DENVER -- John Elway stood in front of reporters at the NFL Combine last week, casually dressed, talking with humility.
Gone are the days of predicting Super Bowl appearances and deep playoff runs. Four straight years without a postseason appearance creates a jarring reality. Expectations don't change, but the reality of the challenge does. The Broncos have not sniffed the playoffs since 2016 -- if receiver Bennie Fowler tried to catch a Trevor Siemian pass with something besides his facemask against the Titans, they likely advance -- leaving Elway to "temper" his optimism.
This spring feels different.
The Broncos are not leaning on a one-year wonder (Case Keenum) or a rapidly aging veteran (Joe Flacco) to revive the offense and restore hope. Denver is committed to second-year pro Drew Lock, who brought contagious energy, fun and strong production over the final five games, including four victories.
For the Broncos to take the next step -- and that should be easier if a seventh playoff team is added in each conference -- they require upgrades. Of course, they will attempt to keep some of their own free agents, but only safety Justin Simmons is guaranteed to stay.
The Broncos would like to work out a longterm deal, and must franchise tag him -- something Elway plans to do in absence of a multi-year contract -- by next Thursday. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is likely gone with the addition of A.J. Bouye. Defensive end Derek Wolfe wants to retire a Bronco, but is drawing interest from the Cardinals and Bengals. Defensive end Shelby Harris is in line for a big payday, possibly from the Colts. Safety Will Parks, with plenty of suitors, seeks a starting job that isn't available in Denver. And center Connor McGovern's price might be more than Broncos are willing to pay.
Hitting on external free agents remains critical. The Broncos have $62 million to spend and that amount could increase to $75 million when Flacco's restructured money rolls into the salary cap. Last year's misses on cornerback Bryce Callahan (foot) and right tackle Ja'Wuan James (knee) -- both hope to be healthy this season -- arguably prevented a .500 record, if not a playoff berth.
So who is on the wish list -- at least mine? Glad you asked:
WR Amari Cooper, Cowboys
The question arrives as soon as the name is typed. Why go free agent receiver with the deepest draft class since 2003? Fair. The reason? Cooper is proven. He has posted 1,000-yards in four of his first five seasons. He averages nearly seven touchdowns per year. I have pushed for drafting Henry Ruggs III with the 15th overall pick. Cornerback and receiver are the two positions where it makes sense to double up. Cooper might not be available if the Cowboys franchise tag him. But getting Lock a reliable veteran to pair with Courtland Sutton will microwave his development.
LB Cory Littleton, Rams
The Broncos need more versatility from their linebackers. Alexander Johnson helped. Littleton would give them more options in coverage. He can run, and is a sound tackler, posting 259 stops over the past two years. Fangio told me at the combine that would look for help at linebacker, but mentioned that they could address matchups in space by using more defensive backs.
CB Prince Amukara, Bears
The Broncos require more corners. If Harris signs elsewhere -- the Cowboys, Jets, Texans, Raiders, Lions, Chiefs and Chargers are interested -- the Broncos require another starter-type to pair with Callahan and Bouye. Amukamara represents a mid-range signing, who would welcome playing for Fangio again. He had his best year under the Broncos coach in 2018, posting three interceptions and 12 passes defensed. He would also buy more time for third-year player Duke Dawson to develop.
CB Logan Ryan, Titans
Admittedly, he might be too pricey. But he's a solid, smart gamer, who would fit well with Fangio's defense. Ryan had four picks last year, served as a leader in the locker room and logged more than 1,200 snaps.
G/C Graham Glasgow, Lions
The Broncos would like to bring back McGovern. There's no guarantee he returns. Glasgow brings versatility and dependability. He can play guard and center, having started at both, and has started 58 of 62 career games.
DT D.J. Reader, Texans
Reader, a 350-pound mountain of a man, continued to evolve with the Texans. He is a space eater, who can help control a running game. Would he fit in the plans? Yes. Will he fit in the budget as the Broncos try to put all the puzzle pieces together? Not easily. He will command Shelby Harris-type money, likely $11 million per season. The Broncos are expected to tender a contract to nose tackle Mike Purcell, but could use another big body upfront.
RB Melvin Gordon, Chargers
With Eaton's own Austin Ekeler signing a four-year extension Friday with $15 million guaranteed, per reports, it's increasing likely Gordon will move on. The Broncos could use an effective big back to pair with Phillip Lindsay. Gordon never got on track after holding out last year, but he has a nose for the end zone, collecting 36 touchdowns over the past four seasons.
LT Mike Remmers, Giants
This is a connecting of dots. The Broncos need protection at tackle given the uncertain futures of Garett Bolles and James after this season. Elway said he will decide after the draft whether to pick up Bolles' fifth-year option, though it seems unlikely. Remmers has started 78 games and played for new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur last season in New York. Broncos fans will remember Remmers, unfortunately, as the guy who couldn't block Von Miller on Twitter in Super Bowl 50.
LB Nick Kwiatkoski, Bears
Fangio doesn't bring in all his ex-players. But some fit more than others. If Littleton becomes too expensive, Kwiatkoski would be nice backup plan. He draws raves for his preparation, instincts and ability to make big plays. He only started eight games last year, but delivered three sacks and eight tackles for a loss.
DT Brandon Williams, Ravens
Reader is going to have suitors around every corner beginning on March 16. I say this because the Broncos might not get him. Williams can stuff the run, and could command less. There will be host of guys like this, include Javon Hargrave, Andrew Billings, Danny Shelton and Michael Brockers.