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How should the Broncos attack each need?

Is the draft or free agency a better answer to patch each hole on the roster?

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Every now and then the NFL will decide to enforce their rules on tampering, but let’s not kid ourselves: Jon Gruden openly recruited Richard Sherman on a podcast and nothing happened. Teams have been tampering for weeks now and there’s every reason to believe free agency will kick off with a flurry of moves in the opening hours. With days before the chaos ensues, I thought it time to look at how the Broncos should approach funny money season.

When George Paton was introduced to Broncos Country he made a point to share that his new franchise would embrace the grind. He spoke to how the revamped front office shared this vision and implied John Elway and the new general manager were on the same page.

We all believe that to draft and develop talent that you bring high character players into your organization, you develop them and hopefully get them second contracts, and that’s how you build your best culture. Now when you go outside, will you be aggressive and dip into free agency or the trade market? Yeah, every now and then, but it takes that right type of player to do that. I think we all believe in drafting and developing and making them into your own. That’s the best way to build a football team.”

During his most recent press conference George Paton expanded on his team building philosophy by sharing how he looks at free agency.

“You never want to go crazy in free agency. You don’t want to build your team in free agency. You want to fill selective needs going into the draft. That has been my philosophy. You don’t always want to be the first one out of the gate and throw all your money, but there is something you need, you’ll take a shot. I just think you have to be selective and you have to look at every situation. If you can fill a need and help your team, you’re going to go for it.”

What follows is a look at every position and if I believe Paton is better served chasing a fix in the free market (or via trade) or waiting until the NFL Draft. This was inspired in part by Jason Fitzgerald’s awesome piece over at OvertheCap, so check that out. The positions below follow same tier format I laid out in my 2021 Free Agency guide, so if you haven’t checked that out I recommend it.

Keep in mind that NFL teams will make cuts every day leading up to the start of free agency. When I’m talking about free agency specifically, I’m referring to the market as of Thursday the 11th. The Broncos should definitely consider any and all fits that get released if it fits into their budget.

Last but not least, after speaking with John Todd about Sports Info Solutions’ NFL Draft Guide on this week’s Cover 2 Broncos I thought it best to mention prospects and fits where relevant. My hope is this better informs on what I see as the Broncos needs as well as how Paton could address them. I’m still working through NFL Draft prospects so it’s a work in progress, but please let me know what you think.

Tier 4: Competition for the sake of competition

15. Punter

14. Long snapper

13. Kicker

12. Fullback

If Paton spends any sort of big guarantees at any of the above positions I’ll probably complain. Moving on from Brandon McManus or Sam Martin would come with dead cap hits and both were fine last year. Long snappers and fullbacks don’t typically cost much unless you have a Josh McDaniels running the ship or want to sign a Kyle Juszczyk, who’d be wasted in the Pat Shurmur offense.

Tier 3: Depth never hurt anyone

13. Tight end

If the Broncos are looking to bring in depth at tight end to replace Nick Vannett, it makes sense to chase a role player late in free agency. This shouldn’t prevent Paton from considering rookies, but the position typically requires some seasoning before a prospect is ready to contribute meaningful snaps without big issues.

Thanks to the Draft Network’s Justin Melo, we know the Broncos have met virtually with Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble. SIS projects him to develop into a starting caliber H-tight end where he can be moved around the formation. If drafted I suspect he’d eat into Andrew Beck, Jeremy Cox, and Nick Vannett’s snaps if Fant and Okwuegbunam are healthy.

10. Running back

As a general rule I’m opposed to free agent running backs. Teams pay a premium on the market for another team’s mileage when year after year after year we see how quickly rookie runners can help their team.

Now that we know Melvin Gordon won’t be charged with a DUI, it looks like he’ll almost certainly return to the Broncos in 2021. It remains to be seen if George Paton considers Phillip Lindsay a 2nd round type of talent, and if he applies the original round tender another team could poach him from Denver. I can’t overlook the fact that Melo’s reported the Broncos met virtually with Louisville’s Javian Hawkins.

9. Wide receiver

Since the Broncos don’t have a pressing need at receiver barring a setback for Courtland Sutton, it makes more sense to pursue rookie talent at receiver. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Broncos take a pass catcher on Day 3 who can also help out on special teams.

It’s impossible to ignore Melo’s report that the Broncos met virtually with Purdue’s Rondale Moore and BYU’s Dax Milne. They are very different receivers and seemingly have no home in a crowded receiver room. Call me crazy, but it serves as evidence Paton will consider BPA over need as well as the distinct possibility one of the current receiver’s could be traded.

8. Offensive tackle

Like it or loathe it, the Broncos look set to enter 2021 with Garett Bolles and Ja’Wuan James as their starting tackles. James’ injury history does mean it’d be wise to invest in a veteran swing tackle who can step in and play immediately if necessary. With the way players like Taylor Moton and Cam Robinson are getting tagged it could become cost prohibitive as desperate teams burn money trying to fix a hole. Remember George Fant last year?

Thanks to Melo we know Teven Jenkins met with the Broncos. There’s some debate as to where he fits best at the next level. The line enthusiast Brandon Thorn considers Denver’s blocking scheme an ideal fit to maximize his talents, and it’s worth noting the Broncos utilized gap blocking more than all but four teams a season ago. Jenkins is a powerful barroom brawler of a run blocker, but SIS considers his guard his best position at the pro level.

“His ability to generate power and sustain blocks at the POA translate with a move insider playing against interior defensive linemen.”

7. Interior offensive line

This is one position where the Broncos could find a decent backup for an affordable price. 22 interior offensive linemen currently average $10+ million on their contracts, which sounds like a lot until you realize there are 96 starting iOL in the league. Fitzgerald pointed out that both centers and guards as positions where cheap replacements are typically available.

Tier 2: Needs attention

6. Edge

If the Broncos hold onto Von Miller they shouldn’t do much if anything in the veteran market. Maybe Jeremiah Attaochu or a similar player if they can get him back for less $2 million annually. This isn’t meant as hate for Attaochu, who outperformed his 2020 salary. It’s just the reality of the position group. Barring injury there won’t be many snaps to go around with Miller, Bradley Chubb, and Malik Reed ahead of them on the depth chart.

The outlook here doesn’t change as much as you’d think if Miller departs. The top of the edge market isn’t as good as it looks from afar. Matthew Judon and Bud Dupree aren’t likely to replicate their recent performances in a new situation, Melvin Ingram could be cooked, and Shaq Barrett looks likely to return to Tampa Bay. The smart play minus Von would be to try and sign an ED3 who can fill in if Chubb misses time again. Easier said than done, as edge is a position group where anyone with a lick of juice secures the bag in free agency.

Fortunately, this edge class has quite a few players who both fit the Fangio defense and could be available around the back half of round one and into day two. If Reed and Chubb are starting, a rookie would have a part time role to acclimate to the league. I’ve had a chance to do my first dive into this edge class and while there isn’t a Chase Young or Bosa brother at the top it has a ton of developmental starters.

SIS gave 17 players a grade of 6.5 (lower-end starter. 2 down player or plus pass rusher) or better and there’s seven they consider strong starters including Jayson Oweh. I made a point to speak with Todd about Oweh as he wrote his scouting report for the SIS guide. While I’m concerned about Oweh’s lack of sacks and need to check out the tape, Todd mentioned that it’s his combination of run defense and rare straight-line speed that intrigues him. Landing with Fangio could give the 6’4 250 lb. freak a chance to develop his rush plan on the way to dominating the league.

5. Safety

In recent days there’s been talk in Broncos Country that an extension could make sense for Kareem Jackson. At first glance this makes sense as Jackson’s been quite good and an extension could help to lower a cap hit that currently ranks among the highest at his position. It seems short sighted if you dig in though, as he’s going to turn 33-years old before the opening round of the NFL Draft. If Jackson’s axed this safety market does have a few players who make sense for the Fangio defense, but the Broncos ought to bring in a rookie.

Last week I studied TCU’s Trevon Moehrig and came away intrigued by both of the Horned Frog’s safeties. Ar’Darius Washington is going to be a controversial evaluation this year because he’s only 5’8 and about 179 lbs. but he gave me hints of Kareem Jackson. Both Moehrig and Washington received 6.9 grades from SIS, which projects to an eventual “strong starter who plays on all 3 downs.”

TCU plays out of a two high structure, which provides an easy projection into Fangio’s defense.

4. Linebacker

Linebacker is typically one of the easiest positions to find affordable veteran talent, so even if Paton signs a second or third wave free agent it could work out. It’d make sense for Paton to sign someone like Eric Wilson and then look to capitalize on the linebacker class in the NFL daft.

One of the big things that stood out to me when I got the SIS guide is that they break down linebacker prospects into Mike and Will. This is helpful if you’re trying to armchair scout for the Broncos because Alexander Johnson is best suited for Mike while last year’s attempt to trade up for Patrick Queen would have solved the Will position. Thanks to Melo we know the Broncos met virtually with Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, who earned a 6.7 (strong starter) Will grade from SIS. Only two players graded higher and neither were Micah Parsons.

3. Defensive Line

While Shelby Harris’ market collapsed last year, he also hit free agency along with a number of talented defensive linemen a year ago. That doesn’t look like it will be the case in 2021. With Leonard Williams locked up on the franchise tag, this free agent class could be problematic. Ndamukong Suh and Shelby Harris currently look like the best interior pass rushers on the open market.

If Harris leaves for greener pastures, Paton would be wise to play the second or third wave to find a run stopper as they’re typically affordable. Another player who could make a ton of sense is Quinton Jefferson who was released from the Buffalo Bills.

Tier 1: Glaring need

2. Cornerback

If improved quarterback play is the Broncos biggest need, corner is the most obvious. Essang Basey, Duke Dawson, and Bryce Callahan all finished the 2020 season on Injured Reserve, so no amount of faith in Michael Ojemudia’s development should keep Paton out of the veteran corner market. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Broncos played 75% of their defensive with five or six defensive backs on the field a season ago. Given Callahan’s age and contract status, it would also make sense to pursue another corner prospect in the draft.

I spoke at length with Todd about cornerback play and prospects, so I hope you have the chance to check out today’s Cover 2 Broncos. We broke down the differences in man and zone coverage, how the Fangio defense utilized both in 2020 and why Patrick Surtain and Caleb Farley is a worthwhile debate. Based on my previous study of both I think I prefer the Hokie, but I want to go back over Alabama’s run to a title once more.

1. Quarterback

Dak Prescott isn’t available after his extension with the Cowboys, so the top of the market is headlined by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cam Newton. Sam Darnold is probably available via trade. This 2021 QB class is considered the best in years. Drew Lock’s been bad and injury prone in his NFL career to date, so Paton should consider every available avenue to upgrade this spot.

On Cover 2 Broncos we went over what I believe are realistic possibilities at the 2021 quarterbacks in this draft, and I have to admit I really hope Justin Fields wears orange and blue.

Broncos News

Denver Broncos offensive line performance review 2020 - Mile High Report

Did they improve relative to 2019 after another year of learning from Mike Munchak?

Is Phillip Lindsay really a part of the Denver Broncos future? - Mile High Report

Even being tendered, Lindsay may have played his last game for the Broncos

NFL free agent profile: Defensive end Shelby Harris - Mile High Report

George Paton and the Broncos need to make Harris the top priority. Denver has plenty of needs this offseason, don’t add to it by not bringing back one of your own.

Deshaun Watson is protecting his career just like John Elway did in ‘83 - Mile High Report

Musing about the similarities of John Elway’s dispute with the Indianapolis Colts and Deshaun Watson holding out on the Houston Texans

If you want a ball-hawking secondary, you have to get pressure on the QB first - Mile High Report

Recent discussions on Broncos Country Tonight prove just why the outside pressure is so crucial for the defensive backs.

Bruce Feldman’s 2021 NFL Mock Draft: What coaches say about about Trey Lance, Zach Wilson, more – The Athletic

9. Denver Broncos: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech Denver needs cornerback help, and there are three good ones waiting. Farley, the freakiest athlete of that trio, once clocked 24.16 mph on the GPS in a game against Notre Dame. He opted out of 2020 and also had back surgery last offseason. In 2019, he led the ACC in passes defended with 16, was tied for second in the league with four INTs and earned first-team All-ACC honors.

The Coaching Intel “He has great size and length for a corner and great burst. His ability to close is as good as it gets. Those are top-notch traits. I’m not as sold on his physicality and tackling ability, but when the ball’s in the air, he’ll make plays, and you didn’t want to mess with his side.”

NFL News

2021 NFL free agency: Pending free agents, notable departures for all 32 teams

With the 2021 NFL free agency period set to open in the coming days, here’s a team-by-team breakdown of notable pending NFL free agents and players who have already been released or traded.

$15.7 million drop is only part of the salary-cap story - ProFootballTalk

Thus, the difference from expected to actual 2021 cap isn’t $15.7 million. It’s at least $25.7 million. Teams negotiate contracts in reliance on the anticipated cap growth. Before the pandemic, there was no reason to think the cap wouldn’t continue to climb, by at least $10 million.

Salary cap terms and tricks to know ahead of NFL free agency | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF

The NFL salary cap and contract landscape is murky, perhaps by design, which tends to cause confusion each offseason as the business behind football becomes the top storyline for a few months. Unlike the NBA or MLB, which certainly have contract quirks of their own, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed at signing. Thus, the high-level numbers that are often reported, such as total amount and average annual value, do a very poor job of painting the full picture.

NFL franchise tag: Tracking every player and grading every deal

But Simmons is seen as a foundational player, so the Broncos will be motivated to get a deal done. I’m just not sure Simmons makes enough of an impact to command big money at a position that isn’t really valued across the league. Only the truly special safeties are worth that price, and Simmons is just a cut below those guys.

N’Keal Harry trade interest: Patriots fielding trade inquiries on WR

“(Harry is an) interesting guy to watch here as we get into the start of the league year, maybe a little bit further, as we get closer to the draft because there’s going to be a lot of moving parts in New England ... particularly this year,” Garafolo said.

Ron Rivera doesn’t ‘disagree with a lot of’ what Alex Smith said; worried ‘every day’ about another injury

“And the biggest thing that he and I talked about really was, that there really was no road map to get us to where we were. And I told him, I said, ‘Alex, I’ll be honest, I was scared to death. I didn’t know what to expect.’ Which I believe he appreciated, was that I [was] just telling him how I felt — how hard it was for us. I think that’s the thing that everybody forgets, is Alex did a great job. He worked his butt off to put himself in position to come back and play. But I said, there’s a part that people don’t understand and that is we — as a coaching staff — had to look through this and think through this. And it was always in the back of my head, what if he gets hurt again? What if he hurts that leg — that specific leg — again? I’m going to be the guy that put him back on the field to let him get hurt again.”

Dak Prescott says he’s healthy and will be ready “when it matters” - ProFootballTalk

“But I’m healthy. As I said, I control what I control. I followed the doctor’s orders the whole time, put in my own work ethic to it and you saw me walking out here. I’ve been on that field back there. I’m healthy. I’m getting close. But I’ll be ready when it matters.”