CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- The idea of the Broncos missing the playoffs as late as Nov. 27 seemed preposterous.
Denver owned a 7-3 record and held a 24-16 lead with 3:12 remaining against the Kansas City Chiefs at home. Zip-Loc the victory, and the Broncos would have moved into position to win a sixth consecutive AFC West title. Then something weird happened. The defense suffered a rare late-game hiccup. The Chiefs drove the length of the field, converting a fourth-and-10 in the red zone, scoring a touchdown and delivering a two-point conversion. The Broncos lost in overtime -- Bennie Fowler dropped the first of two passes that altered the outcome of the season (See Titans game) -- and never recovered.
They enter Sunday's game with only pride on the line. If it feels awkward, it's because it is. The Broncos will not participate in the postseason for the first time since 2010. This is the only time under general manager John Elway's leadership they have missed the playoffs. The disappointment resonates in every corner, meeting room and lobby at Dove Valley. This team begins every season with Super Bowl goals. The Broncos don't do consolation prizes.
One thing remains certain: there will be changes in personnel, and likely on the coaching staff. So what's next? How far are the Broncos from returning to the postseason? Not very. With an offensive fix and added bulk on the defensive line, there's no reason to believe Denver won't bounce back, though the young talent in Oakland and Kansas City makes it more challenging than in recent seasons.
The Broncos are more comfortable with their position than they were last March after Brock Osweiler defected in free agency. They believe they have two young players -- Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch -- capable of manning the spot. However, the Broncos demand a level of play that produces championships. Are either Siemian or Lynch capable of that next season? It's a fair question. For all of Siemian's progress, the Broncos' passing attack ranks near the bottom third in every category. The offensive line's abysmal performance figures into any evaluation of the quarterbacks, but can't excuse everything. Lynch is a terrific athlete. But can he catch up in his knowledge of the offense and footwork to challenge Siemian for the job in training camp?
Remember, Elway is in charge. So you can never say never on bold moves. Elway is hyper competitive. After evaluating the landscape will he decide to make a run for Dallas' Tony Romo, who is due $14 million next season and will be 37, or Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor? The Broncos could have has much as $45 million in cap space with the cap increase and roster wrinkles, according to CBS Sports' Joel Corry. It leave a battery of options open. A trade for Romo would likely require a mid-round draft pick. The Broncos expressed interest in Taylor the previous two seasons, and he worked one year under Kubiak in Baltimore.
What do with the line dance?
It starts at the tackles. Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson, signed in the offseason, delivered disappointing performances given expectations. Okung bet on himself with a make-good contract. He played for $5 million this season, plus $3 million in incentives that will be reached. The Broncos carry an option for a four-year, $48-million contract on Okung that must be exercised by March 9. Okung brought leadership and more durability than expected. But it's hard to see the Broncos paying him $12 million per season. Could they negotiate it down closer to this season's number of $8 million?
Stephenson could be one and done in Denver. After a strong start, he slumped dramatically. He lost his job for a game-and-half to Ty Sambrailo. Stephenson shows talent, but has been wildly inconsistent. He drew five penalties in last Sunday's loss to the Chiefs. Stephenson signed a three-year, $14 million deal last offseason. His 2017 salary of $4 million guarantees on March 13. If the Broncos cut him, they'd take a $2 million cap hit. It's not a ripe market for free agent tackles. The best would likely have to be acquired by trade. As listed by Corry, among the best right tackles available are Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, Ricky Wagner and Menelik Watson. Corry's best guards available, another position where the Broncos could choose to upgrade over Max Garcia and Michael Schofield, include: T.J. Lang, Ronald Leary, Larry Warford, Chance Warmack and Kevin Zeitler.
Adding Beef on Defense
The Broncos' defense remains stout, save for one weakness: stopping the run. The Broncos yielded 83.6 yards per game last season. This year? They have been gashed for 135.2 yards per game. With Sylvester Williams and Vance Walker free agents, the Broncos will have to add pieces. I'd try to bring back both if the price is right. Walker's absence due to a season-ending knee injury became amplified with every passing week. Regardless, the Broncos will need to address this area in the draft or free agency. Sheldon Richardson, a talented but enigmatic player for the Jets, and Brandon Williams will be among the top players on the market.
Tough choices in free agency
The Broncos would love to keep defensive back Kayvon Webster, arguably their top special teams player. He wants to be a starting corner in this league, and is talented enough to do so. Keeping him could be problematic, not unlike David Bruton a year ago. Linebacker Todd Davis and kicker Brandon McManus are restricted free agents, leaving the Broncos the ability to match offers. Center Matt Paradis, who will undergo offseason hip surgery, is an exclusive rights free agent. The unrestricted list includes Webster, linebacker/special teamer Dekoda Watson, DeMarcus Ware, Walker and Williams. Ware is a total pro, a complete class act. However, Shane Ray's emergence and Shaquil Barrett's presence suggests Ware might have played his last snap in Denver given other areas that demand improvement.
The Broncos don't lose and stand pat. There figures to be changes in the coaching staff. How deep and how dramatic remains to be seen. The Broncos are not happy with their nose pressed up against the playoff window pane. But rest easy. They have enough cap space and flexibility to return to the playoffs with a few shrewd moves.