be a late-round pick. So you can find running backs.”

Among those players suggested by Kiper, the Chargers need to find a workhorse thumper who can grind out yards between the tackles. Here are a handful of options the Chargers could be targeting in this year’s draft.

Click here for an updated list of all the measurables for the running back draft prospects.

Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Gordon is deservedly considered the top running back prospect in this year’s draft. He put up video-game numbers in his final season at Wisconsin, rushing for an NCAA-record 408 yards against Nebraska, finishing with 4,915 rushing yards and averaging 7.8 yards per carry during his career with the Badgers. Gordon backed up those numbers with a solid workout at the scouting combine. You’d like to see a little more top-end speed, but a 4.52-second time in the 40-yard dash is fast enough. The only question about Gordon is his pass-catching and pass-protection ability on third down. Gordon is a true home run threat who could serve as an every-down back for the Chargers.

Jay Ajayi, Boise State: The Texas native finished with 3,796 rushing yards and 55 total touchdowns during his career for the Broncos, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. A tough, between-the-tackles runner, Ajayi compares himself to Marshawn Lynch because of his willingness to fight for every yard. At 6-foot and 221 pounds, Ajayi ran a 4.57-second time in the 40-yard dash and posted a 39-inch vertical jump. He’s also a good receiver, finishing with 50 receptions for 535 yards in his final season at Boise State.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana: At 5-11 and 206 pounds, Coleman rushed for a school-record 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Half of Coleman’s 28 career touchdowns gained 40-plus yards. Coleman also showed toughness, playing half of the season with a broken toe. He did not participate in on-field workouts at the scouting combine because of the injury, but pushed up 225 pounds 25 times on the bench press. Coleman is a one-cut, downhill runner with outstanding burst once he gets to the second level of the defense.

Duke Johnson, Miami: At 5-9 and 207 pounds, Johnson is electric when he gets into the open field. He finished with 1,652 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in his final season at Miami, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Johnson also caught 38 passes for 421 yards and three receiving touchdowns in 2014. Johnson’s 4.54 in the 40 was a bit disappointing, considering how fast he plays on film. But his production, vision and ability to make defenders miss clearly translates to the next level.

Buck Allen, USC: At 6-foot and 221 pounds, Allen is physical enough to serve as a workhorse running back in the NFL. And he’s fast enough, running a 4.53 in the 40 at the combine -- good speed for his size. Allen finished with 1,489 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in his final season with the Trojans. He also totaled 41 receptions for 458 yards and a receiving touchdown, so he can contribute in the passing game. Allen has good feet and short-area quickness for a bigger back.

David Johnson, Northern Iowa: At 6-1 and 224 pounds, Johnson is an easy strider with good, long speed once he reaches the open field. Johnson ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds at the scouting combine, so the speed is there. He finished with 1,553 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in his final season at Northern Iowa, so the production is there. Johnson also totaled 38 receptions for 536 yards and two receiving touchdowns, so he has some ability as a third-down back as well. Johnson could be a mid-to-late-round sleeper for the Chargers if they are looking for running back depth later in the draft.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As teams around the league continue to jettison veteran players to take some contracts off the books in advance of the formal opening of free agency, the Denver Broncos will always take a look at the list if they believe a player will fill a need.

But most of the time, the players simply do not fit the profile of what the Broncos are usually searching for in free agency, as in they are often in the 30-something club, coming off big-money, multiyear deals and hoping for another.

In short, the Broncos prefer players heading into their second NFL contracts, or the kind of players who usually aren’t getting released before the start of free agency.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Elway and the Broncos typically aren't major players on the opening days of free agency.
And while this new era of the salary cap – estimates are that it will come in between $143 million and $145 million per team, a significant jump from the $133-million limit in 2014 – has forced plenty of decision-makers across the league to wrap their heads around the idea of what is “too much" to pay a player at a given position. The Broncos have stuck to their profile for the most part.

At least in the big-ticket signings. You can take quarterback Peyton Manning’s signing in 2012 as the outlier, as Hall of Fame quarterbacks with football left in the tank don’t see the open market, so the Broncos dove in with a $96-million deal.

But overall, for much of John Elway’s early tenure with the Broncos, the team’s signings for those older free agents were usually on one-year contracts, usually well after the opening bell of free agency, especially if the player was well beyond his first contract in the league.

The players signed in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 free agency classes were largely veterans on one-year deals – Keith Brooking, Justin Bannan, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen, Brandon Stokley, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips, just to name a few. Most of the exceptions didn't get much longer deals. Wes Welker got a two-year deal, Terrance Knighton got a two-year deal and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie got a two-year deal on paper, but the second year was voided five days after the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.

The exceptions in those earlier seasons were Manning and guard Louis Vasquez. But Vasquez was a 20-something was making his first venture into free agency, and the Broncos gave him a four-year deal for what was his second contract in the league.

He has been a starter, an All-Pro, the kind of return the Broncos want. Even in the 2014 splurge in free agency of the four high-profile, big-money, multi-year signings – Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and DeMarcus Ware – only Ware was older than 28 when the contracts were signed while Ward and Sanders were signing their second NFL contracts.

All four of those players went on to play in the Pro Bowl this past January.

So, when you see all of the veteran players released now, before free agency opens, the Broncos aren’t going to be all that active with those players because the price is the highest. Yes, they've already had tight end James Casey in for a visit, but only because Casey has played four seasons in Gary Kubiak’s offense.

The Broncos are looking to free agents more in line with Ward, Sanders and Vasquez, players just completing their initial contracts, players still ascending. Those are the kinds of players who will be shown the Broncos' checkbook in the coming weeks.

They’ll fill with older players later if they feel they need to, with "later" being some time after the initial flurry of free agency dies down.

Because with some of their needs, Elway has already said the Broncos will look within as well, especially to those in the 2014 draft class who didn’t play much last season – such as wide receiver Cody Latimer – or at all last season – such as tackle Michael Schofield.

As Elway put it: “They’re going to have expectations for those young guys to be able to step in and be able to contribute early. That’s the coaching staff, that’s Gary’s mindset, the coaching staff’s mindset -- they’re not afraid to play young guys. They’ll get them trained up to play, which is going to be beneficial to us."

So, as the list of veteran free agents already on the market grows, as teams shave their salary caps and send signed contracts into the wind, the Broncos will look. Just don’t expect them to dive in on most of the most familiar names.
Jack Del RioJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesNew coach Jack Del Rio knows adding quality free agents is a key to turning around the franchise.
The Reggie McKenzie era with the Oakland Raiders is at a crossroads.

McKenzie, entering his fourth season as the team’s general manager, is either going to start winning and prove he deserves to keep his job as the Raiders’ primary football decision-maker since the death of legendary owner Al Davis, or he will eventually lose his job.

A key to McKenzie’s fate is the upcoming free agency period, which begins March 10. The Raiders could have upwards of $60 million in salary-cap room -- among the most in the NFL. It should be enough to help this team with many needs, (McKenzie recently said his checklist is "big") rebuild what is widely considered one of the most meager rosters in the NFL.

The Raiders have been connected to free agents such as Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb, Kansas City center Rodney Hudson and Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, among others.

However, the NFL is taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Oakland’s ability to add impact players. Last year, Oakland had a record amount of salary-cap room (almost $70 million). Yet, Oakland let left tackle Jared Veldheer and pass-rusher Lamarr Houston walk, and it didn’t sign any top talent. Instead, Oakland spent its money on aging veterans. Though a couple, such as Donald Penn and Justin Tuck helped, the free-agent class as a whole was a bust, and the Raiders went from 4-12 to 3-13. Essentially, the Raiders wasted their cache of cap room.

The Raiders seem bent on changing that this year. McKenzie, who recently said he will be looking for "some real players" this year, added he hopes to sign multiple starting-quality players.

He said a key to selling the Raiders to perspective free agents is the hope of building young players, such as quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack, into stars.

"We’re in the recruiting stage. Free agency, money, is major recruiting," McKenzie said. "It’s like colleges, [players] want to see what you got. They want to see where we play, where we practice, where we meet. It’s all important. What city you’ll be in. Highlight the positives, and that’s a part of it. And really, it gets to the point where they talk amongst themselves and everybody is positive. The energy is all about that, it’s all about the vibe that they get when they’re around current players. They see each other throughout, where they train, where they live. It’s up to us to try and help facilitate that.

"I’m going to try and go after good players. I don’t think last year, I felt like we need more role players. Now we’re looking for some guys who can come in and be impact (players)."

New Oakland coach Jack Del Rio is confident the Raiders will have success in free agency. In fact, it seems like he’s counting on it. Del Rio, who thinks the renovation of the team’s facility is a step in the right direction, said they are all on on the same page: The Raiders know they have to spend money to get better.

"Those are things I talked about in the interview process that were important, and they’ve been followed up with actual commitment of capital, which I’m excited about," Del Rio said. "So as you go into this phase of free agency and acquiring players, we have cap space and we have a new staff full of teachers. We have a young quarterback. We have a good, young man off the edge in Khalil Mack. We’ve got a good left tackle. We’ve got corners. The things that we need to get started, we have. So, now we have to start adding good, quality people that are fired up to be part of the Raiders. I’m excited about part of that process that we’re just getting into."

The NFL agent community is taking a measured approach because of the Raiders’ recent history of losing and odd free-agent moves.

"I think Oakland will have to overpay to get guys," one agent said. "There’s California’s high taxes, the losing, the poor facility, the bad stadium, the question of the team’s future home. All of those are reasons why the Raiders will need to be at the top of the market to attract guys."

However, another agent thinks the Raiders could be close to becoming attractive in free agency.

"Yes, Oakland is a tough sell, but if I had one of the top guys this year, I’d listen, because they have the room and the need," the agent said. "Oakland just has to convince that first big free agent, then it will get easier. Oakland is not a dream destination for guys, but if they could get a Ndamukong Suh to come, things will change in a hurry. The Raiders have to pull the trigger on a big name. They have to."

For example, there has been league conjecture that believes the Raiders will have to pay Cobb an average of $12 million a year if he gets to free agency. That is considered an overpay, but perhaps it will needed.

Oakland will have motivation to spend as well. It needs to get close to reaching the league’s minimum spending floor of 89 percent of the cap in cash from 2013 to 2016. The Raiders will likely need to spend big in the next two years to get there. The Raiders are aware of the many reasons they need to score in free agency. Now, it’s time to see if they can execute.

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