AURORA, COLO. >> Safety David Bruton Jr., one of several Denver Broncos defenders set to become a free agent, wishes the NFL was more like the NBA.
"Teams such as Golden State, they get to keep everybody and try to set records, and I feel if we had the cap space we could do it," Bruton said after launching a reading program at Kenton Elementary School on Wednesday.
The defense that brought home Denver's third Lombardi Trophy with a 24-10 destruction of the Carolina Panthers could find itself unravelling in a few weeks.
Von Miller, the MVP of Super Bowl 50, is certain to get the franchise tag if the sides don't first agree to a deal somewhere in the $115 million range that would make the star pass rusher the highest-paid defender in the NFL.
Miller said he expects negotiations to be "peaceful." The Broncos do, too.
The last three times they used the franchise tag, on kicker Matt Prater, left tackle Ryan Clady and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, they signed a long-term deal by the time training camp opened.
Several other key members of the league's best defense stand to get big bucks either from the Broncos or teams trying to unseat the champs.
They include leading tackler Danny Trevathan and defensive end Malik Jackson, both of whom had huge Super Bowl performances. And Bruton, a team captain and eighth-year pro coming off his best season although it ended with him on injured reserve with a broken right leg.
"We'd much rather have the tough decisions than the easy decisions because if you have the tough decisions, you have a lot of great players," GM John Elway said. "To try and keep this puzzle together is the challenge. It's going to be hard, but we look forward to it and think we can do it."
A big decision also looms at quarterback, where Peyton Manning is mulling retirement and Brock Osweiler can become a free agent March 9.
Bruton said Denver's defense provided Manning the perfect exit to a magnificent career, allowing him to ride off into that orange sunset a champion just like Elway did 17 years ago.
"I feel like that's the way to go out for sure. Super Bowl champion, you got two, now you tied your brother," said Bruton, adding the Broncos will be fine no matter who's under center next season.
"Either way, we'll have a great defense, so you can put some slappy back there and we'll be all right," Bruton added with a laugh.
Denver's defense stamped itself as one of the greatest ever, and should have the core to defend that title in 2016.
What helped sell Denver in the past was Manning in his prime and a willingness to spend top dollar. Elway's biggest selling points now are a proven track record: five consecutive AFC West titles, two Super Bowl trips, a star-studded roster, and a shot at greatness with back-to-back titles.
The cast is sure to change.
"In a perfect world, we'd love to stay together. But we know that the NFL is not a perfect world," Bruton said. "We know that it's a business and we know that there are going to be moving pieces. But we know that our year together was great and however our paths may end up, it's great knowing guys and great playing alongside those guys and hoisting up the Lombardi Trophy with those guys."
Bruton had 49 tackles, seven pass deflections, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack in 13 games. He played 77 snaps at Pittsburgh on Dec. 20 after fracturing his right leg, which coach Gary Kubiak called a testament to his toughness. He kept an appointment for a community appearance the day he was placed on injured reserve, which Kubiak called a testament to his character.
Bruton hopes all those accolades lead to an offer to stay in Denver. He's seeking a deal like Arizona's Justin Bethel ($15 million over three years).
Bruton said he's 100 percent recovered from his injury and on the day of the Super Bowl, "I legit took myself through a whole practice." He said it was emotionally difficult not playing, but he understood the Broncos couldn't afford to wait for him to get healthy because Omar Bolden, Ward and Darian Stewart were also injured when he got hurt.
He said Elway approached him before kickoff and told him how much he regretted having to put him on IR, and how the Broncos sure could have used Bruton down the stretch.
"I know I could have played," said Bruton, who had the Super Bowl 50 logo tattooed onto his right rib cage. He's been fitted for his diamond-encrusted ring as he awaits the other spoils provided a champion.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton