DENVER - As a high school star in New Jersey, Shaun Phillips enjoyed a list of options as to where he would play football in college.

Stay put on the east coast? Venture west? Decisions, decisions.

Surprise! Phillips picked the boonies of Indiana.

"A lot of people thought it was strange I went to Purdue," Phillips said.

Not too strange. It is the Big Ten, after all. But considering Phillips is a defensive end who led the Broncos in sacks in 2013, this might seem strange:

"I decided on Purdue because I thought I was going to play offense, and Drew Brees was going to be my quarterback," he told me.

It all worked out, both the journey to the hinterlands of Indiana, and his switch to defense. The Broncos' decision to sign Phillips as a free agent now looks far more important than it did at the time.

NFL free agency opens March 11, and more decisions are coming for the Broncos.

Major, franchise-changing decisions.

Will they re-sign Phillips, who has 19.5 sacks (and hasn't missed a game) over the past two seasons? He's one of 16 free agents on the roster. The other starters up for grabs when the carousel kicks into gear:

Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Zane Beadles, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Mike Adams and Paris Lenon. It's easy to argue the Broncos should sign Decker, if only for the love of the soccer moms in our fair state. As an armchair GM, it's also convenient to suggest the Broncos should keep Moreno, or DRC, or Phillips. Or whomever.

But we - and the Broncos - won't know if they can afford, or want to afford, these players until the market is set.

"It's like going shopping without price tags," coach John Fox said at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. "You need to get price tags before you start buying stuff."

We underrated the moment Phillips ditched the Chargers and signed with the Broncos. Wes Welker, DRC and Louis Vasquez all arrived with neon marquees.

The Broncos can't underrate the importance of nasty-ing up their defense in this free agency period. Adding a streak of mean - a handful of thumpers - isn't one option; it's the only option.

While the Broncos reached the Super Bowl with an offense so pretty it deserves a glamour shot, the Seahawks showed the value of old-fashioned, hard-hitting tackles once the Super Bowl actually got underway. The Seahawks played angry.

From this armchair, the view suggests the Broncos should focus on three areas: the offensive line, safety and middle linebacker.

The foot injury sustained by left tackle Ryan Clady is one that can linger. His health is a bigger concern than it appears to be. The offensive line performed admirably in his absence but was manhandled with a straight-up pass rush in the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks didn't require a blitz to harass Peyton Manning - snap after snap after vicious snap.

As for the secondary, it needs an Earl Thomas, an Ed Reed, a Brian Dawkins. That type of fearless attacker isn't easy to find; in a league dominated by accurate quarterbacks, thumping safeties are valued commodities.

The Broncos must sign a safety that strikes fear into opposing wide receivers. Who is their Steve Atwater?

The Broncos also must sign a middle linebacker who captains a defense with equal measures of pride and thump. The revolving door must stop. Who is their Al Wilson?

The Broncos are close. A tweak here, an addition there, and they could be back in the Super Bowl in 2015.

If there's one thing we know about John Elway in free agency, he doesn't mess around. The 2012 free agency period brought Manning to Colorado. The 2013 period brought a grand slam of Welker, Vasquez, DRC and, yes, Phillips.

Manning doesn't need any more toys on offense.

The Broncos need a dash of dangerous on defense.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette