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The Broncos have a ‘long way to go’

Looking at the roster a week into free agency.

It’s usually pretty simple to pinpoint issues on a 5-11 football team and the Broncos are no exception. Before free agency I looked at every position group on the roster to try and determine where George Paton should spend his time and resources during his first offseason at the helm.

So far Paton done close to nothing to add outside additions, so when he said the Broncos had “a long way to go” it didn’t surprise me. Don’t fret Broncos Country, the general manager knows seems to know there’s work to be done.

Ronald Darby and Mike Boone are the only free agents to join the Broncos roster to date. George Paton also brought back Von Miller and Shelby Harris while taking advantage of the various tags and tenders to retain Trey Marshall, Calvin Anderson, Diontae Spencer, Justin Simmons, Alexander Johnson, and Tim Patrick.

As we reach the end of the first week of free agency, I thought it time to take another look at the Broncos roster. Each position group will be ranked by how pressing I believe the current need is. Where applicable I also threw out a potential target or what it currently looks like the Broncos’ may do. The whole exercise is obviously subjective, but I hope it will help to inform.

Tier 4: Competition for the sake of competition

15. Punter

Sam Martin

14. Long snapper

Jacob Bobenmoyer

13. Kicker

Brandon McManus

12. Fullback

Jeremy Cox

  • Any addition added to these spots will probably serve as little more than depth in training camp. The addition of Mike Boone suggests special teams is going to be heavily emphasized at depth positions on offense, which could push Cox off the roster as Shurmur rarely uses a fullback.

Tier 3: Depth never hurt anyone

11. Tight end

Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Nick Vannett, Austin Fort, Andrew Beck

  • If Albert Okwuegbunam returns to the form he showed as a rookie this group could push for one of the best in the NFL.
  • One reason the Broncos may pursue another tight end is the fact Austin Fort remains completely unproven while Nick Vannett is expensive for a third string tight end.
  • The Broncos have shown some interest in Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble. He’d be able to settle in as a blocker and outlet receiver who can play snaps at fullback if called upon, but it’d be a woefully inefficient use of draft capital unless Shurmur plans to move away from three receiver sets 60+% of the time.

10. Defensive Line

Shelby Harris, Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim, DeShawn Williams, Deyon Sizer, Isaiah Mack

  • If Harris and Purcell can rediscover their best play from 2020 while Jones and Agim continue to develop this group is pretty exciting. When you stop to remember the Broncos will play more snaps with two defensive lineman than three, it’s a pretty deep group.
  • The Broncos have made changes to Purcell’s contract in order to free up cap space. I have yet to see the structure, but would assume it helps to lock him onto the roster as it’s moved guaranteed money down the road.

9. Running back

Melvin Gordon, Royce Freeman, Mike Boone, LaVante Bellamy, Damarea Crockett

  • The decision to part ways with Phillip Lindsay is a controversial one. After the undrafted free agent chose the Broncos over the Baltimore Ravens, John Elway failed to deliver on the fair deal he alluded to in his 2019 season ending press conference. Instead Paton chose to prioritize a back who can add special teams value and better slide behind Melvin Gordon on Pat Shurmur’s depth chart. Time will tell if it was the right decision.
  • If Melvin Gordon receives any sort of punishment from the NFL related to his October arrest, the Broncos may void his guarantees.
  • The Broncos have shown interest in Louisville’s Javian Hawkins.

8. Wide receiver

Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, K.J. Hamler, DaeSean Hamilton, Diontae Spencer, Kendall Hinton, Tyrie Cleveland, Trinity Benson

  • Paton’s history with the Vikings hints that this could be a position group that receives talent quite often.
  • Given the contract questions about Sutton, Patrick, Hamilton, and Spencer, it makes sense. All four could be gone in 2022.
  • I personally believe this group could become the best in the league given better quarterback play. There’s obviously questions, but if Sutton can come back to 2019 form while Jeudy and Hamler make a sophomore jump? Fireworks.

7. Interior offensive line

Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Netane Muti, Austin Schlottmann, Patrick Morris

  • The Broncos look set to count on improvement from Cushenberry in year two. If he can do so it will help both guards and ultimately, the whole line. As a group the starting trio and Muti all have the mobility to lead on pin and pulls to the perimeter. Cush becoming more reliable at the point of attack would also help the Broncos’ counter and power runs.

6. Offensive tackle

Garett Bolles, Ja’Wuan James, Quinn Bailey, Calvin Anderson

  • If James delivers on the promise Mike Munchak and John Elway saw in him in 2019 the Broncos could have one of the better lines in the NFL.
  • I still expect the Broncos to make a play for a veteran who can play tackle. It may not be popular, but two who could make a ton of sense are Elijah Wilkinson and Demar Dotson. Both had moments last year and probably won’t have a robust market.
  • If Paton looks to bring in an outside addition to this group the Tennessee Titans’ Dennis Kelly is one to watch. He was cut this week, but has started 47 games at tackle in his career to date, including 16 in 2020.

Tier 2: Needs attention

5. Edge

Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Derrek Tuszka

  • If Miller can return to his 2019 form the Broncos would have perhaps the best edge group in football. Keep in mind that there’s no guarantee he can do just that because of age and injury. I still love that Paton took the chance.
  • Looking ahead to 2022 there are plenty of questions: Miller, Chubb, and Reed all have expiring contracts as of today. The Broncos can pick up Chubb’s fifth year option and tag Reed as he’ll be a Restricted Free Agent, but don’t be shocked if Paton adds another player to the group.
  • Jeremiah Attaochu could draw interest for a return because of the injury questions with Miller and Chubb. He’d be a pretty strong ED4.
  • The Broncos could also choose to kick around the second or third wave of free agency. Kyler Fackrell could make sense as depth, the 6’5 245 lb. edge has played for the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants in his career and while he’s not a premier pass rusher, he brings the versatility to drop in coverage and contribute on special teams.

4. Linebacker

Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad, Josh Watson, Patrick Natrez

  • Johnson’s return on a second round tender means the Broncos have at least one of their 2021 starting linebackers on the current roster. Jewell performed well in 2020, but I do expect Paton to chase competition.
  • There are corners of Broncos Country who ardently believe Strnad is set to become a standout in his return from his second consecutive season ending injury. While I’m skeptical, he drew buzz in training camp last year.
  • Eric Wilson remains a name to watch. He played in 16 games for the Minnesota Vikings a year ago and finished with three interceptions, three sacks, and more than 100 tackles.

Tier 1: Glaring need

3. Safety

Justin Simmons, Trey Marshall, P.J. Locke III, Chris Cooper

  • After two years in the system Fangio may have faith Marshall can step into a starting role.
  • Without Kareem Jackson, this group looks painfully callow beyond Simmons, so even if Marshall becomes the starter I expect Paton to chase depth.
  • Both Jackson and Paton have said a return to Denver is possible for the veteran safety.
  • If the Broncos elect to chase safeties in the NFL Draft Trevon Moehrig is the big name, but his teammate Ar’Darius Washington also makes sense. Richie Grant and Jevon Holland could intrigue further down the board.

2. Cornerback

Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson, Parnell Motley, Nate Hairston

  • Darby and Callahan have combined to play one 16+ game season in their careers. Both of them have been in the league since 2015.
  • Bassey and Dawson are both coming back from season ending knee injuries.
  • There is an outside possibility Ojemudia could move to safety if the Broncos add another corner. Wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
  • Kyle Fuller is available. He had his best seasons under Vic Fangio with the Chicago Bears and would have been my top free agent corner if he was available last week. Expect Paton to make a play for him.

1. Quarterback

Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien

  • Let’s review what we know about Paton’s approach to QB since he’s taken over as general manager:
  1. George Paton said “we’re obviously looking” when asked about quarterbacks at his introductory press conference.
  2. The Broncos tried to trade for Matthew Stafford and Drew Lock was a part of the deal.
  3. Paton did not attend the Clemson Pro Day.
  4. Paton, Mike Shula, and Brian Stark flew to Fargo, North Dakota to watch Trey Lance at his Pro Day last week. That’s the Broncos general manager, quarterback coach, and director of college scouting.
  5. The Broncos did not bring in a marquee veteran quarterback in free agency.

Now I personally look at everything above combined with the reports and rumors about Deshaun Watson and think George Paton is doing all he can to make a deal with the Houston Texans. So much so that I looked at if the Broncos could win the bidding war earlier this week.

It remains possible the Broncos will instead pivot to the NFL Draft if Paton finds a prospect he believes in. While Trevor Lawrence is a lock for the Jacksonville Jaguars, it’s impossible to know for sure how the rest of the picks will fall between two and eight. The New York Jets look set to draft Zach Wilson, but there’s also some talk they like Sam Darnold. Now that the Atlanta Falcons have restructured Matt Ryan’s contract it does not look like they’ll draft his replacement in 2021.

Of course Paton could weigh out the cost to acquire any of the players above and settle on Drew Lock for 2022. If he does so I believe the Broncos will try and move down the board to acquire extra capital. Personally I hope it’s 2022 picks, even if I’m nowhere near as high on next year’s quarterback class as I am this one.