I have a working theory on how a team builds a long term contender in the NFL. There are five parts:
1. QB - You can’t win year after year without a league average passer.
After that obvious part, the following comes in no particular order. It all matters.
2. Mismatch weapons - Players opponents have to game plan against.
3. Competent protection - You don’t need a wall along the line, but they can’t be a sieve.
4. Depth - The NFL season is a meat grinder.
5. Coaching - Need a staff to both maximize the above and hold it all together.
After hiring Vic Fangio and drafting Drew Lock, Elway entered this offseason with the look of a man who believes he has two of the five requirements. What the Broncos now need to do is add both front end and back end talent to the roster to maximize the other three issues with the current roster.
Following Elway’s trade for A.J. Bouye, the Broncos will have a new cornerback and also a little more than $57 million in cap room.
Let’s assume they cut Joe Flacco, tender Mike Purcell and Elijah Wilkinson with second round money, and tag Justin Simmons. This would leave Denver with $49.2 million in cap space. It’s a ton of money, but the league as a whole is pretty flush this year. 13 teams would have more cap space, which is just one reason why reports are starting to come out that players like Byron Jones are going to make in excess of $16 million on the market.
Funny money season is upon us, and history has shown most of the teams that “win” the opening days will wind up regretting their splashy signings within two years of the new deal. This is why the wiser decision for the Broncos going forward is to cast a wide net and bet on the second and third wave players to overperform their new deals. Here are some of the players that could make a ton of sense, even if they don’t excite:
The Drew Lock era is upon us, how long is the real mystery. About a month ago Jeff Essary and I pored over his five starts for Cover 2 Broncos. There’s little doubt in either of our minds that the best plan of attack for 2020 is to see what he can be. Elway has lauded him with lofty praise already, but what he does at QB2 could speak volumes about the coaching staff’s faith in him.
If the Broncos are all-in on Lock and serious about the playoffs in 2020, it makes a ton of sense to upgrade the backup spot with a proven veteran. Case Keenum is a long shot given his 2018 fall from grace, but a player who can step into the void in case of injury and provide an experienced set of eyes makes sense. This free agent market looks like it will be a game of musical chairs with more arms than seats, so there’s an outside chance Elway could lure a player to sign a one year deal as well.
If the Broncos are in on Lock, but trying to keep an eye on 2021 in case he falters, they will go probably go cheap at QB2. Brett Rypien and Brandon Allen have already received praise from Vic Fangio and both could take a step forward in a new offense, but it’s unrealistic to expect either to take over the Shurmur offense and expect much right now. This route is risky in that an injury to Lock could tank the Broncos season, but if Elway and the coaches aren’t as sold on his long term trajectory as they’re letting on it could also allow them to fall into position for a replacement in 2021 if he fails with his starting job this year.
Pat Shurmur’s offense and retaining Mike Munchak means the Broncos will continue to use a hybrid blocking scheme they used in 2019. This suited Phillip Lindsay quite well, even as the struggles up front made it harder for him to achieve 1,000 yards rushing in his sophomore season. Royce Freeman struggled, however, and may find himself falling to third on the depth chart. The Broncos have shown a lot of interest in bigger running backs this offseason.
Derrick Henry is the big name. If he leaves the Tennessee Titans it will surely mean a lucrative deal. 9News’ Mike Klis also suggested Denver has interest in players like Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard, and Kenyan Drake. The latter two make a lot more sense than Gordon, who’s career has always been inflated by highlights and fantasy football.
Melvin Gordon has gone over 4 yards per carry one time in his career. He's gone past 1,000 yards rushing once in his career. He's played 16 games in one season in his career.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) March 7, 2020
Hard pass from me y'all.
I’ve seen Jordan Reed, Jason Witten, and Eric Ebron floated by Broncos Country and the media. With Pat Shurmur’s affinity for 11 personnel (3 receiver sets) the Broncos will likely go into camp with Noah Fant and Jeff Heuerman atop the depth chart and a battle for the one or two spots behind them.
If the Broncos try to replace Garett Bolles, it will be in the draft, not free agency. Ja’Wuan James is expected back from his injury marred 2019. His issues last season forced Elijah Wilkinson into more than 800 snaps at right tackle. He struggled in space and it’d be wise to find a better swing tackle going forward.
There’s been smoke connecting the Broncos to Mike Remmers, who spent two of the last three seasons playing for Pat Shurmur. Fans remember him best for his Super Bowl 50 game where Von Miller embarrassed him in front of the world, but he’s a veteran presence who can feasibly back up four spots on the offensive line.
You could do worse than Mike Remmers for depth on the O-line.— Bob Morris (@BobMorrisSports) March 4, 2020
But if you sign him, you pay him like somebody competing for a roster spot, not like somebody you intend to start.
Interior Offensive Line
There’s been word for awhile that the Broncos are more comfortable with Patrick Morris and Elijah Wilkinson at center and right guard than fans are. KOA’s Brandon Krisztal has reported that the door remains open for Conner McGovern’s return if the price is right, but don’t expect a splashy signing here. There’s faith Mike Munchak can coach up the group.
If they do go out and sign a name to compete, B.J. Finney is someone who could make a ton of sense. The former backup to Maurkice Pouncey has played well when pressed into duty, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the worst cap situations in the league and probably can’t retain him.
I’ve seen speculation and hope that the Broncos chase after Amari Cooper, but it’s best to not to get sucked into that kind of hope. For starters, word has been the Cowboys hope to retain him and he wants to return there. Second, if he hits the market he will probably make more than $20 million a year on his next contract.
Beyond him, free agency is a bit of a mess. Robby Anderson fits Elway’s desire for speed, but is expected to make $11+ million on the market. A former first round bust like Breshad Perriman could make sense on a prove it kind deal after he showed a lot of promise for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he’ll probably have suitors.
The draft looks like it’s going to be where Denver makes real moves to address this group. If Shurmur is dead set on adding a veteran presence, Randall Cobb could make sense. After that, it makes more sense to sign third wave free agents and reclamation projects who could compete on the back end of the receiving corps.
If there is one group where it could make sense to splurge a little, it’s the defensive line. Quite possibly the deepest position group in the NFL and this year’s free agency period, there is a clear gap between the difference makers and the guys on the interior. What separates them is what they bring against the pass, which is a big reason why Shelby Harris is expected to leave for a major payday elsewhere.
It’s also one reason I’ve been driving the train for D.J. Reader so hard. There is not another player available who combines what Fangio wants from a size and strength perspective who also offers legitimate upside as an interior disruptor. Consider that he had 14 pressures last season per Sports Info Solutions charting, or the same amount as Derek Wolfe andJordan Phillips, and he did it on a defense that lost J.J. Watt for a long stretch and had a patchwork secondary.
If Elway balks at the cost, there are a number of other options though. A few that make a lot of sense are Michael Pierce of the Ravens and Mike Daniels of the Lions. Pierce had 12 pressures, but it’s important to remember Wink Martindale’s scheme created more pass rushing opportunities for the front by being so blitz happy. Daniels is on the back end of his career and a bit of a reclamation project, but averaged 5 sacks a year from 2013-2017. Signing him for a short term prove it deal could provide a big boost to the interior rush if he can stay healthy.
After those two, Ndomukong Suh could make sense as a short term fix. He’s a year removed from being a dominant force for the Rams’ playoff run. Michael Brockers could also be an upside signing worth exploring. Playing next to Aaron Donald in Wade Phillips’ defense helped him to notch 20 pressures a year ago, but he brings the size and pedigree, and Fangio has a history of helping talented “underachievers” reach their ceiling.
So I'm late getting on the band wagon that @BrandonThornNFL has been driving since 2017, but finally popped on some DJ Reader tape last night and will now be pounding the table for him in Denver.— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) January 31, 2020
He's not just a NT. Saw him line up at 1, 2i, 3, 4i, & 5-tech. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/hwILEmYo9L
Picking up Todd Davis’ 2020 option means gives the Broncos flexibility how they wish to attack this group. KOA’s Benjamin Allbright has linked Joe Schobert to Denver for a long while now. He does add to the coverage prowess of the unit, albeit at the kind of cost that could make his issues in run defense problematic.
If Elway and the coaching staff chase less heralded names to compete for a starting job and add to depth, two former Bears make a ton of sense. Normally I’m hesitant to kick the tires on former Broncos as nostalgia has a way of clouding judgment, but Danny Trevathan could make a lot of sense if he’s healthy. He’s a year removed from a Pro Bowl level campaign and is both a veteran presence and a potential upgrade in coverage. Nick Kwiatkoski is my preference as the 26-year old had some early success under Fangio and played admirably in place of the injured Trevathan last year. There is some speculation that the Giants and Packers could be interested, so he may price himself out of the second wave of free agency.
If there is any one area where it makes sense to chase the back end of the market to create competition, it’s here. At present the Broncos have A.J. Bouye and cornerbacks who got benched at one point or another last season or ended 2019 on Injured Reserve. If the Broncos are serious about competing for a playoff spot in the AFC they will need strong enough coverage to hold up against the Chiefs and Texans’ of the conference.
Jeff Essary and I spoke about this for this week’s Cover 2 Broncos, but the best way to really bolster a secondary is to raise the floor. Opposing offensive coordinators are too good to have a weak link in pass defense nowadays. So it’d be wise to bring in competition for players like Isaac Yiadom and Duke Dawson.
Prince Amukamara is the big name and there’s reason to believe he’ll have interest in signing with Vic Fangio. After all, the Bears former defensive coordinator helped him rejuvenate his career after he was a first round bust for the New York Giants. I studied his game a few weeks ago, he’d make a ton of sense as a boundary option when the Broncos go into three corner sets.
Another player that intrigues me is Kendall Fuller. After coming to the Kansas City Chiefs following the Marcus Peters trade he’s had an uneven couple of seasons, but offers the versatility to play nickel, boundary, or even safety in a pinch. That has a ton of value, especially if the Broncos want to explore more six DB sets.
A other few players that make sense as later wave free agents are Darqueze Dennard, Bashaud Breeland, and Mackensie Alexander. All have had some promising moments, but look like they’ll face cooler markets than the big names.
On the third level there’s even more reason to believe competition could be added. Before the Combine I went back and looked at what Fangio teams have added in the draft while he was coordinating their defenses. A ton of draft capital was used on safeties. Combine that with Will Parks’ almost sure exit and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Elway adds some competition for Trey Marshall behind Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson.
Way back in 2014 Fangio was the DC for San Francisco when they drafted Jimmie Ward. I don’t expect the Broncos to add him, but if his market comes in cool it could happen. Cleveland’s Damarious Randall is another former starter who could make some sense if Elway goes that route.
Deeper in the market a player like Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson make sense because of their Chicago ties to Fangio.
I've seen some concern about Amukamara's age, but he looks pretty spry covering Courtland Sutton. pic.twitter.com/8r1LZ7kZHt— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) February 23, 2020
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JALEN REAGOR, TCU – DENVER BRONCOS (ROUND 1, PICK 15) Any Denver wide receiver not named Courtland Sutton was a liability on the field in 2019. Sutton saw the most targets in the offense and produced one of the 15 best receiving grades in the NFL last year.
After Sutton, the Broncos second-most targeted receiver was DaeSean Hamilton and he ranked 93rd of 98 in PFF receiving grade. In other words, they desperately need a WR2, and snagging Jalen Reagor in the first round could solve that. Reagor’s box score stats aren’t going to impress you by any means. He was targeted 88 times and caught only 43 of them for 611 yards and five touchdowns. As usual, though, you should never trust the box score.
Reagor saw a catchable target just 61.4% of the time, which ranks 118th among 120 wideouts to see at least 80 targets. His athleticism and ability to win at the catch point was apparent when the ball was in his hands or when he was thrown an accurate pass. Over the past two years, Reagor has generated an explosive play of 15-plus yards on 51.6% of his catches — the second-highest rate in college football and nearly 20 percentage points above the FBS average.
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