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Peyton’s Back, But Will It Matter?

A crazy NFL offseason is making the Broncos' climb much more difficult.

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There was a time when the NFL operated like any other sport, with flurries of activity around offseason events like the draft and the scouting combine, and mostly radio silence for the rest of the summer.

No longer. The NFL’s widespread popularity combined with social media means the league now consistently generates as much news and probably way more buzz than any year-round enterprise this side of Hollywood.

That’s why this week has been so exciting for NFL fans—and so concerning for Broncos’ devotees. By the time the NFL free agency period officially began on Tuesday, the airwaves had been flooded for days with rumors of imminent signings, cuts, and trades. These periods often can be much ado about nada, as every hack sports reporter with a Twitter account regurgitates scuttlebutt that usually amounts to zilch.

This offseason has more than delivered on the hype, and it’s not over yet. Several teams have already undergone shocking makeovers either at key positions or from one end of the roster to the other. And if you thought this week was busy, just wait until next month’s draft, when a new rash of trades is likely to be unleashed.

(Read more: Broncos’ Winter Starts Way Too Early)

So how have the Broncos been navigating all this furor? Frankly, they’ve mostly remained on the sidelines thus far. The team’s biggest question mark, of course, was whether Peyton Manning would return for another year. He finally agreed to play in 2015 after taking a $4 million pay cut to $15 million, but he can make back some or all of that money by reaching and winning Super Bowl 50. (The NFL is dropping its use of roman numerals this year because “Super Bowl 50” simply reads cooler than “Super Bowl L.” Hard to argue with that.)

But even getting the disappointment of a Super Bowl “L” might be tougher than ever for this Bronco team to accomplish. By going all-in last year on high-profile, high-cost free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, among others, John Elway hamstrung himself a bit this time around. Not only have the Broncos been financially unable to make a big free agency splash, money issues have also cost them the ability to re-sign valuable contributors such as Julius Thomas and Terrance Knighton.

This is happening as several other roadblocks to a Broncos’ ring have gotten markedly better. As of right now, the AFC favorites have to be New England, Indianapolis, and Baltimore in some order. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are still good, and Buffalo and Miami have notably improved. And in the AFC West, where the Broncos have gone 17–1 since Manning’s arrival, San Diego and Kansas City have to feel great about their chances to unseat the Broncos’ recent divisional reign. Even the sad-sack Raiders have upgraded (although they had nowhere to go but up).

None of this takes into account the NFC, where Seattle remains terrifying and four or five other teams appear to be every bit as sound as the orange-and-blue.

It’s still early in the process, and the Broncos have drafted fairly well in recent years. They’d better be swinging for the fences on their picks and remaining budget free agent signings, because Manning will be a year older and presumably in his swan song, they’ll be playing a first-place schedule again versus at least 11 or 12 teams that either made the playoffs in 2014 or will be close in 2015, and they’ll be doing it under an entirely new coaching regime that’s installing various systemic changes—all of this in a league where one or two legitimately good teams miss the postseason every year.

Since number 18 landed in Denver, the main question for the Broncos has been how far can they go in the playoffs. This year that question might turn out to be whether they’ll make the postseason at all.

—Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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