To really upgrade at QB, Broncos' salary cap will need attention

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Are Cousins and Broncos a perfect match? (1:05)

Marcellus Wiley explains why the Broncos should go after Kirk Cousins as their future quarterback, even if it isn't a "perfect" fit. (1:05)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There are two well-known facts about the Denver Broncos and an offseason that was kick-started in earnest the moment Sunday's Super Bowl concluded.

They are on the hunt for a quarterback -- or two. And they know it's going to cost money to make that happen, perhaps a pile of it.

With the season's last game in the books, the Broncos will get back to the task at hand. How they now arrange their salary-cap expenses will determine what they can do at the position is what president of football operations/general manager John Elway has called the offseason's top priority.

Elway has also said the Broncos have to decide what "makes sense with the dollars and cap-wise" by the time the new league year opens, including free agency, in March.

At the moment, the Broncos have 59 players signed for the 2018 season. If the salary cap is in the neighborhood of $178 million per team as some expect, they would have between $24.5 million and $26.7 million available -- some players have playing-time escalators from this past season that will increase their 2018 base salaries.

That is enough space to do business, but not enough to dive into free agency with the financial zeal it would take to sign, or trade for, high-profile quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins, or Drew Brees in the unlikely event that the New Orleans Saints did not re-sign him.

The Broncos can create additional cap space by releasing players with years remaining on their contracts, but often those kinds of deals belong to starters who were secured with big, multi-year deals. It means in an effort to lure free agents, the Broncos would have to walk the line between making cap space and avoid weakening a roster that finished 5-11 to the point top-shelf hopefuls would look elsewhere.

Earlier this offseason, Elway was asked if that meant the team would tinker with its biggest strength -- defense -- to upgrade the offense.

"I really don't like taking away from a strength; I don't like doing that," Elway said. " ... I like what I know rather than what I might not know even though I think it might help us."

Given a player like Cousins on the open market is expected to command more than what the league's highest-paid quarterback is making per year -- the deal of the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford averages $27 million -- the Broncos will need to create plenty of space to sign a marquee player or two. They also need to cover their draft class and training camp.

There is also the matter with quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch playing under their rookie contracts the last two seasons. The Broncos have been able to use the salary-cap space most teams devote to quarterbacks elsewhere. To now sign a quarterback, use a first-round draft pick on one, or both, will take some adjustment. And the list of players whose contracts could create space, either by their release or a re-negotiation, includes familiar names.

The Broncos could shop players they might later release, but many teams believe they are set to release high-profile veterans before free agency begins, so finding a trade partner may be difficult.

Five players with cap figures of at least $10 million are on the Broncos' roster for 2018 -- linebacker Von Miller ($22.5 million), receiver Demaryius Thomas ($12.03 million), cornerback Aqib Talib ($12 million), receiver Emmanuel Sanders ($10.93 million) and corner Chris Harris Jr. ($10.36 million).

They have three more scheduled to have figures of at least $8 million in defensive end Derek Wolfe ($9.08 million), guard Ron Leary ($8.79 million) and corner Bradley Roby ($8.526 million). Those eight are the most likely candidates for the Broncos to consider, along with running back C.J. Anderson, in the coming weeks.

Anderson's contract is written in a way that the Broncos would have no "dead money" -- salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster -- if he is released; his savings would be the full $4.5 million he is scheduled to count against the cap. Also, Talib's deal, with just a $1 million dead-money charge, would create $11 million worth of room if he is released -- and the Broncos believe Roby is ready to be a starter. Sanders' deal would create $5.6 million worth of room in addition to a $5.538 million charge if he is released.

The Broncos have not been prone to carrying hefty dead-money charges -- they have just $366,000 worth on the books for 2018 and $264,265 of that is from their trade of Ty Sambrailo last summer.

It leaves the Broncos with what Elway has lumped into "a lot of things to consider," and he has neither mentioned any players specifically nor awarded votes of confidence. But if they're going to write a big check for a new quarterback, they'll have to carve out room to do it.