Broncos Build Off Draft Day

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 12:12 PM

Offseason Roundup: Denver Broncos

For quite a while, it looked like the Denver Broncos' offseason would be more noteworthy for the moves they didn't make than the ones they did. They contemplated signing wide receiver Terrell Owens but didn't. They were thought to be interested in trading for tailback Ricky Williams, but he's now serving a one-year suspension by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. They were in the running to obtain defensive end John Abraham but didn't get him.

Then came draft weekend, however, and the Broncos made two moves in a single day that likely will have a major impact on their team, one next season and one after that. They got their quarterback of the future by trading up in the first-round order to draft Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler, and they got their wide receiver of the present by trading a second-round pick to the Green Bay Packers for Javon Walker.

The big moves and big non-moves came on the heels of a mixed bag of a 2005 season for the Broncos. They went 13-3 during the regular season. They knocked the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, from the playoffs for their first postseason triumph since John Elway retired, and they reached the AFC title game. Those accomplishments quieted the calls, at least temporarily, for the jobs of Coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Jake Plummer. But the Broncos' season nevertheless was left with a bit of a hollow feeling to it when they lost the AFC championship game at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Plummer reverted to being the mistake-prone quarterback that he's been for most of his career instead of the dependable leader that he was for most of last season, and Shanahan was left still unable to reach a Super Bowl without Elway as his quarterback.

The defeat to the Steelers made the Broncos a prime candidate to make a risky, desperate-feeling move this offseason to take the next step. They resisted that urge. Shanahan met with Owens, the gifted but controversy plagued wide receiver who was banished by the Philadelphia Eagles less than a year after helping them to a Super Bowl. But the Broncos were far outbid by the Dallas Cowboys once Owens was released by the Eagles and became a free agent.

The talk that the Broncos might trade for Williams became meaningless when reports surfaced that the Miami Dolphins tailback had failed another drug test, leading to his suspension being imposed when his appeal to the league over the validity of the test failed. Abraham, a productive pass rusher with a reputation for being difficult, landed with the Atlanta Falcons--with an assist from the Broncos. After dropping out of the bidding to acquire Abraham from the New York Jets, who had used their franchise-player tag to keep him off the unrestricted free agent market, the Broncos traded the late first-round draft pick (plus a third-rounder this year and a fourth-rounder next year) to the Falcons that Atlanta needed to complete the Abraham deal with the Jets.

In return, the Broncos got the draft's 15th overall selection. On draft day, they traded up four more spots to get Cutler, the third quarterback to come off the board in this draft after Texas's Vince Young and USC's Matt Leinart. The message that was sent to Plummer was clear: Your time could be running short.

But if Plummer is indeed a short-timer as the starter, he at least is being given a full chance to succeed. The Broncos greatly bolstered their wide receiver corps by getting Walker, who had 89 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Packers in 2004 before missing all but one game of last season because of a knee injury. He demanded to be traded by the Packers after failing to land a new contract, but the Broncos gave him a five-year extension that, combined with the one season remaining on his current deal, could leave him earning about $43 million over six years. Even if the Broncos end up trading Ashley Lelie, who's unhappy about being dropped to the No. 3 receiver role with the addition of Walker and was absent when the club opened a nine-day quarterbacks camp Tuesday, they've made a major upgrade.

The Broncos did a good job before and just after the market opened of re-signing their own key free agents, including tailback Ron Dayne, offensive linemen Tom Nalen and Matt Lepsis and defensive linemen Gerard Warren and John Engelberger. They released tailback Mike Anderson and defensive end Trevor Pryce, but should be able to replace both. After Anderson signed with Baltimore, the Broncos seemed temporarily poised to sign fellow tailback Jamal Lewis before he re-signed with the Ravens. Without Anderson or Lewis, Tatum Bell and Dayne probably will be left splitting carries for Denver. Shanahan always has been able to find another 1,200-yard rusher, so Anderson's departure doesn't seem all that problematic.

The Broncos made some minor additions on defense by signing end Kenard Lang and linebacker Nate Webster. This, again, is a solid team, assuming that Shanahan can make the running game productive once more. The Broncos probably will be back in the playoffs. But there's little or no reason to believe that they can go any further as long as they have Plummer, whose unreliability can resurface at any moment, as their quarterback.

Around The League

The Seattle Seahawks and their coach, Mike Holmgren, agreed to a two-year contract extension through the 2008 season.

Holmgren, who would have been entering the final season of his contract, had said earlier in the offseason he was uncertain whether he wanted to sign an extension in Seattle. He said he didn't know how much longer he wanted to coach, and he left open the possibility of pursuing opportunities to be a general manager elsewhere.

By last week, however, Holmgren had decided to remain in coaching and stay with the Seahawks, and his agent, Bob LaMonte, traveled to Seattle for face-to-face negotiations with team officials. . . .

The Seahawks added Ruston Webster, formerly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' director of player personnel, to their front office. Webster was a candidate for a front-office job in St. Louis but chose to be reunited with Tim Ruskell, the Seahawks' president of football operations. The two previously worked together in Tampa. . . .

Seattle released reserve offensive tackle Wayne Hunter. The three-year pro just had been charged with misdemeanor assault and malicious mischief for his part in a bar-room incident, and he reportedly had been suspended twice previously for violating the league's personal conduct policy. . . .

Arbitrator John Feerick told the participants in Tuesday's grievance hearing involving Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair to expect a decision by June 1.

The hearing, held at the Titans' headquarters in Nashville, lasted more than seven hours. The NFL Players Association filed a grievance on McNair's behalf after the Titans barred him from participating in offseason workouts at the club's practice facility, fearing he might suffer an injury that would leave the team liable for his $9 million salary next season. The Titans want to rework McNair's contract.

The union wants Feerick to order the Titans to release McNair or allow him to participate in workouts at their facility.

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