DENVER -- Stare into the darkness.
It's OK Broncos' fans. Time to make an honest assessment. While the quarterback position remains the top priority -- either through free agents like Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum and Tyrod Taylor or the draft -- the roster requires construction that would make Chip and Joanna Gaines blush.
I watched a chunk of Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, and the Broncos bare little resemblance to that team. The offense scared no one, but featured Peyton Manning. His ability to wring out the best in teammates, to create accountability and to put the group in the right play stayed strong even as his skills deteriorated. A MacGyver offensive line -- patched together with chicken wire and duct tape -- took pride in finishing the season strong. Only one starter remains, restricted free agent center Matt Paradis.
All other grunts and the two tight ends (Vernon Davis and Owen Daniels) retired, were cut or signed elsewhere.
Defensively, five starters no longer play for the Broncos: outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, defensive end Malik Jackson, nose tackle Sylvester Williams, linebacker Danny Trevathan, and safety T.J. Ward.
Championships come with erosion. Teams can't keep everyone in a league with a salary cap. I raise this point for two reasons. First, the Broncos are not one quarterback away from a deep playoff run, though solidifying the position would restore optimism. Secondly, they need a draft bonanza to compensate from last spring's misses, and to land an impact player in free agency beyond quarterback.
Under center, the options, according to multiple sources, start with Cousins and include Keenum and Taylor. It is, of course, a fluid situation that could require a pivot if a team overwhelms Cousins with an offer or the Vikings retain Keenum. If the Broncos don't land a quarterback, selecting one with the fifth pick becomes likely. Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen -- not necessarily in that order -- sit on the list. It is impossible to know which one is their favorite given the smokescreens associated with the draft process.
In talking to a half-dozen players over the last few weeks, their preference is for the Broncos to sign a veteran. Makes sense. They know the window can close quickly, and they want to win now. Securing Cousins will require creativity. The Broncos have roughly $25 million in salary cap space. That's barely enough to force their way into the Cousins derby.
It is expected the Broncos will ask multiple players to restructure and/or take paycuts. If the Broncos remain a strong candidate for Cousins, they are expected to keep veteran receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Miss on Cousins, then Thomas or Sanders become vulnerable through trade or as a salary cap casualty.
Even if Thomas and Sanders stay, the Broncos need weapons. They can no longer count on Carlos Henderson, Jeff Heuerman, and the like, at this point. Landing a tight end in free agency to pair with Jake Butt could change the complexion of the offense in the red zone. A vet like Austin Seferian-Jenkins is an intriguing fit.
Signing an experienced quarterback opens up the possibility of drafting an offensive lineman with the fifth pick, like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Irish tackle Mike McGlinchey. If the team does not choose a guard in the first round, UTEP's Will Hernandez will be worth a second-round pick, if available. Then again, if Georgia running back Sony Michel remains on the board in the second I would be hard-pressed to pass him over. He and Oregon's Royce Freeman, who could be available in the third or fourth round, have been repeatedly linked to the Broncos in mock drafts.
The draft exists as a boost, not rocket fuel. However, the Saints proved how the right selections can change a team dramatically as evidenced by the contributions by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk and running back Alvin Kamara.
The Broncos' offense needs an identity, and a heavy dose of talent.
Defensively, issues exist, too. The Broncos face the possibility of moving on from cornerback Aqib Talib to make room for Bradley Roby. It would free up $11 million in salary, but the driving force behind this change, if it happens, would be Roby's potential as a starter, not Talib's salary.
It means the Broncos could need a nickel cornerback, though I am bullish on Marcus Rios, who zoomed past third-round pick Brendan Langley over the final month of last season.
Denver should add a linebacker. There's no guarantee Todd Davis returns in free agency. Heck, there's no guarantee any of the Broncos unrestricted free agents re-signs (Davis, Allen Barbre, Jamaal Charles, Brock Osweiler, Virgil Green, Cody Latimer, Donald Stephenson, Corey Nelson, Billy Turner, Billy Winn and Jared Crick).
Improving coverage against tight ends is a must with a speedy linebacker. The Broncos have intriguing young safeties in Jamal Carter and Dymonte Thomas, which could make Darian Stewart expendable.
The defensive line improved significantly with the addition of Domata Peko, Shelby Harris and improvement of Adam Gotsis. It would help if DeMarcus Walker followed Gotsis' career arc in his second season. No one questions Derek Wolfe's toughness, however, his injuries demand the Broncos add depth at defensive end.
The aforementioned concerns articulate why the Broncos own seven wins in their past 22 games. They spiraled last season, but are not doomed. They have provided their fans a reluctant look at how the other half lives. The Broncos are accustomed to championships, not rebuilding projects.
They face a tall order this offseason. Without certainty at quarterback, it's hard to believe in a rebound. Even with a decision there -- and there will be a new starter either through free agency or the draft -- multiple right choices are required.
The puzzle is scattered. But there are enough pieces available this offseason to put it back together and make the Broncos a contender.