DENVER -- The Broncos finished with a winning record, but a sinking feeling. Missing the playoffs represented a red-faced moment for a proud defending champion. How can they get back to the summit again?
A look at the Broncos' top seven offseason priorities:
1) Hire a coach
The Broncos, you might have heard on your CB or through strings-attached-tomato cans in your spider cave, are looking for a head coach. Vance Joseph has been cast as the slight leader, and the Dolphins defensive coordinator will interview Tuesday for the job. He is expected to take it, if offered. Same goes for Atlanta offensive boss Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan interviewed last week, made it clear he is his own man and wants this position. Shanahan's candidacy cannot be dismissed. He's the game's hottest playcaller for a Broncos team that needs to caffeinate its offense. Can the franchise move on from the awkward ending with his famous father Mike Shanahan?
Shahanan profiles well with eight years of experience as a coordinator. Is he ready to lead and work in concert with general manager John Elway? The downside for Shanahan, in an odd way, is continued to success. If Atlanta stays alive in the playoffs, it makes it more difficult to assemble a coaching staff. Joseph is free to leave with the Miami Dolphins eliminated. However, Sunday was not a good showing for his defense (three drives of 80-plus yards in the first half and a overall awful season against the run). Can he how showcase his ability to lead, establish his presence immediately and help the offense with a veteran coordinator like Mike McCoy?
2) Upgrade offensive line
The Broncos aren't going anywhere without improvement upfront. The Broncos averaged 92.8 yards per game on the ground, down from 107.4 in 2015. The nosedive coincided with starter C.J. Anderson's season-ending knee surgery, sidelining him for the final nine games. The Broncos have to make decisions on tackle Russell Okung. Okung as a four-year, $48-million option that must be exercised by March 9. Okung made $8 million this year when counting incentives. Would he take a similar annual salary on a new deal? Right tackle Donald Stephenson's 2017 salary of $4 million guarantees on March 13. If the Broncos release him, a legitimate possibility after his poor season, they would absorb a $2 million cap hit. There are no easy answers with so many teams looking for offensive linemen. It would help tremendously to hit on one in the draft.
3) Bolster the defensive line
It's hard to win when you can't run or stop it. The Broncos defense remains potent. But a fatal flaw emerged this season as the Broncos ranked 28th against the run, allowing 130.3 yards per game. Compare that to last season when they yielded 83.6. They lacked bulk and depth following the departure of Malik Jackson and the preseason-ending knee injury to Vance Walker. I would try to bring back Walker as a free agent, and possibly Sylvester Williams, price willing. Then pursue a free agent like Baltimore's Brandon Williams and draft at least one beefy run stopper in the draft.
4) Keep D strong through changes
When I asked Elway about trading from a strength to improve the offense, he balked. He wants the defense to remain the team's identity. As such, the Broncos need to add a corner for depth with the likely departure of Kayvon Webster. And there's an increasing likelihood they will need to adapt to a new leader. Wade Phillips becomes a free agent his week. If the team wanted him back, they could have made that happen and told the new coach he was staying. Oakland and Washington are among the teams that could inquire about Phillips. If he departs, secondary coach Joe Woods represents a favorite among players as an internal replacement.
5) Run the ball
This ties back into the first point, and many points, frankly. If the Broncos stand pat with young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, they need to improve around them. Nothing helps a developing quarterback more than a reliable ground game. Shanahan knows how to ramp up the offensive attack. Joseph would need to show a clear plan because the Broncos can't suffer through a third straight season of poor offense and expect to rebound.
6) Figure out the tight end position
The Broncos completed 53 passes to tight ends last season, 52 by Siemian. The Broncos have no third wide receiver. Maybe that will change. But until it does, the tight end must become more productive, especially in the red zone. What will the new coach think of Jeff Heuerman, A.J. Derby and Virgil Green? Will they all be back? Two of them? They need better.
7) Improve special teams return game
The NFL remains a field position game unless you have a prolific offense like Atlanta's. The Broncos rarely helped themselves in the punt and kick return game. Rookie Kalif Raymond provided a spark, but needs seasoning. At the very least, the Broncos need competition between two burners for the punt and kick return jobs.