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What are the Broncos long-term needs?

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With the draft behind us, I look ahead to 2020 and beyond.

NFL: Pro Bowl
Cornerback jumps to the top of the list if Harris is traded.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With UDFAs in the process of being signed, we are about to reach that point in the NFL calendar where every roster is at capacity in preparation for the upcoming mini and training camp.

Now that the big additions mostly over, it’s a good time to take a look and surmise what it means.

Everything contract-related comes from Spotrac unless otherwise noted.

Contracts expiring in 2020

Chris Harris - Cornerback

Derek Wolfe - Defensive line

Emmanuel Sanders - Z Receiver

Dekoda Watson - Edge

Adam Gotsis - Defensive Line

Shelby Harris - Defensive Line

Justin Simmons - Safety

Devontae Booker - Running back

Connor McGovern - Offensive Line

Andy Janovich - Fullback

Will Parks - Safety

Elijah Wilkinson - Offensive line

Tim Patrick - Receiver

Dymonte Thomas - Safety

Joe Jones - Linebacker/special teams

Shemarko Thomas - Safety/special teams

Casey Kreiter - Long snapper

Jeff Holland - Edge

River Cracraft - Receiver

Brendan Langley - Receiver/Cornerback/Special Teams

Temarrick Hemingway - Tight end

Trey Marshall - Safety

Don Barclay - Offensive line

Mike Purcell - Defensive line

Aaron Burbridge - Receiver

Jake Brendel - Offensive line

Jamal Carter - Safety

Kevin Hogan - Quarterback

Twenty-nine players have expiring contracts this year. The big names we know. Chris Harris is in the midst of a “trade me or pay me” situation with Elway, and E is probably gone, even as he hopes to play out his career and make the Ring of Fame in Denver.

Shelby Harris’ contract situation is also well known. I mentioned in GIF Horse how I expect him to play his way to a major payday, but it’s no guarantee that’s in orange and blue. Derek Wolfe has been an Elway favorite for a long time but has already taken a below-market deal once.

Of the big three, defensive lineman Gotsis’ future seems the least uncertain as his market value seems unlikely to move out of Elway’s comfort zone. Barring an unforeseen surge in a contract year he is who he is, roughly a poor man’s version of Wolfe with less health uncertainty.

Every player listed at safety on the Broncos official site but Cravens has a contract expiring after this season. Reports out of the first voluntary minicamp suggest Kareem Jackson may start, but of course the Harris situation throws all of that into question.

Justin Simmons and Will Parks both deserve attention in 2019. Both are members of the 2016 class and their play led to T.J. Wards’ departure during the final cuts right before the 2017 season. Since coming into the starting lineup, Simmons has seemingly been on the verge, even earning high praise from me last summer.

GIF Horse - Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons - Mile High Report

He was easily the best safety in the secondary last year and should only continue to improve. Studying up on him, he has the kind of work ethic and leadership qualities you pray for when your drafting players. If he can make the small improvements a player should as they gain experience in a pro system, the sky’s the limit.

At least thus far he has failed to meet my expectations. Part of it is that he became a bit of an “everywhere” man as other members of the Fly Zone fell by the wayside. Part of it is that he had an uneven season. Parks on the other hand really came on in the Joseph defense. Don’t sleep on him.

Connor McGovern is an interesting name on the list. Last year was his first starting and he had some uneven moments, even as he flashed really strong play in the run game at times. He moved to Center once Matt Paradis was lost for the season and showed some promise. Now he’s moving there full time with a legendary position coach spending an offseason to get him acclimated. If he makes a leap I fully expect the Broncos to do what it takes to hold onto him.

2021 guys who may be gone sooner

Ronald Leary - Offensive Line

Todd Davis - Linebacker

Brandon McManus - Kicker

Jeff Heuerman - Tight end

DeMarcus Walker - Defensive line/Edge

Zach Kerr - Defensive line

Su’a Cravens - Safety

Jake Butt - Tight end

Colby Wadman - Punter

Aaron Wallace - Edge/Backer

Garrett Grayson - Quarterback

Caushaud Lyons - Defensive line

Chad Hansen - Receiver

A.J. Johnson - Linebacker/special teams

Khalfani Muhammad - Running back

Horace Richardson - Defensive back

Fred Brown - Receiver

Austin Schlottmann - Offensive line

Linden Stephens - Defensive back

Nico Falah - Offensive line

Leary’s contract carries all of $875,000 in dead cap next year and the Broncos can save $8.5 million if they move on. It’s no certainty they do. After all, when he’s been healthy enough to play, he’s been pretty solid. It just hasn’t been often enough. He’s played in 17 out of a possible 32 games the last two seasons.

Todd Davis is in a deal that looked like a bit of a time bomb as soon as he signed it. If Elway had wanted to, it would have only cost $2 million to move on this year (with $3 million in savings). It simply didn’t make sense to do so as Davis has been exactly what the Broncos were hoping for when they handed the former undrafted free agent a three-year, $15 million deal. He’s really good at stopping the run and an underrated pass defender, even if he isn’t fast enough to keep up with the best athletes in the NFL.

For that reason, I suspect he’ll stick through the end of his deal barring a big slip in play. If they do move on, Denver can gain $5 million in space (as opposed to $1 M in dead cap) next year.

The Zach Kerr contract is similar to Davis’ in that I currently doubt he’s gone before 2021. But the fact is he signed a two-year $5 million contract to return to the Broncos this offseason that carries all of $300,000 in dead cap for 2020. If something forced Elway to clean the books to make room that’s a very easy deal to move to create $2.65 million in space.

Jeff Heuerman’s deal is likely a one-year Band Aid, and Noah Fant in the first round has already put him on notice. Jake Butt could be a cut in camp if he gets lost in a crowded position room.

I would expect the same for DeMarcus Walker and Su’a Cravens. Both are here because they have pedigree. Neither have done enough to justify keeping them over more productive players unless they come on strong in camp.

I listed both kickers because you never know. The Broncos just signed a leg to compete in camp, after all.

Others

Joe Flacco - Quarterback

As soon as Drew Lock looks ready to take the reigns the Broncos will cut ties with the former Baltimore Raven. For all of the snickers from the national media, this move was a masterstroke by Elway.

There’s no guaranteed money on Flacco’s deal so there’s no dead money when it’s time for Denver to move on, but the signal caller has every reason to put his best foot forward. It may be his last chance to make $20+ million.

Conclusion

From this far out, it’s always a bit of a fool’s errand to guess what next year’s biggest need will be. An undrafted free agent or a player making a huge jump under the new staff could alter everything.

But barring that, I would think inside linebacker and offensive line are two of the more pressing long-term areas of need. They aren’t the only ones. In 2020 Mock drafts safety, defensive line, and receiver have been the positions most often picked to the Broncos.

A new coaching staff means different systems on both sides of the ball. Combine that with the typical roster churn and many familiar faces could be playing out the string this year.