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DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 22: Denver Broncos President of Football Operations, John Elway stands on the sideline during a regular season game between the Denver Broncos and the visiting Detroit Lions on December 22, 2019 at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, CO. (Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Broncos have been underwhelming during free agency… so far

(Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Once upon a time, the Broncos were supposed to have nearly $80 million in salary cap space and John Elway was going to have an open checkbook. As a result, Denver was expected to be an active player in free agency, bringing back memories of their famous 2014 class (Emmanuel Sanders, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware).

Fast forward, however, and reality has been very different. Thus far, the Broncos haven’t made much of a splash during free agency; they’ve been a pebble thrown into the ocean.

In part, this is because some of their money was spent before the NFL’s shopping spree began. Denver tied up $13.4 million when they traded for cornerback A.J. Bouye, while allotting another $11.4 million to Justin Simmons when they placed the franchise tag on the safety. So in a way, those two defensive backs are part of the Broncos free-agent class.

In addition, however, they’ve handcuffed themselves by keeping players, and their respective salaries, on the roster. Most expected Denver to free up roughly $10 million in cap space by cutting Joe Flacco; the quarterback is still a member of the team, however. And parting ways with Todd Davis would’ve freed up an additional $4.5 million in cap space; but the linebacker was retained. The same goes for Jeff Heuerman, as releasing the tight end would’ve saved Denver nearly $4 million. Combined, these players account for nearly $20 million that never materialized.

This has added up to a two-day period during the league’s “legal tampering” window where the Broncos have been pretty quiet. Their efforts in free agency, at least thus far, have been underwhelming.

Yes, they’ve filled some needs. Graham Glasgow will bolster the middle of their offensive line, whether he replaces Ron Leary at right guard or Conner McGovern at center. And Jeff Driskel gives them a backup for Drew Lock, something that wasn’t on the roster (if you don’t count Flacco).

But neither of those moves will get Broncos Country excited. And they certainly aren’t anything that makes the team drastically better.

Those types of signings would’ve come at other positions. Denver’s defensive line, for example, is in desperate need of additions, with Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis all expected to depart via free agency.

According to reports, the Broncos No. 1 objective to bolster that position, and perhaps their top target on the open market overall, was former Texans defensive lineman D.J. Reader. But yesterday, Denver was outbid by the Bengals for his services. Cincinnati, one of the NFL’s most-notoriously cheap franchises, offered a four-year, $53-million contract that Elway wasn’t willing to top.

So now, the Broncos are in a bit of a pickle. They still have money to spend, albeit less than they could’ve had if they’d managed their roster differently, but the top players are coming off the board.

That leaves Elway in a position where he’ll either have to overspend on second-tier players, which isn’t a good game plan, or head into the season with salary cap space to spare, which isn’t doing everything possible to put the best team on the field.

Perhaps the general manager has a surprise or two up his sleeve. Broncos Country certainly hopes so. Because right now, it’s hard to argue that Denver is a better team than they were at the end of last season.