The Broncos nearly had a lost season this year. The team went 8-8 in 2009 and people expected them to be able to compete in the weak AFC West this year, but the Broncos managed just a 4-12 record. They had the worst defense in the league in both yards and points allowed. Head Coach Josh McDaniels didn't even make it to the end of the season.
Fortunately, their season wasn't a complete loss because of Tim Tebow. Tebow was made starting quarterback at the end of the year and showed that he could succeed in the NFL like he did in college, despite not being a great traditional quarterback. With the quarterback of the future in place, new Head Coach John Fox has to decide what players he needs to keep to help Tebow and the Broncos win.
5. Ronald Fields And Marcus Thomas - Defensive Line
I've chosen to lump these two players together because they are in very much the same situation. Both Ronald Fields and Marcus Thomas are currently backups along Denver's defensive line. Neither player is particularly good or bad, they are solid 3-4 rotation players.
Unfortunately for them, it's not yet known what defense the Broncos will run next year under new head coach John Fox. The Broncos currently have more players in place to run the 3-4, but John Fox is a 4-3 defensive guy and the Broncos' defense was last in the league last year. The key to this decision is likely Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil is Denver's best defensive player and if Fox decides that he can use him in a 4-3 defense despite how undersized Dumervil is, it will likely spell the end for Fields and Thomas in Denver.
4. Laurence Maroney - Running Back
Laurence Maroney didn't make this list on merit. He made it because of his name. People know he is a former first round pick and they expect him to be able to produce in the NFL. Unfortunately, so far in his career that hasn't been the case. Denver traded a fourth round pick to New England for him and a sixth round pick earlier this season.
Denver already has Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter at running back and don't need to bring back Maroney. Some team will likely end up over paying him during the off-season because of his potential, it just shouldn't end up being the Broncos.
3. Ryan Harris - Offensive Tackle
The Denver offensive line wasn't one of the big problems of the Broncos 2011 season. Injuries forced them to play musical chairs along the line for much of the first half of the season, but the Denver offense didn't suffer too much for it and were still scoring enough to be competitive. Ryan Harris did a solid job when he was playing at the right tackle spot, but his job isn't secure next year.
Two things are working against Harris in his bid for a new contract. One problem is injuries. Harris has been a started for the last three years but only played a full season in 2008, he missed multiple games the last two years. The other issue Harris has is new coach John Fox. Fox played power football with the Panthers, while Harris is more of a finesse tackle. He's good moving in space and at cutting defenders, but isn't the greatest when it comes to lining up and blowing his man off the ball.
2. Kyle Orton - Quarterback
Tecnically, Kyle Orton isn't a free agent this year, but the Broncos still have a big decision to face with him. If they are going forwards with Tebow as their starter, they have to decide how they want to back him up. Orton is a quality NFL quarterback and they can keep him to be Tebow's backup, but then they have to keep two different offensive styles. Orton just isn't capable of the same things Tebow is.
My recommendation is to go a different route. They can acquire another quarterback through either the draft or free agency who is more similar to Tebow and trade away Kyle Orton. There are multiple teams in the league who could use Orton as their starting quarterback and I think they would be able to get a second or third round pick for him. Great value for a guy who was thrown in to the Jay Cutler trade.
1. Champ Bailey - Cornerback
This is probably the toughest decision the Broncos will have to make this off season. On one hand, it's Champ Bailey, one of the best cover cornerbacks of all time. On the other hand, it was clear this year that Champ had lost a step. He only had two picks this year, tied for the lowest full season total of his career.
Champ will be 33 next year and in his thirteenth year in the league. I don't think he can be relied on to be a number one cornerback over the course of another contract. His return to Denver likely hinges on whether or not he realizes that. If he's willing to come back at a reduced rate and understands that he's not the guy anymore then the Broncos should sign him.
If Champ is still convinced he deserves number one corner money then the Broncos would be better off letting him walk. It might look bad in the first year if Champ plays well, but I don't expect him to play like that over the life of a full contract and if the cap comes back with the new CBA I expect it to hurt whoever gives Champ top dollar long term.