With only nine days before the opening of free agency, it seemed like the right time to write a primer on what’s ahead for George Paton. With an injury-marred, 5-11 season in the rearview and Patrick Mahomes between them and the playoffs, the Broncos have their work cut out for them this off-season.
NFL Cap Situation
As I write this, we still don’t know the official cap ceiling, though I suspect that changes this week. We do know that the cap ceiling can not be lower than $180 million and that it’d be a significant decline from 2020’s $198.2 million.
Broncos’ Cap Situation
Following OvertheCap’s estimate, the Broncos currently have $30,690,841 in cap space. Keep in mind that if the cap ceiling changes, it will impact this number. What’s important to remember at the moment is where Denver is in relation to the rest of the NFL. As it stands, there are currently six teams with more cap space than George Paton.
Potential Cuts (cap savings):
- Von Miller (18M)
- Kareem Jackson (10M)
- Jeff Driskel (2.5M)
- Nick Vannett (2.68M)
Both Von Miller and Kareem Jackson have team options the Broncos must decide on before March 16th. If George Paton picks up the option for one or both, they will be under contract for the 2020 season. If he doesn’t, they’ll become unrestricted free agents. If this cut happens, they could sign with another team immediately instead of waiting for March 17th, which is what we recently saw with J.J. Watt after his release from the Texans.
This happens when a club converts a player’s base salary into a signing bonus. This is an accounting tool to push cap hits into the future. It’s important to note that it depends on extra years in a player’s contract, so the Broncos cannot actually restructure Von Miller or Kareem Jackson’s current deal, as both expire after the 2021 season. It is difficult to nail down specific cap savings on re-structures since it depends on the amount of money converted.
Potential restructure candidates:
- Graham Glasgow
- Brandon McManus
- Mike Purcell
With so many players on expiring contracts in 2021, most of the likely “restructures” will depend upon an extension. If extra years are not added to the contract, lowering a player’s cap hit this season is actually a pay cut.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
These players are hardly free agents. Players with fewer than three accrued seasons are at the mercy of their previous team when their contracts expire. If the Broncos offer them a league minimum deal, they cannot negotiate with any other teams. If Paton wishes, all three ERFAs will return for training camp:
- Diontae Spencer
- Calvin Anderson
- Trey Marshall
Restricted Free Agents
These are players who see their contracts expire with three accrued seasons tolled. RFAs can negotiate with any team, but their previous team can “tender” them a qualifying offer which essentially offers a right-of-first-refusal for the team. These tenders are typically associated with a draft round. If a team signs an RFA, they send the pick as compensation to the player’s former team.
For example: If the Broncos place a 1st round RFA tag on Phillip Lindsay and the San Francisco 49ers sign Lindsay to a new deal, the Broncos would receive a first round pick.
There are three tenders with an escalating pay scale. Keep in mind the contract number is an estimate that will change based on the salary cap ceiling.
The Broncos have seven RFAs this year:
- Alexander Johnson
- Tim Patrick
- Phillip Lindsay
- Jake Butt
- Austin Calitro
- Kevin Toliver II
- Josh Watson
Unrestricted Free Agents
These are the true free agents in every sense of the word. Their contracts have expired and they will join hundreds of others on an open market where they can choose their new team and city. The Broncos have 11 such players now that they’ve placed the franchise tag on Justin Simmons:
- Elijah Wilkinson
- Shelby Harris
- Demar Dotson
- Jeremiah Attaochu
- Will Parks
- DeMarcus Walker
- Sylvester Williams
- Anthony Chickillo
- Blake Bortles
- De’Vante Bausby
- Joseph Jones
So what do the Broncos need in free agency?
What follows is a ranked list of each position on the Broncos with the players currently under contract as well as potential free agents. I’ve gone on to share a few thoughts about each group. I’ve always tried to place each position in a “bucket” tier as to how I view the need. Obviously it’s going to be subjective, but my hope is that this helps to clarify the current state of each position group.
Tier 4: Competition for the sake of competition
Paton could bring players in for competition, but I doubt anyone beats out the incumbents. The Broncos probably won’t spend significant money in free agency on any of these four spots.
John Elway signed Martin to a three-year contract last off-season, so it would be a shock if Paton cut him. If he were to, the Broncos would have an additional $1,816,666 in cap space.
14. Long snapper
Bobenmoyer won a competition in training camp to become the Broncos long snapper in 2020. He has two years remaining on his current contract before he becomes a RFA. Barring some sort of meltdown, he’s not going anywhere.
McManus signed a four-year extension with the Broncos last September. Like the other two specialists, it would take some sort of disaster for this to become a need. If Paton cut McManus, it would create a $6 million dead cap hit.
During Paton’s time with the Vikings, they did commit a lot of resources to the fullback position and they have met with Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble, which suggests there could be another body added to this group.
After the Andy Janovich trade in 2020, it’s hard to imagine it would be a free agent, as the position is not a priority for the current coaching staff. Cox played 19 offensive snaps in 2020, Beck played 66. Given the way Pat Shurmur prefers three receiver and two tight end sets, it isn’t a pressing need. I would assume any player added could also play tight end in a pinch and would offer special teams value.
Tier 3: Depth never hurt anyone
One thing to keep in mind with the positions below this tier: Paton is building the Broncos for 2021 and beyond. So questions about 2022 will probably influence decisions this year.
11. Tight end
Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Nick Vannett, Austin Fort
If everything goes as hoped, Fant and Okwuegbunam will log just about every offensive snap available to tight ends over the next couple of seasons. Questions exist because Okwuegbunam and Fort suffered injuries in 2020 and Vannett’s contract is both movable and rather high for a third string tight end.
There is a possibility Paton moves on from Vannett and signs another veteran at a lower price. If there’s any doubt about Okwuegbunam’s return from an ACL tear, this could become a bigger priority.
Potential free agency targets: Kyle Rudolph, Josh Hill, Marcedes Lewis, Blake Bell, Richard Rodgers
10. Running back
Melvin Gordon, Royce Freeman, LaVante Bellamy, Damarea Crockett
Due to Gordon’s pending legal situation, there is some question about his status on the 2021 roster and I wrote about it here. If Lindsay is retained, it doesn’t look like the Broncos will pursue veteran talent, but it is worth noting that even if Gordon returns, he and Freeman have contracts set to expire after the 2021 season. So would Lindsay.
It also bears mentioning that the Vikings have only rarely spent big money on free agent running backs during Paton’s time in Minnesota.
Potential free agency targets: Phillip Lindsay, Mike Davis, Jerick McKinnon, Ameer Abdullah, Jamaal Williams
9. Wide receiver
Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, DaeSean Hamilton, Kendall Hinton, Trinity Benson
Sutton’s recovery from injury and Tim Patrick’s contract status will determine the attention Paton gives this group in free agency. It may seem crazy because Jeudy and Hamler were drafted so high last year, but the fact that Sutton, Patrick, and Hamilton are set to become unrestricted free agents after the season could impact the Broncos’ draft strategy.
We know the Broncos have spoken with Purdue’s Rondale Moore and BYU’s Dax Milne. Receiver is a position the Vikings devoted a ton of resources to in both free agency and the draft during Paton’s time in Minnesota.
Potential free agency targets: Tim Patrick, Diontae Spencer, Chad Beebe, Byron Pringle
8. Offensive tackle
Garett Bolles, Ja’Wuan James, Quinn Bailey
This is sure to cause some debate in Broncos Country, as James has played all of 65 snaps in orange and blue since he signed a four-year, $51 million contract in 2019. It makes little financial sense for the Broncos to cut James now, as doing so would create a $19 million dead cap hit and save just $6 million in 2021. Still, questions about him create a need to address the tackle position.
It is entirely possible the Broncos pursue a swing tackle in free agency and look to acquire an heir apparent in the draft. The Draft Network’s Justin Melo has reported the Broncos have spoken with Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, a projected first rounder.
Potential free agency targets: Elijah Wilkinson, Calvin Anderson, Demar Dotson, Darrin Paulo, Ty Nsekhe, Cameron Erving, Mike Remmers, Jason Spriggs, Yosh Nijiman
7. Interior offensive line
Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Netane Muti, Patrick Morris
This group is hard to place because so much depends on where the coaching staff and front office land on Cushenberry and Muti’s rookie seasons. The Broncos’ 3rd round pick in 2020 is the only offensive lineman to play every snap last season, all 1076 in total. Cush was also quite rough, so much so that it hurt the performance of those around him. Muti shows flashes of promise when given the opportunity, but he’s also a former 6th round pick with a significant injury history so Paton could prefer veteran insurance.
Potential free agency targets: Elijah Wilkinson, Austin Schlottmann, Brian Winters, Forrest Lamp, B.J. Finney, Ben Garland, Brett Jones
Tier 2: Needs attention
The following position groups could demand attention as Paton looks to put his stamp on the roster. There’s potential room for improvement or looming questions when you look at 2022.
Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, Derrek Tuszka
If the Broncos pick up Von Miller’s team option for the 2021 season, Paton probably isn’t throwing a whole lot of money at this position in free agency. If Miller is retained for 2021 but his current contract is not extended, there remains a decent chance another edge is added in the draft, as 2022 brings with it plenty of questions. A decision looms on Chubb’s fifth year option, while Reed is set to become an RFA after the year. Tuszka played 27 defensive snaps last season.
If the Broncos elect to terminate Miller’s contract, just about every avenue is open. Paton and Fangio may elect to go with Chubb and Reed as 2021 starters and bolster the depth behind them or the front office could look to replace Miller in free agency or the draft. The uncertainty has lead Mile High Report’s staff to dig into a number of potential options over the last month.
Potential free agency targets: Haason Reddick, Leonard Floyd, Yannick Ngakoue, Matthew Judon, Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree, Shaq Barrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Ryan Kerrigan, Kyler Fackrell, Aldon Smith, Ryan Anderson, Kamu Grugier-Hill
Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Chris Cooper, P.J. Locke
Now that the Broncos have placed a franchise tag on Simmons for the second consecutive year, it appears likely he’ll suit up in orange and blue in 2021. Jackson’s status is an open question that remains unanswered. When I heard Paton talk about the 33-year-old at his press conference last week, I got the impression a pay cut or “restructure” is looming:
“I’ve spoken with Kareem and I’ve spoken with his agent Jason Chayut. We have to work through some things, but we’ve had positive conversations. We would like Kareem back. He’s a good football player and a good leader. We’ll see if we can do that.”
If the Broncos hold onto Jackson, Paton could still decide to draft an heir apparent in April. If Jackson is cut, the Broncos will have a glaring need on the third level barring faith in the unproven backups on the roster, so I would expect a veteran addition.
Josey Jewell, Justin Strnad, Patrick Natrez
If Paton retains Alexander Johnson on his RFA tag, there is a possibility the Broncos are comfortable with the projected starters going into 2021. Jewell played better than hoped and Strnad generated buzz in camp before going down with a season ending injury for the second consecutive year.
If Johnson isn’t retained, this becomes a big need. It is necessary to mention that even if Johnson is retained, both he and Jewell would have contracts set to expire after the 2021 season. Every option is possible here, be it free agency or the draft, where we’ve already seen reports linking Denver to Tulsa’s Zaven Collins.
3. Defensive Line
Mike Purcell, Dre’Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim, DeShawn Williams, Deyon Sizer, Isaiah Mack
Jurrell Casey, Shelby Harris, and DeMarcus Walker aren’t on the roster, leaving behind a combined 981 defensive snaps. While Paton mentioned a desire to bring back Harris, an extension has yet to occur, so it looks like the 29-year-old will test the market.
If the Broncos do lose Harris to free agency, there’s a number of routes they could take because of the current roster. As of today, the majority of those snaps would probably fall upon Purcell and Agim. The veteran nose tackle saw his 2020 come to an end because of a foot injury, while the former 3rd round pick logged 141 snaps as a rookie.
Potential free agency targets: Shelby Harris, DeMarcus Walker, Dalvin Tomlinson, Roy Robertson-Harris, Ndamukong Suh, Henry Anderson, Soloman Thomas, Allen Bailey, Johnathan Hankins, Mike Daniels, Margus Hunt, Joel Heath
Tier 1: Glaring need
What Paton does at these two positions will define the start of his tenure as general manager.
Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, Essang Bassey, Duke Dawson, Nate Hairston, Parnell Motley
Let’s just say there’s a reason you’re seeing Caleb Farley and Patrick Surtain land at nine in most mock drafts. 10 different cornerbacks logged snaps last year because of a slew of injuries and Paton has already released 2020 CB1 A.J. Bouye.
Callahan has never played in a full 16-game season in his career and will turn 30 during the last year of his current contract. Both Ojemudia and Bassey were benched at one point or another during the 2020 season. One has to hope they improve, but it’s hardly guaranteed. Bassey and Dawson also tore ACLs in December.
I would expect this position to receive a ton of attention and possibly both veteran and rookie additions. During Paton’s time in Minnesota, the Vikings devoted a ton of resources to it in both free agency and the draft. The Broncos have already been linked to Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II.
Potential free agency targets: William Jackson, Bashaud Breeland, Xavier Rhodes, Mike Hilton, K’Waun Williams, Chidobe Awuzie, Patrick Peterson, Troy Hill, Cameron Sutton, Jason Verrett, Desmond Trufant, Brian Poole, Mackensie Alexander, Michael Davis
Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien
We already know the 2019 2nd rounder was offered in a trade for Matthew Stafford, so anything seems possible at the moment. If the Broncos elect to run it back with their 3rd year passer, there is a strong possibility depth is added to both protect against an issue with performance and/or injury. Lock has missed time in each of his two seasons in the NFL and Jeff Driskel was as disappointing as I expected before he played a snap. I do not expect the Broncos to view Rypien as their QB2.
Potential free agency targets: Dak Prescott, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Alex Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Jacoby Brissett, Mitch Trubisky, A.J. McCarron, Colt McCoy, Mike Glennon, Blaine Gabbert, Jameis Winston, C.J. Beathard