Jussel: Keeping Clady a must for Broncos

Welcome to Season Three of a rebuilding plan created by two Johns.

It appears three weeks too soon, but the Johns, Elway and Fox, are already hard at work trying to make next season better than the one that just ended.

That won’t be easy after a 13-3 regular-season and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. And it won’t be easy grabbing now-required multiple playoff wins and a Super Bowl title.

I’m sure they don’t need my help, but I am, as always, available — and here’s a blueprint:

First up, get your quarterback in the fold. Peyton Manning has just completed a possible MVP season, been selected to the Pro Bowl and an Associated Press first-team All-Pro — that after four neck surgeries and joining a new team. He and team officials need only to rubber stamp the next two option years of his contract.

Once done ...

The team needs to protect Manning’s blind side by keeping the No. 1 free agent on the market, left tackle Ryan Clady, another All-Pro. Clady’s long-term employment with the Broncos is being addressed, the team says. The worst-case scenario is to franchise Clady for roughly $10 million, guaranteeing his return next season, but his possible, even likely loss the season after.

Besides Clady, other key free agent starters are slot receiver Brandon Stokley, center Dan Koppen, defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan and middle linebacker Keith Brooking. Others include running back Lance Ball, wide receiver Matt Willis, cornerback Tracy Porter and safeties David Bruton and Jim Leonhard.

Vickerson and Bannan would be the toughest to replace.

As it looks at present, the Broncos are in good shape nearly $19 million below the salary cap. Keep in mind the signing or franchising of Clady will take up roughly $10 million of that, and Manning’s option will pay him an additional $2 million over what he made last season. Thus, the Broncos have roughly $7 million to mess with, a fluid figure pending additions and subtractions.

Still, Elway, Fox & Co. have house money to play with.

They have, as it stands now, the 28th spot in the first round of the draft and five picks after that, missing only a sixth-rounder.

What do they need to make this a better team?

The loss to Baltimore tells us they still need to beef up the front on both sides of the ball. That’s good timing because the draft is heavy in talented big folks.

The free-agent market is also heavy in linemen, particularly on the defensive side. Henry Melton of Chicago is only 26 and, while he would command big bucks, he would make a huge impact. Randy Starks of Miami, Jason Jones of Seattle and even the legendary Richard Seymour of Oakland also are available.

There is also the possibility of moving rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe to tackle and bringing in another defensive end, Michael Bennett of Tampa Bay, Cliff Avril of Detroit, Michael Johnson of Cincinnati, even old fart Dwight Freeney of the Colts, among others.

Middle linebacker may also be addressed, with youth needed. There are no quality free agents out there, and the draft will be a tough place to find immediate help at the 28th spot. Brooking may be brought back, and the injured Joe Mays returns. Still ...

The team could use more speed on offense and add it with Danny Amendola, St. Louis slot receiver who is a free agent, or think about, gulp, Reggie Bush, the Miami running back. If size at running back is a priority, Steven Jackson, the longtime Ram standout, is available.

Resorting to the draft for speed on offense, you’ve got Tavon Austin of West Virginia, a 5-9, 175-pound Percy Harvin clone from the slot. If there is a desire to add running backs to a talented but maybe brittle corps, maybe pick up Montee Ball of Wisconsin, a Willis McGahee type who does nothing but score touchdowns, or Alabama’s bruising tailback Eddie Lacy, who may be available even in the second round.

Options abound. Denver has the building blocks in place, and Elway and Fox have the vision and say they are ahead of their original pace.

With Manning healthier and stronger and more roster tweaking done, Season Three of this grand plan may indeed be something to behold.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.

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