COMMENTARY | Stoke the coals: It's hot-stove time in the NFL.
Yes, free agency is upon us, and while signings won't officially start until March 12, franchise players can be tagged, salary-cap figures can be juggled and player-acquisition plans can be formulated.
It's what's been going down in every team's War Room since their respective 2012 seasons came to an end.
And while the Ed Reeds, Steven Jacksons and Wes Welkers are high on many a free-agent wish list, there's value to be found and big bucks to be saved in targeting some of the league's lesser lights -- the under-the-radar (and under-the-salary cap) players -- who still can have a big impact on the field come next fall.
After wisely franchising Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady, the Denver Broncos can set their sights on plugging some of the few gaps they have following a 13-3 season that ended with a double-overtime, divisional-round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. And while signing a Reed or Welker could very well be in the Broncos' future, here are some comparatively bargain-basement signings that could put Orange-and-Blue crew over the top in 2013:
WR Austin Collie
This could be a no-brainer of the bunch: Bringing aboard Peyton Manning's old Indy compatriot, who was cut loose by the Colts on Feb. 15, and signing him to a short-term, low-dollar, incentive-laden deal and then perhaps adding an insurance slot man in the draft.
At 27, Collie nearly is a decade younger than 2012 Broncos slot receiver and current free-agent Brandon Stokley, but he's accumulated some nasty injury baggage over his four NFL seasons, including -- most alarmingly -- four concussions, thumb surgery and a torn patellar tendon that limited his 2012 season to a single game.
Still, in Collie's two Indy seasons with Manning (2009-10), the two did some definite damage, hooking up for 118 receptions, 1,325 yards and 15 TDs in only 25 games.
RB Chris Ivory/RB Jonathan Dwyer
The Broncos should zero in on one of the two here.
Both backs currently are restricted free agents, meaning it likely would cost a low-round draft choice to sign either, but one -- most likely Dwyer -- or both could be unrestricted by the time the cash-strapped New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers get their own priorities in order.
Both are young -- Ivory is 24 and Dwyer, 23 -- and just entering their primes and have been saved a typical NFL back's wear-and-tear by playing in running back-by-committee situations. As a result, Ivory has 256 career carries, while Dwyer has only 181.
Still, both are hard-running, tough runners who have put up some eye-catching numbers despite their limited work.
The well-built Ivory (6-0, 222) has averaged 5.11 yards per carry which ranks fourth in the league over the past three seasons among backs with 250 or more carries.
Meanwhile, the 5-11, 235-pound Dwyer -- a Georgia Tech teammate of current Broncos' wideout Demaryius Thomas -- is the the between-the-tackles workhorse the Broncos need, and he led the Steelers in rushing with 623 yards on 156 carries this past season.
S William Moore
True, the 27-year-old Moore isn't exactly a lesser light as one of the top-five available safeties, but that could change if the Atlanta Falcons decide to place their franchise tag on the former Missouri Tiger.
The 6-foot, 220-pound Moore is a physical presence who has registered at least 54 tackles in each of his three pro seasons, but what makes the former second-round pick so appealing is his play-making penchant which has resulted in 11 career interceptions -- one of which came against Manning in Week 2 this past September -- and five forced fumbles.
By comparison, Broncos safeties have combined for eight picks over that span, and needless to say, the Denver "D" can use all the turnovers it can get with a cumulative minus-22 team takeaway-giveaway differential over the past three seasons.
DT Desmond Bryant
The 27-year-old Harvard product isn't generating as much free-agent buzz as DT counterparts Henry Melton, Randy Starks or even former Oakland Raiders teammate Richard Seymour, but he possesses the pass-rushing ability the Broncos desperately need from the interior of the D-line.
At 6-6 and 311 pounds, Bryant can bring the heat as evidenced by his 10.5 sacks over the past three seasons, which rank eighth among all NFL defensive tackles and ahead of such notables as B.J. Raji (9.5), Gerald McCoy (9) and Vince Wilfork (8.5).
According to Advanced NFL Stats, Bryant had a combined 16 sacks and QB hits in 2012 - more than double the combined total (7) of the Broncos' primary DT duo of Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan, both of whom are free agents.
TE Delanie Walker
With Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen coming off productive seasons, a tight end is far down Denver's list of needs, but if the 28-year-old Walker avoids the franchise tag in San Francisco, the do-it-all veteran's versatility may be too irresistible to pass up.
Walker can catch, block, split out wide and even play some fullback. And even at 6-1 and 241 pounds, Walker can stretch the field as his career postseason 17.3-yard-per-catch average attests.
After playing in the shadow of fellow tight end Vernon Davis for seven seasons in San Fran -- both were 2006 draftees, but Davis was the No. 6 overall pick while Walker was 175th -- Walker might be yearning for a No. 1 job all his own, but the chance to play with a TE-friendly QB such as Manning and a bona fide contender in the Broncos carries its own allure.
Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He's been an avid follower of the Denver Broncos and the NFL since early childhood, and can be followed on Twitter @kenpomp.
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