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What should the Broncos do in free agency?

There’s a million options in front of George Paton. What should he do?

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With George Paton set to direct John Elway’s front office, the Broncos find themselves at a crossroads. Every opponent in the AFC West finished with a better record in 2020 and each has their starting quarterbacks settled for the upcoming season. Drew Lock’s play was so abysmal that every door remains open to his organization.

With that in mind, Jeff Essary and I decided to talk out what we hope to see the Broncos do in free agency on Cover2Broncos.

We worked under the premise that we don’t know what the eventual salary cap will settle on and that the marketplace could become unpredictable because of it. I worked under the premise that OvertheCap’s current projection holds, which means 13 teams will need to shed talent to comply. At the same time, new television deals could end up artificially raising the cap ceiling this year or lead teams to simply push an inordinate amount of cap hits into future years with the assumption that the impact of Covid won’t last forever.

What follows is how I currently view the Broncos roster by position as well as some players I hope Paton considers. Keep in mind that any list is not in a rank format.

Philosophy/Approach

The current contract structure in the NFL creates an environment where building a roster around rookie contracts and a top tier quarterback is the most efficient way to compete on a year to year basis. Because rookie contracts are cost controlled, players routinely outproduce their cap numbers. Once a player is on a roster, his current team has every advantage to securing his services on what management considers an acceptable contract for the length of his career.

It’s not a coincidence that the best teams year after year draft well and retain key veterans.

While free agency is the open marketplace for veteran players to secure sought-after financial security, smart management should always consider why someone is no longer on their roster. With as many as 32 teams bidding over the services of the top tier players, the numbers can become what I call “funny money.” Some teams are so desperate for relevance they will pay a player in hopes he can recreate an ideal situation by himself, or convince themselves he is something more than he is.

Considering all of the above, I generally prefer the Broncos to play the edges of the early market. Better to let someone else pay elite prices for a solid player and utilize the cap space to patch any notable deficiency. Free agency should be used to meet needs so as to provide flexibility on Draft day. In an ideal world, Denver can emerge from the free agent landscape with an acceptable two deep depth chart.

Players currently under contract with the Broncos

Preliminary moves

With the rollover math factored in, this should provide roughly $32,745,771 in cap space.

Free Agency plan

Quarterback

So my FA plan here has two parts to it.

1. In the event I can acquire Deshaun Watson, all my eggs are in that basket. Obviously this would impact decisions down the board. At quarterback, it either means Drew Lock is a backup for the remainder of his rookie contract or dealt to the highest bidder. If the latter situation occurs there are three ideal backups:

  • Tyrod Taylor
  • Mitch Trubisky
  • Jacoby Brissett

Each offers starting experience and could step into a short-term situation, giving the roster a fighting chance. Outside of possibly Taylor, none look like they’ll receive serious interest as a starting quarterback, which makes them appealing from a cost perspective.

If dead cap hits or contract demands create a situation where the three above are not obtainable, I would sit out the QB market in hopes that another Jameis Winston situation presents itself. This might mean Brett Rypien or a third day rookie passer winds up as QB2.

2. In the event we have no shot at Deshaun Watson, plan B is to improve the quarterback position to a passable level until there is an opportunity to acquire a franchise passer.

After studying his tape over the last two seasons and digging through the numbers, I do not believe Drew Lock is likely to become an average starting quarterback. This is an opinion I suspect George Paton does not share, but with it in mind, I wouldn’t hesitate to upgrade in free agency. “Worst” case scenario, Lock makes a substantial jump before year 3 and wins a competition. The following prospective free agents look like clear upgrades over what we saw from Drew Lock in 2020:

  • Dak Prescott
  • Andy Dalton
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
  • Cam Newton
  • Jameis Winston
  • Tyrod Taylor

Depending on the veteran signing above, I would also consider first round rookie passers in the 2021 NFL Draft. While Prescott looks extremely unlikely, one scenario that I’ve warmed up to in recent days is Cam Newton in free agency and Trey Lance in the NFL Draft. Newton’s former offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, is currently the Broncos’ quarterback coach and so it does not seem outside the realm of possibility that Shurmur’s staff could bend the offense to maximize the veteran’s talents.

Running back

9News’ Mike Klis has reported Melvin Gordon’s DUI pre-trial hearing remains set for April 2 with a jury trial scheduled for April 8:

In Gordon’s case, any type of guilty plea or verdict would likely bring a three-game suspension from the NFL for violating its substance abuse policy. It would also void the $4.5 million salary guarantee Gordon has coming from the Broncos as part of his $7 million total compensation for 2021.

The timing creates an air of uncertainty regarding Gordon’s status for 2021, but his cap number is high enough that it’d be foolish to chase premier running backs in free agency. With Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman under contract for the upcoming season, running back isn’t a position I’d address outside of the NFL Draft.

Receiver

While there is a distinct possibility Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick could both depart in 2022, there are so many receivers currently under contract that it makes little sense to allocate significant resources on another veteran. This is a position that should receive some consideration on draft day.

Tight end

I would consult with the Broncos’ medical personnel to find out about the prognosis for Albert Okwuegbunam’s recovery. If things look promising, this is another position where it doesn’t make sense to chase a veteran.

If a Deshaun Watson trade led to significant cap issues due to dead cap hits, Nick Vannett is a veteran who could be cut to create additional breathing room. Releasing him would create $2,678,125 in cap space.

Offensive Line

Barring injury, there is little doubt Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, and Graham Glasgow will start for the Broncos in 2021. It makes sense to plan on either Lloyd Cushenberry or Netane Muti starting at the other vacant interior position.

The biggest need facing this unit is insurance behind Ja’Wuan James. Thanks to James’ contract, he is a near certainty for the roster in 2021, but it would make sense to carry depth at right tackle. I would keep an eye out for an affordable swing tackle or utility linemen who can play inside in a pinch. However, it makes little sense to pay for the top of the tackle market with so many pressing needs elsewhere.

For the above reasons and with Mike Munchak’s blessing, I would actively work to bring back Elijah Wilkinson or Demar Dotson. Barring that or if their asking price becomes too onerous I would try to acquire a backup during the third wave of free agency and look to the NFL draft for a developmental right tackle.

Defensive Line

With neither Jurrell Casey or Shelby Harris on the current roster, this position group is very callow. Dre’Mont Jones is quietly developing into a Pro Bowl caliber interior rusher and Mike Purcell’s return helps, but McTelvin Agim may need more time before he’s ready for starting snaps.

Ideally I can bring Harris back, but as a free agent his market is going to be a big factor. He turns 30 in August, which leaves me hesitant to extend on a big money deal past Jones’ rookie contract. It’s also worth noting that if his new deal floats into the ballpark Pro Football Focus currently projects he could net the Broncos a compensatory selection.

If Harris signs elsewhere, I would have interest in a veteran to fill a similar role. The player needs to be capable of playing up and down the line of scrimmage as they’ll log snaps as a defensive end in base personnel and interior rusher in nickel. Players that intrigue:

  • Ndamukong Suh
  • DaQuon Jones
  • Larry Ogunjobi, maybe.

With so many teams looking to dump contracts, there are a number of potential cap cuts that also intrigue, including:

  • Quinton Jefferson (Bills)
  • Bilal Nichols (Bears)
  • Shamar Stephen (Vikings)
  • Brandon Dunn (Texans)
  • Derrick Nnadi (Chiefs)
  • Allen Bailey (Falcons).

Edge rusher/Outsider linebacker

*George Paton and the Denver Broncos probably have more information regarding Von Miller’s criminal investigation. I am working under the parameters that I do not know, which is why I would retain him for the 2021 season. With Miller’s age and 2020 injury, there remains notable long-term questions about the question, which I would look to address in the NFL Draft.

As far as the short-term, Jeremiah Attaochu is no longer under contract. If he’s amiable to a return for ED4 pay, I would definitely consider it. If this isn’t the case I would look to free agency to find a suitable replacement. Since Von Miller and Malik Reed are on the roster in this scenario, this player would be essentially the backup to Bradley Chubb. A few players that intrigue:

  • Tyus Bowser
  • Jordan Jenkins
  • Samsom Ebukam
  • Pernell McPhee

With Miller under contract, this isn’t the kind of position I would spend backup money for. If none of the above are interested in Denver, I would play out the third wave of free agency and look to the NFL Draft.

Linebacker

Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson did a commendable job in a difficult situation last season. Johnson is an elite run defender who is also a dangerous blitzer, which helped Fangio adjust to the loss of Von. Jewell played far better than I dared hope and looked like a solid run defender and adequate pass defender. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the pair open 2021 as the starters, so I’d be hesitant to win any bidding war for a free agent linebacker.

This isn’t to say I’m not interested. There are two big names I’ve been intrigued with for awhile now:

  • Matt Milano
  • Jayon Brown

This upcoming rookie linebacker class and the presence of Jewell and Johnson would simply keep me from paying more than a $9 million APY a piece. If either of the following make it to the second wave of free agency, I would also consider them:

  • Kevin Pierre-Louis
  • Nicholas Morrow

There are a number of potential cap cuts that intrigue me at linebacker:

  • Kwon Alexander (Saints)
  • Nick Kwiatkowski (Raiders)
  • Kenny Young (Rams)
  • Christian Kirksey (Packers)
  • Foyesade Oluokun (Falcons)

Cornerback

At present, the Broncos’ starting cornerbacks look like Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, and Essang Bassey. Callahan was an elite player when healthy last year but has yet to make it through a 16-game schedule unscathed. He also turns 30 in October and has a contract set to expire after the upcoming season. Both Ojemudia and Bassey experienced rollercoaster rookie seasons and remain question marks in 2021.

There is little doubt cornerback is the most obvious need on the Broncos roster. It is both a short-term and long-term need, which is why I would look to address this position in free agency and the NFL draft. It currently looks like the free agent market will have a number of appealing options at the position:

  • Desmond King
  • Troy Hill
  • Chidobe Awuzie
  • Ronald Darby
  • Patrick Peterson
  • Jason Verrett
  • Mackensiei Alexander
  • K’Wuan Williams
  • Cameron Sutton
  • Terrance Mitchell

Callahan’s inside/outside versatility means we can afford to pick and choose in order to find the best fit on the field as well as the payroll. There are also a few potential cap cuts I’d be intrigued with:

  • Avonte Maddox (Eagles)
  • Isaiah Oliver (Falcons)
  • Malcolm Butler (Titans)

Safety

So long as Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are retained as I laid out above, safety is not a pressing short-term need. Because Jackson is playing out the last year of his contract at 33-years-old in 2021, I would try to acquire a developmental starter behind him if possible. For that reason, any veteran is merely a stopgap backup and special teamer if the youngster needs time. I would look to address safety in either the third wave of free agency or the NFL draft.

Your Broncos’ News

Denver Broncos may have to use franchise tag on Justin Simmons again - Mile High Report

The Denver Broncos have until March 9th to sign Justin Simmons to a long-term deal or they will need to use franchise tag to retain their star safety.

Should the Denver Broncos bring back Von Miller? - Mile High Report

George Paton has until March 16th to decide on the future Hall of Famer.

Denver Broncos need better QB play to escape the gutter in 2021 - Mile High Report

Football Outsiders projects the current Denver Broncos roster as 30th best in the NFL. Yikes.

Draft Network’s Joe Marino loves this year’s cornerback class - Mile High Report

The Draft Network’s Joe Marino talked all things cornerbacks Monday on Broncos Country Tonight.

The Denver Broncos, with an Irish accent - Mile High Report

Michael McQuaid of Broncos Europe and the Irish NFL Show joined the MHR Radio Podcast

NFL free agent profile: Quarterback Andy Dalton - Mile High Report

The Denver Broncos would be wise to bring in Andy Dalton to compete with Drew Lock for the starting job in 2021 if they are unable to make a bigger move at the position.

NFL free agent profile: Safety Anthony Harris - Mile High Report

If the Denver Broncos end up in need of a safety, Anthony Harris would be a good place to start in free agency.

NFL free agent profile: Safety John Johnson III - Mile High Report

If the Broncos lose Jackson or Simmons, this former Ram makes too much sense.

NFL News

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As one agent explained it to PFT, the calls started last week, they’re continuing this week, and by next week it likely will be rampant. For many agents, it’s easy to cover tracks; if an agent represents one of more players on a given team, the agent easily can talk to that team about an impending free agent with another team. If/when questions get asked about the purpose of the call that shows up on a log somewhere, the team and agent need only say that they were talking about one or more clients currently on the roster.

Roger Goodell: Virtual meetings here to stay - ProFootballTalk

“Virtual meetings have now become standard in the NFL; we are not going to have as much [in-person] meetings when we get back,” Goodell said at the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum, via Barry Wilner of the Associated Press. “I think technology is something we have embraced and will make us better.”

NFL free agency: 6 bargain players who make a massive impact in 2021

These are the NFL free agents who will provide teams with real value this offseason, including Carl Lawson and Curtis Samuel.

Matthew Judon threatens to leak photos of a reporter in a strip club - ProFootballTalk

“I’m waiting on your ESPN sourced apology or I’m leaking these photos I got with you in the strip club,” Judon said.

NFL Draft quarterbacks: Justin Fields most on target passer in 2021 class

With these charts, you can get a better grasp on a quarterback’s accuracy beyond what their completion percentage is in the box score. Was there a completion that was a bad ball and the quarterback was bailed out by his wide receiver? What about a good ball that was dropped? Completion percentage does not remove spiked balls, throwaways, and balls batted down at the line of scrimmage either. All of these elements are differentiated in my charts

NFL cap casualties: 15 stars who could be cut over the next month

In a vacuum, this is a no-brainer. But it’s never easy parting ways with a franchise legend. When we last saw Miller, he was still a very good player. It’s just that it’s been over a year since we’ve seen him on a field and he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Top 10 QBs for 2021 NFL Draft: Trevor Lawrence leads, with Zach Wilson still hot – The Athletic

Trevor Lawrence is clearly No. 1. After him, the order gets cloudier. But this NFL Draft quarterback class warrants immense hype.

Daniel Jeremiah’s top 50: 2021 NFL Draft prospect rankings 2.0

With the Reese’s Senior Bowl, a high-profile pro day and further tape study in the books, NFL Network draft guru and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah updates his ranking of the top 50 draft-eligible prospects. The 2021 NFL Draft will take place in Cleveland from April 29-May 1.

Inside the dual legacies of NFL players’ union boss DeMaurice Smith

“If we could,” says a longtime NFL owner, “every owner would build a statue to De outside their stadiums. That’s how good he’s been for our business.”