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How do the Broncos become a Super Bowl contender?

Elementary, my dear Deshaun Watson.

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Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

If there is even a snowball’s chance in Hades that Deshaun Watson is available in a trade, the Broncos need to make a call. There’s no guarantee that’s the case, of course. The Houston Texans may deem it necessary to acquire a quarterback or the premium picks necessary to draft one. Deshaun Watson may look at the Broncos’ ownership, front office, and coaching situation and deem it an undesirable locale.

The Broncos still have to call because Watson is the kind of quarterback that can change a team’s fortune. If George Paton’s ultimate goal is to win Super Bowls,,Super Bowls then he’d be foolish to pass on a chance at Deshaun Watson. There are questions that would emerge after the fact, but the road to a Lombardi becomes considerably shorter when you can win because of your QB.

For this week’s Mock off-season, I wanted to look into how the Broncos could do just that. Keep in mind that the NFL’s cap situation remains fluid. For a team looking to allocate every spare dollar to compete, that is going to be an important detail we’re fuzzy on here. The other aspect that’s impossible to account for at this time is Von Miller. Without speculating beyond his on-field impact, it’s easy to see why the Broncos are a better team with him. Per Sports Info Solutions, Miller charted 63 individual pass pressures in 2019 while the next closest Bronco had 24. If the goal is to chase titles, that cannot be ignored.

I want to emphasize that there are ways to manipulate the salary cap. Look no further than the way the New Orleans Saints built and maintained a Super Bowl caliber roster to keep the window open around Drew Brees. The cap exists, but smart teams find ways to squeeze a ton of talent under it.

As of today, Over the Cap projects the Broncos to have $14,052,103 in available cap space with a $193,788,121 projected cap. Some work needs to be done if the JoRo Broncos are going to fit Watson’s $15.94 million cap number into the books, so let’s get to it.

What about the QB question?

I’m going to build this mock around the idea that a Deshaun Watson trade will cost the Broncos three first round picks, three second round picks, and a player. This is based on what KOA’s Benjamin Allbright has said recently. While I believe the ultimate trade package will come between what he reported and three first round picks, the Broncos would probably have to bid on the higher side with their draft capital because they wouldn’t have a proven quarterback to give to Houston. In this scenario, I’m already floored by Jack Easterby’s faith in Drew Lock.

A quick aside: what Broncos do you consider untouchable in any Watson trade?

Extended

Justin Simmons - Safety (4 year contract- $14.8 APY. $4 million cap number in 2021)

It’s important to note that while Simmons’ average per year is $14.8 million, his deal could be structured like Garett Bolles’ in order to create space for 2021. Over the Cap’s Nick Korte wrote about this, and it’s something I expect Paton and the real Broncos to do.

Retained

Phillip Lindsay - Running back (2nd round tender: $3.422 million)

Alexander Johnson - Linebacker (2nd round tender: $3.422 million)

Tim Patrick - Receiver (2nd round tender: $3.422 million)

Von Miller - Edge (option $22.125 million)

Cut

A.J. Bouye - Cornerback (frees up $13.375 million)

Jeff Driskel - Quarterback (frees up $2.5 million vs. $750,000 dead)

Negotiate with Shelby Harris and Jurrell Casey

This may be a frustrating discussion point if you’re trying to corner me on what the cap math turns into. Sorry about that, but hear me out: The Broncos have leverage with Jurrell Casey’s contract because he was acquired via trade from the Tennessee Titans and carries no guarantees on the remaining two years of his deal. At present, the remaining seasons on his contract cost $11,874,750 and $13,850,000 against the cap. As a 31-year-old coming off a season-ending injury, there’s reason to believe he could be approached for a pay cut in exchange for more security. I would try to do so.

If the negotiations go nowhere, I wouldn’t hesitate to move on in order to see if I could outbid the league for Shelby Harris. As a former 7th round pick who found a tepid market in 2019, he may relish the opportunity to return home now that we’re chasing Lombardi trophies.

For the sake of the armchair cap gurus, let’s say I budget for an absolute max of $12.281 million and see if you can get both for less. You never know until you try. My approach to this position group would center around the fact that the JoRo Broncos have Dre’Mont Jones coming back and he is on the verge of a Pro Bowl season.

Potential cap cuts

This following are not players I’m actively looking to move so much as contracts that offer flexibility if the cap is significantly lower than the more optimistic projections. Again, this is not a list of players I’d look to cut so much as contracts that could be moved if necessary for cap purposes.

Mike Purcell - (frees up $3.125 million vs. $562,500 dead)

Nick Vannett - (frees up $2.700 million vs. $875,000 dead)

Josey Jewell - (frees up $2,183 million vs. $178,496 dead)

Duke Dawson - (frees up $1,127,028)

Nate Hairston - (frees up $990,000)

Kyle Peko - (frees up $990,000)

Jordan Leggett - (frees up $990,000)

DeShawn Williams - (frees up $850,000)

Andrew Beck - (frees up $850,000)

Derrekk Tuszka - (frees up $780,000)

Jeremy Cox - (frees up $780,000)

Deyon Sizer - (frees up $780,000)

What about the rest of Free Agency?

How the 2021 JoRo Broncos could enter March.

Now that A.J. Bouye’s release appears imminent, it’s probably fair to conclude that the 2019 trade with Jacksonville was a worthwhile gamble that did not work out. He missed more than half the season thanks to injuries and his PED suspension while standing out for the wrong reasons when he could actually play. If the Broncos cut him like I would, it still means boundary cornerback is a huge need.

There is no doubt that a Deshaun Watson trade creates a more challenging scenario when addressing the need at boundary cornerback. I spoke with PFF’s Austin Gayle recently and he confirmed what I’ve noticed as I begin scouting the 2021 Draft class: there is a steep fallout for boundary corners after Patrick Surtain and Caleb Farley. Spending a first or second round pick means we will probably have to take a big swing later in the draft to try to hedge against that bet with a free agent acquisition.

Fortunately Vic Fangio has proven time and time again how he can make chicken parmesan with some questionable ingredients. His defense typically relies on more off coverage than the Seattle-style systems that are prevalent around the league, which means some aren’t necessarily prioritizing the same skill set most of the NFL is. The other good news: Bryce Callahan can obviously play boundary corner when healthy, so it could be possible to snag depth for the slot, draft a player to hedge against injuries, and see where the chips fall.

While keeping in mind that I haven’t scouted them at length yet, here are five players that intrigue me:

Troy Hill - Los Angeles Rams

Chidobe Awuzie - Dallas Cowboys

Brian Poole - New York Jets

Xavier Rhodes - Indianapolis Colts

Mackensie Alexander - Cincinnati Bengals

Beyond cornerback, my plans for free agency would depend primarily on how the Harris/Casey situation pans out. If we get one or both back, the cap is going to be pretty tight. I’d look around the second, third, and slow waves of free agency to potentially add some depth to the offensive line and maybe upgrade on Brett Rypien behind Watson. I know Elijah Wilkinson and Calvin Anderson have both drawn some criticism for their play, but if either (or both) is available at an affordable price, I’d be all for it.

What about the 2021 Draft?

As is typically the case, I lean on The Draft Network’s Mock Machine. Any complaints about the available players should be directed to them. My approach to the draft is to weigh out the risk vs. reward as well as long-term need as most draft picks under normal circumstances need time to adjust to the jump from college. Lastly I want to remind you that I’m still in the process of watching players, so my opinions may change on many of them over the months to come.

3.73 Paulson Adebo - Cornerback - Stanford

Kevin Colbert of the Steelers offers me a chance to go up to 56 for my third and a fifth. I turn him down. My first rule when it comes to the draft is don’t overestimate your ability to evaluate. Every prospect is capable of failing, and so a trade up needs to be quite favorable for me to pull the trigger. When I look at the current board there are still four players I really want: TCU’s Trevon Moehrig, Oregon’s Jevon Holland, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh, and Stanford’s Paulson Adebo. Moehrig and Holland both stand out to me as potential heirs to Kareem Jackson at safety, while Oweh could add juice to the Edge room with Jeremiah Attaochu departing in free agency and Adebo looks like a strong bet at boundary corner for Fangio’s defense.

Since we have no first or second rounders in 2022 and 2023, I prefer to keep my fifth rounder and hope one of the four falls. It works. Adebo is a player who’s been on my radar for a long while since he didn’t declare for the draft last year. I need to go back over his tape, but from what I previously, he looked like a strong scheme fit with his ball skills and mental processing. While he isn’t a destroyer like Jackson, he’s physical enough to play in Fangio’s defense.

4.113 Baron Browning - Linebacker - Ohio State

When it comes to positional value I treat linebacker a lot like the defensive running back. Unless a player adds something special to the table, it isn’t worth chasing one high. Still, that doesn’t mean I ignore a chance to add a player who can become something special.

This Buckeye is one I’ve had my eye on since last summer thanks to his athletic tools. Operating on loaded Ohio State rosters means he hasn’t played a ton before this year so there will be rough edges to smooth out. I’m confident Fangio can help him do just that and help Browning turn into a very good running mate for Alexander Johnson.

5.152 Patrick Johnson - Designated Pass Rusher - Tulane

Johnson is going to be an interesting discussion going forward. I’m still trying to get tape of his, but everything I know so far intrigues me. He stands at 6’3, weighs around 255 lbs, and tore up his competition in part because he was moved around the formation. As Fangio adjusts to life without Von by adding more pressure with his off ball linebackers, there’s little reason to believe he’d have trouble maximizing a potential square peg like Johnson if the reward justifies it. TDN’s Joe Marino writes that he’s capable of drops into coverage as well, which is a big deal for a Broncos defense that will drop pass rushers into space as part of simulated pressure packages. Worst case scenario, he provides competition for Tuszka.

6.190 Josh Ball - Offensive Tackle - Marshall

Planet Theory alert. Ball is a 6’8 bully who moves better than you’d expect for a 350 lb. man. I can only guess why he was dismissed from Florida State and I refuse to speculate, but he has the kind of athletic profile that if Munchak signs off, I am all for him. Being this far down the board means we start taking shots on upside.

7.233 Jaelon Darden - Slot Receiver - North Texas

Tim Patrick is probably playing out the last year of his time in orange and blue while K.J. Hamler, Jerry Jeudy, and Courtland Sutton all have a couple red marks on their respective injury histories. It doesn’t hurt to add another pair of hands to the receiver room. Though Darden is diminutive at 5’9” and roughly 170 lbs, he brings explosiveness and start/stop acceleration that could make him a potential return candidate post-Diontae Spencer.

7.235 Damar Hamlin - Safety - Pittsburgh

An experienced player who has spent significant time in a two high structure makes a lot of sense as late add from this class. Currently Trey Marshall, Alijah Holder, and P.J. Locke III are the only backup safeties. Hamlin is a willing tackler and, if nothing else, offers competition to the special teams.

What about Undrafted Free Agents?

2020 should serve as a painful reminder that depth is critical to survive an NFL season. The JoRo Broncos would make every effort to bring in as many rookies as we can to compete for the back end of the roster. Ideally we find an experienced arm before here, but if we hit this point in the off-season with just two quarterbacks, that would be a priority for training camp even if neither rookie looks likely to beat out Brett Rypien. History has also shown that more gems crop up at running back, linebacker, tight end, fullback, and along the interior offensive and defensive lines. With Sam Martin’s cap number at $2,733,334 in 2022, I’d also kick the tires at punter.

Final Thoughts

A Deshaun Watson trade would force the Broncos to sit out the sexiest parts of the off-season. It’d become prudent to avoid the “funny money” part of free agency, and without draft capital in the first two rounds, they’d be at the mercy of the board and some aggressive gambles on day three. I’d still do it in a heartbeat.

I ardently believe this Broncos roster is close enough to contention that health luck, development, and a quarterback turns them into a playoff contender. A franchise passer like Deshaun Watson only lifts that ceiling higher. The Denver Broncos would be Super Bowl ready for the first time since Peyton Manning retired.

What the JoRo Broncos could look with Deshaun Watson in the fold.

Poll

Should the Broncos pursue Deshaun Watson?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Duh.
    (958 votes)
  • 31%
    Those picks are too important.
    (443 votes)
1401 votes total Vote Now

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