ENGLEWOOD — Here’s the surest way to earn a trip out of Denver — lead the Broncos in sacks.
Denver defensive lineman Reggie Hayward had 101/2 sacks last season and, despite the line being an area of need for the Broncos, he probably won’t be retained.
Hayward is a wanted man on the free agency market. He’s drawn so much interest from teams like Jacksonville and Arizona, the Broncos won’t be able to afford his inflated value.
So, for the second straight year, Denver may be losing its leader in sacks. The Cardinals signed Bert Berry to an exorbitant contract the year after he had a monster 111/2 sack season for Denver.
Hayward may not be the only player Denver loses as free agency officially opens today. Over the next 10 days, teams will roll out the red carpet for players, wine and dine them and then throw bank vaults full of money at their feet.
So, just who precisely could the Broncos be losing? A few of the following players might be headed out of town:
nSafety Kenoy Kennedy: He wants to stay, and loves the city. But teams like Atlanta, New Orleans and Oakland desperately want him. It’s going to take a lot of cash to keep him. It’s too bad because he’s a future Pro Bowler.
nGuard Ben Hamilton: Denver has made keeping him a high priority. With the release of Dan Neil, the Broncos can’t afford to lose another guard.
nThe rest: Players like defensive linemen Ellis Johnson and Marco Coleman, long snapper Mike Leach, linebacker Donnie Spragan and tight end Patrick Hape could be lured away by more cash, but since most have found a home here in Denver, they should stay put. Well, with the notable exception of Johnson, who may end up with Indianapolis. Cornerback Kelly Herndon is a restricted free agent, but he could be lost as well if Denver doesn’t match an offer from another team.
Although, the more important question is which free agents will Denver pursue? But know this, of the top 32 free agents available, Denver’s name has been linked with exactly none. That means defensive backs like Ty Law, Fred Smoot and Samari Rolle may not be headed this way. Neither will defensive end Kevin Carter or receiver Derrick Mason, who were — along with Rolle — salary-cap casualties in Tennessee.
The Broncos did, however, beef up their defensive line with a reported deal Tuesday. According to ESPN.com, the Cleveland Browns agreed to send Gerard “Big Money” Warren to Denver in exchange for a fourth-round pick. However, financial details still need to be ironed out. Reportedly, Warren’s base salary for 2005 will be $950,000.
The deal gives Warren a new start, and allows Cleveland to get rid of a headache. Warren, who was the Browns’ third pick in the 2001 draft, has underachieved in his tenure in Cleveland. He has 101/2 sacks in four seasons, the same amount Hayward had last year.
Make no mistake, the Broncos should be players in the free agent sweepstakes. After restructuring the contracts of quarterback Jake Plummer, safety John Lynch, running back Mike Anderson, offensive linemen Matt Lepsis and Tom Nalen, and tight end Dwayne Carswell, the Broncos have maneuver room under the cap. They’re also trying to explore trade options for Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce, who could net a third-round pick (probably not much more until he proves his back is healed).
Some players Denver may have on its roster when free agency has run its course are quarterback Jeff Garcia (formerly of Cleveland), guards Mike Wahle (Green Bay) and Rick DeMulling (Indianapolis), defensive ends Marques Douglas (Baltimore) and Chike Okeafor (Seattle) and receiver Plaxico Burress (Pittsburgh). Quarterback Kurt Warner (New York Giants) is a long shot, but he could be a security blanket for Plummer.