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Paton’s Spaces: What positions on the Broncos’ roster need attention in 2022?

George Paton has his work cut out for him in year two.

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Syndication: The Enquirer
The Broncos don’t have a franchise QB. Until they have one things will be a slog.
Albert Cesare / The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hope you enjoyed the playoff chase, Broncos Country! For the first time in five years, it took until the middle of December to arrive at that weird point in the regular season where it makes sense to start looking ahead to the next offseason.

Following last week’s frustrating 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos now find themselves all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. For some, that last glimmer of hope means it’s too soon to look ahead, and I get it. If the Broncos can beat the Las Vegas Raiders with Drew Lock starting at quarterback before beating the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, the postseason does remain a possibility. It’s why I recently took a look at every member of the Broncos’ roster, trying to figure out if they were ready for a playoff chase.

However, one last glimmer of hope isn’t enough for me to ignore 2022 anymore. According to Football Outsiders’ playoff odds report, which simulates the remainder of the NFL season 50,000 times, Denver now has a 4.8% chance to make the postseason. Five Thirty Eight’s playoff predictor tells a similar story: the Broncos make the playoffs in 5% of their simulations.

What follows is an early look at the state of each position group on the Broncos roster once the 2021 season comes to a close. Players that remain under contract are listed under each position, while free agents are noted. To be perfectly clear, I did not write about a practice squad player unless I was very confident he’d stick around.

Safety

Justin Simmons, Caden Sterns, Jamar Johnson

  • Kareem Jackson will be an unrestricted free agent and turns 34 in April. That Paton took two safeties in his first draft after playing hardball with Jackson’s contract last offseason suggests the Broncos plan to go in another direction.
  • P.J. Locke is an exclusive rights free agent and I expect him back for camp. He’s a capable backup safety who also contributes to special teams.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

It depends on Paton’s evaluation of Sterns, Locke, and Johnson.

Sterns has looked better than expected as a rookie. He’s played 116 special teams snaps thus far, and since week two, he’s been a reliable role player in the Broncos’ dime personnel. He also held his own starting when Jackson couldn’t suit up for the first Chargers game. His future looks bright to these eyes.

Locke’s played 84% of the Broncos’ special teams snaps the last two seasons and looked like a reliable backup when he had an opportunity to play on defense in the preseason. Given the cost to retain an ERFA, he should be back for at least another year.

Johnson is a wild card. He missed a stretch of training camp after landing on the covid-19 list and didn’t make much of an impression in the preseason, looking like a clear fifth string safety. The coaching staff seemed to agree, as Johnson was a healthy scratch until he logged 13 special teams snaps in the Broncos’ 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. A ballhawk at Indiana who displayed nickel/safety versatility, it doesn’t make sense to count him out.

Cornerback

Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Michael Ojemudia

  • Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan are going to be unrestricted free agents. Their futures are probably tied to whatever Paton decides to do with Vic Fangio. Both are obvious scheme fits in the current defense, but they’ll both be 30 in 2022 and look best in the nickel. One could return, but I doubt both do.
  • Michael Ford and Nate Hairston are also unrestricted agents. Ford’s return is a toss-up because he’s on the roster to play special teams, not defense. Hairston’s price and Paton’s plans at the position will go a long way towards determining his return. While he’s only played 104 snaps on defense this season, he’s logged more than 60% of the special teams snaps.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

Without a doubt.

It’s a nickel league, and cornerbacks suffer the highest rate of injury of any position on defense and the Broncos are painfully thin at the position if they don’t bring back any of the free agents.

With that in mind, corner is a spot where Paton has flexibility going forward. Barring injury, Surtain is quickly emerging as one of the best cover men in the league. Darby is a solid right cornerback when healthy, but could be released before the 2023 season if the Broncos wish to free up $10 million in cap space with only $3 million in dead money. Ojemudia’s preseason reps in the slot could sway the general manager to give him the first crack at replacing Fuller and Callahan. Failing that, he could also be viable backup boundary corner after playing 852 defensive snaps as a rookie.

Off Ball Linebacker

Baron Browning, Justin Strnad

  • Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Kenny Young are all set to become unrestricted free agents. Johnson’s the best run defender, but also turns 30 on the 24th. Jewell was Fangio’s green dot player who lined guys up prior to his season-ending injury. Young’s been about what I expected since he was acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, and Paton could prefer his athletic ability and cost to the alternatives.
  • Micah Kiser is a restricted free agent in the offseason and it could make sense to try to bring him back for less than the right of first refusal tender.
  • Jonas Griffith is an exclusive rights free agent and I’d be pretty surprised if Paton doesn’t bring him back. He looked good enough in his first start against the Bengals to suggest there’s promise worth developing, and he’s a contributor to the special teams.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

It depends on what happens with Johnson, Jewell, Young, and Griffith.

Unless the Broncos move towards a nickel/dime personnel that doesn’t utilize two off ball linebackers, there will be a need to shore up the corps. Baron Browning is showing all the signs that he’ll retain his starting job in year two, so the big question here is what Paton does around him. If Paton’s time with the Minnesota Vikings is any hint, this could be a spot where the Broncos cast a wide net and hope to find a serviceable contributor for cheap. From 2007 to 2020, Minny used 12 day three draft picks on true off ball linebackers.

Edge Rusher

Jonathon Cooper, Bradley Chubb, Andre Mintze, Aaron Patrick

  • Stephen Weatherly is an unrestricted free agent in 2022 and could be back if the money is right. Paton’s very familiar with him after the two spent most of their careers with the Minnesota Vikings.
  • Malik Reed is a restricted free agent who has had a down 2021, which makes his return less certain. Paton may prefer to go with the right of first refusal over using a 2nd or 1st round tender to save the Broncos some cap space, but it’d also invite other teams to explore the possibility of signing Reed.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

Outside of QB, this is the biggest question hanging over the ‘22 roster.

As the fifth pick of the 2018 draft, Chubb has missed more games than he’s played since his rookie year. The Broncos already picked up his fifth year option, but a contract extension is no guarantee after he’s looked like a shell of himself since his return from the ankle injury that cost him the better part of this season.

While Cooper has looked like a seventh round steal since the Von Miller trade, his limitations probably cap his upside. He is a better athlete than given credit for and has an advanced pass rush repertoire, but his short arms and solid bend limit the ways he can beat longer, stronger tackles who can match his burst.

Paton tried to trade back into the first round of his initial draft to select Miami’s Jaelen Phillips, which suggests he recognizes the dire need here. Fortunately it looks like the 2022 draft will have an extremely rich edge class.

Defensive Line

Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim

  • Shamar Stephen and DeShawn Williams are unrestricted free agents after the season. If they hope to re-sign with the Broncos, it will probably be for low guarantees and they could wind up waiting on Paton’s other plans at the position through free agency and the draft.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

Scheme will impact what Paton may decide to do here.

Philosophically, the Broncos defense under Fangio doesn’t prioritize using numbers in the box to defend the run. This tends to puts stress on the defensive line, edge rushers, and off ball linebackers. It’s worked beautifully when Alexander Johnson and Purcell are both healthy, but their absences over the last two years shows how the rest of the personnel are closer to solid than good run defenders.

Jones is the Broncos’ only consistent pass rusher this season with his quickness, repertoire, and motor. At 281 lbs., he’s undersized for the gap-and-a-half role Fangio utilizes, but he’s got such good burst that he’s still a valuable run defender because he’s so good at shooting into the backfield. Assuming he can maintain his current level of play into the last season of his contract, a long-term extension looks inevitable.

Jones’ play is helping to mask the issues around him up front. Harris is playing through an ankle and knee injury, which is sapping his quickness and hurting his overall production. There is some concern that the injuries are starting to pile up on the 30-year-old, and it’s also fair to look at his age and wonder what the future holds. In 2023 it would cost the Broncos $3 million in dead money to move on from Harris, and Paton deserves credit for the way he structured Shelby’s extension to keep it moveable once Jones is extended.

Purcell is a steady role player who is at his best logging snaps over the center on early downs. He’s quicker than the average nose, which makes him a chore for teams that want to run outside zone and does a good job standing his ground at the point of attack. His $4,524,166 cap number in ‘22, age, injury history, and the low guarantees remaining on his contract means he could be gone if Paton elects to cut costs.

The fact Agim’s only played 231 snaps since Elway drafted him in the third round of the 2020 draft hints at how disappointing he’s been. A former five star recruit who stayed home to play for Arkansas, he’s a marginal run defender who doesn’t do enough against the pass to make up for his issues shedding blocks and anchoring against runs. The hope here is he can put it together in year three.

Paton drafted Marquiss Spencer last season and the rookie could be a factor after spending all of this year on the practice squad. Regardless of him or the coaching staff, it’d be wise to invest a pick or two into developmental talent.

Offensive Line

Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Quinn Meinerz, Netane Muti, Austin Schlottmann

  • Bobby Massie and Cam Fleming are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Massie’s been the Broncos’ best right tackle since Billy Turner in 2018 while Fleming’s a serviceable backup. A return for either probably boils down to cost and potential alternatives, because Paton may try to upgrade right tackle.
  • Schlottmann and Calvin Anderson will be a restricted free agents in 2022. The Broncos could try to bring either or both back on the right of first refusal tender.
  • Munchak’s faith in current practice squad tackle Quinn Bailey gives him a good shot at a future’s contract after the season.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

The big reason I said Paton erred in passing on tackles in the 2021 draft is that the dire need for a long-term answer at right tackle looked obvious as far back as last January. The Broncos currently do not have a single right tackle under contract for next year.

Bolles isn’t having an All Pro campaign this season, but he remains a solid left tackle and the Broncos’ best lineman at present. I assume Anderson and/or Bailey will return to back him up at the moment. Failing that, Paton will need to grab a backup.

Elway and Paton have spent day two draft picks on interior lineman for three straight years, which creates questions about Glasgow’s future. A free agent addition in 2020, he could be moved via trade or as a post-June cut next season to create a little under nine million in cap space. Paton could also keep the 29-year-old if he can return to form after his season-ending injury. Glasgow’s center/guard versatility could have value even if Meinerz keeps the right guard job, as he’s more reliable in pass protection than Cushenberry’s been to date.

Wide Receiver

Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Kendall Hinton, K.J. Hamler

  • Diontae Spencer will be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. His size and subsequent catch radius makes him a one dimensional return specialist. He’s averaging 8.4 yards per punt return this season and hasn’t impressed on kick returns since 2019. Unless Tom McMahon somehow returns, he’s gone.
  • A sixth round pick in the 2021 draft, Seth Williams is a practice squad player who looks certain to receive a future contract from the Broncos. Paton’s made a point to protect him from other teams all season.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

Not really, though Hamler’s injury means it could make sense to grab another waterbug type.

Tight end

Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam

  • Eric Saubert is an unrestricted free agent in 2022 and it’d be ideal to bring him back if the dollars make sense for both sides. He’s a blocking tight end who can contribute as a serviceable tertiary receiver in the passing game.
  • Andrew Beck is also an unrestricted free agent in ‘22. Bringing him back really depends on what Paton does with the coaching staff. His biggest strength is his versatility, but if the Broncos move towards more 21 personnel, it could make sense to acquire a better fullback.
  • An undrafted free agent following the 2021 draft, Shaun Beyer’s been a protected member of the practice squad so often that I believe he’ll be back for training camp in 2022.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

If the ‘22 offense remains committed to using 11 personnel (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) on 65% or more of their snaps, this looks like a low priority. Fant and Okwuegbunam are going to earn a lion’s share of the reps, so whoever is added to the group will need to contribute to special teams and fill in the gaps, which means the ability to block is a priority.

Running Back

Javonte “Pookie” Williams, Mike Boone

  • Melvin Gordon is an unrestricted free agent after this year and he’s playing well enough that I believe he’ll have suitors. Pookie’s the future at this position, so I doubt Gordon’s back unless his market collapses.
  • As I write this, Damarea Crockett is currently on waivers after filling in while Boone was on the covid-19 list. I suspect he’ll wind up back on the practice squad and could earn a future’s contract.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

No position in football suffers injuries as often as running backs do, so it usually makes sense to add to the stable each and every offseason. With that said, Williams looks like he’s a workhorse role away from contending for Offensive Player of the Year. Denver could elect to move on from Boone after an injury- and illness-plagued season without incurring a significant cap penalty, as he only has $800,000 remaining on the deal he signed last March. I don’t foresee it because he has met expectations when available.

Quarterback

Drew Lock

  • Teddy Bridgewater is an unrestricted free agent after the season and his asking price may wind up too high for Paton’s tastes. Unless the Las Vegas Raiders release Derek Carr or the San Francisco 49ers dump Jimmy Garropolo, it currently looks like Bridgewater or Jameis Winston will be the best veteran option this offseason.
  • Brett Rypien is a restricted free agent this offseason and his future is pretty murky because he was undrafted out of Boise State in 2019. Using the right of first refusal tender seemingly invites a rival team to sign him and it’s hard to say where Paton lands on that possibility. Rypien was a member of the practice squad who found himself added to the Broncos’ 53-man roster once it looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers or another QB needy team would sign him.

Is there a ‘22 need at the position?

It’s the single biggest question hanging over Paton’s roster, and one without a realistic answer barring significant investment. While a vocal part of Broncos Country remains optimistic that Drew Lock is merely a quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, offensive line, and offseason away from the mythical fourth year leap, all signs suggest he’s closer to the end of his NFL career than establishing himself as a franchise quarterback. The last time Drew Lock was a fulltime starter, he finished the season:

In addition to the numbers above, only 65.4% of his career attempts were deemed “on target” by SIS charting. His on target percentage declined in 2020 even as the Broncos’ offense utilized horizontal leading throws at a bottom 10 rate. Beyond the statistics, Lock displayed marginal decision-making, anticipation, footwork, and poise. He struggled making the right call pre-snap and too often became lost when defenses changed up post-snap. He’s always been a see-it-throw-it passer which, combined with his scattershot ball placement, routinely hurt his receivers’ ability to generate yards after the catch.

After losing the starting job to Teddy Bridgewater in training camp, Lock’s entered three different games because of injury this season. If anything, he looks like he’s regressed from his ‘20 form. Across 81 snaps, Lock’s yards per attempt, completion %, on target %, and catchable ball %, are all at career lows. His inability to make the correct decisions on a simple read option and a run pass option led to two of the worst plays I’ve ever seen from a professional quarterback.

The hope here is that a week of practice time helps Lock save his career against the Las Vegas Raiders, but it’s hard to imagine there’s any reason for Paton to move forward with him as the unquestioned starter in 2021. Remember, Lock also missed significant time to injury in each of his first two seasons in the NFL. So even if he does light it up down this final stretch, Paton would be wise to invest in a quality backup who could start multiple games.

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