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Grading the Broncos opening moves in free agency

How have the Denver Broncos done to start free agency? Let’s break it all down and give them meaningless grades.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I felt like I was conditioned in the weeks leading up to free agency to expect little to nothing out of the Denver Broncos early on in free agency. There was a lot of emphasis around building rosters through the draft and using free agency to find bargains. That certainly didn’t lead me to expect the type of first week we saw out of George Paton and the Broncos when free agency opened up last week. Boy, were my expectations well exceeded.

Let’s take a look at all of the significant news that came out last week surrounding the Broncos free agency moves, both good and bad, and then give an arbitrary grade. Grades are fun.

Shelby Harris

Having released veteran defensive tackle Jurrell Casey already, there appears to be a massive hole opening up inside with Shelby Harris also slated to move on as an unrestricted free agent. Instead, the news broke at the onset of legal tampering last Monday that they secured Harris in a 3-year deal worth $27 million.

“That’s a big part because honestly, if I had to go to a different team, they would have stayed here,” Harris said. “There would have been a bunch of traveling. Denver is home. Here is the best part about it—we made it perfectly clear to the Broncos that we wanted to be here, and they made it perfectly clear that they wanted me here. That’s all you want as a player—to feel wanted and appreciated.”

At the end of the day, family is everything and he wanted to keep his family in Denver and keep playing in Denver too. It also helps that the Broncos put up a deal worth signing. That is a nice change in process over how John Elway often ran things on the salary cap side of things.

The Broncos defense is better for it as well.

Kareem Jackson

Denver declined veteran safety Kareem Jackson’s contract option, which sent him into free agency. That opens up a sizable hole in the secondary, but there have been reports that the team would like to bring Jackson back under a cheaper deal if they can.

Those negotiations figure to take a while as Jackson would likely seek to see what his market is before coming back to the table. For now, this is a loss for the defense.

Von Miller

I’ll be honest here. The deadline on Von Miller’s option was the scariest time for me as a fan. Miller is aging and his cap number is high, but there just isn’t any way you replace his talent. Bradley Chubb is the next best edge rusher on the team and he still isn’t as good as “old” Von. I know we’re going to have to say goodbye to Von soon, but this year wasn’t the year I wanted to write about that.

So when the news broke last week that the Broncos decided to pick up Miller’s option, I was both elated and relieved. The Broncos defense is definitely better with Von Miller on it.

Ronald Darby

Denver’s first big free agent splash was, predictably, at cornerback where they had the biggest holes to fill on the roster. Ronald Darby didn’t get a massive contract either. A three-year, $30 million deal is fairly reasonable for a starting cornerback.

When asked about Darby, GM George Paton went all the way back to things he saw from him when scouting him in college.

“I scouted Ronald back at Florida State and [he is] very talented, obviously,” Paton explained. “Really natural cover skills coming out. He’s had a nice career thus far. He’s faced some adversity along the way with injuries, but the thing I like about Ronald is he played in Washington this year and he played 94 percent of the snaps on defense which is more than any corner in the National Football League. Started 16 games and played at a high level. They were second in the league in pass defense and comparing him to the other corners in free agency, we thought he had the best pure coverage skills of any corner. Talking with the coaches, he really fits what Vic wants. He can play man, he can play zone, he can match up, he can press and he can really run. Since Ronald’s been in the league, he’s third in the NFL in pass deflections, so he gets his hands on a lot of balls. Doing our background on players who aren’t here and from other teams, we do a lot of background, and everything that came back from Ronald is he’s a ‘glue guy’ and he brings the juice. He’s a hard worker and he’s going to fit the culture that we have with the Denver Broncos. Ronald, we’re happy to have you here.”

Given the status of the secondary, adding Darby is definitely an improvement to the defense.

Phillip Lindsay

By Thursday, the Broncos added a running back in Michael Boone. After giving Phillip Lindsay an original round tender, the Broncos and Lindsay came to an agreement to just part ways. That freed Lindsay to go sign with another team. Ultimately, he chose the Houston Texans on a deal similar to what he would have made had Denver given him a second round tender.

It’s always tough to see a fan favorite leave, but Lindsay plays a position that really isn’t all that important and the team placed priority in their spending elsewhere. It stinks, but that’s usually how it goes in the NFL.

Even so, we’ll count this as a loss to the offense as I don’t think Boone will be as good on the field as Lindsay was in his three seasons here.

Michael Boone

However, the thing about Boone is that he also plays special teams. Boone is a player that Paton knows well since he helped sign the guy to the Minnesota Vikings as a college free agent.

“Mike Boone—I’ve been with Mike the last three years with the Vikings,” Paton said. “Mike Boone is a self-made man. Free agent out of Cincinnati. We signed him as a running back, obviously. He earned the team playing special teams. Four phases—played him four phases on special teams and he’s one of the top special teams players for the Vikings. He was playing behind [Vikings RB] Dalvin Cook, so he didn’t have a lot of opportunity, but when he did have the opportunity, he really produced. I think he’s going to help our room. He’s going to add some special teams to the offensive side of the ball, which we lack. I’m really excited to have Mike Boone here.”

The thing about Boone’s ability to play special teams is that the Broncos lost their most recent special teams ace Joe Jones in free agency. He remains unsigned, so there is a chance he comes back, but getting another solid special teamer helps fill some of those in that phase of the game.

I would rate this move as a positive for special teams, despite the negative impact we might see on the offensive side of the ball.

Justin Simmons

The Broncos franchise tagged Simmons before free agency and the word was they would not be able to get a deal done before free agency began, so Simmons wasn’t even really on our radar when news broke last week that they reached a long-term deal with him.

It was for some big money too. The four-year deal is worth $61 million and makes him the highest paid safety in the league. Simmons will be worth every penny as he owns the longest snap streak in the NFL and is a damn good safety too. And he would like to start winning again.

“Having the individual accolades is great, but this is a team effort, a team game,” Simmons said on Monday. “The past five years, being here and being a part of a couple losing seasons, it’s about time to be on the opposite side of that and start winning some football games. I think, for me, the challenge moving forward—obviously, there’s a lot of things I could do individually to get better, echoing what Coach Vic said. I don’t even think I’ve played, personally, my best ball. What I’m really looking forward to is finding a way for the team’s success. Individually, there are things that I can do to get myself better, but what can I do from a team aspect defensively? How can I push guys offensively? How can I make sure we’re competing to the highest level every day and making sure that we’re doing the things week in and week out? When it comes to it, we’re winning those close games instead of just being close. I think that’s where we’ve been the past couple years. I’m just excited because I know that kind of falls on my shoulders as a leader on this team and on the defense. I’m just excited for it. I’ve never been one to shy away from opportunity and this is a big one. I’m ready for it.”

This long-term deal is definitely a win for the defense and a win for the franchise as a whole.

Kyle Fuller

A move that no one expected was when news suddenly broke that the Chicago Bears were releasing cornerback Kyle Fuller and the Broncos were immediately reported to be very interested in signing him. And they did two days later.

The one-year deal is worth $9.5 million, which is a pittance if they end up getting the same Fuller that flourished under Vic Fangio when he ran the defense earlier in Fuller’s career. Fangio is clearly happy about this move.

“As you guys all know, we were together for four years in Chicago, and Kyle kept improving during the time that we were there,” Fangio explained. “Ultimately, the last year we were together there, he had a Pro Bowl season, where he was up there in interceptions, leading the league or close to it. He had a bunch of [passes defensed] that year. The combination of both led the league in 2018. He is a guy that will tackle and will hit from the corner position. We’re going to do everything we can to get Kyle back to that 2018 form. I know he’s excited to be here. He’s a really good person and he’s a good teammate which is good to have and good to add to your building. We’re excited to have him.”

A week ago, all of the talk in Denver was around cornerbacks and quarterbacks. Now, on paper at least, it looks like cornerbacks might be one of the stronger position groups. This is definitely a big win for the defensive side of the ball.

Broncos free agency grade

One theme that kept coming up as I was reviewing all of the major free agent moves the Broncos made last week is how defense-focused it was. The major loss (Jackson) could end up being a win with his return at a lower contract rate.

I didn’t even mention the second-round tenders the team put on inside linebacker Alexander Johnson and wide receiver Tim Patrick. This defense is looking like a Top 3 type unit if they can bring it all together next season.

That leaves the offensive side of the ball. The jury is out on Drew Lock. It’ll be a huge risk to run it back with him given he was ranked at or near the bottom in every meaningful category and with the loss of Phillip Lindsay there are definitely questions. I would almost expect offense to again be the focal point in the NFL Draft.

As for my grade for the Broncos first week of free agency, I’m going to go with a predictable ‘A’ here. Every move checks a box or just makes good business sense. How would you grade the Broncos in free agency so far?


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