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Early look at the 2022 Broncos’ biggest needs

What should Paton and his staff spend their time on this college season?

Roster building is a never-ending process. As soon as a 53-man roster is set, any general manager worth their salt is assessing it to see what questions remain and how those issues can be addressed. This is why I expect us to see the Broncos constantly tinker with the last few spots on their 2021 roster throughout the year. With Mike Boone and three corners set to return from injury at some point during the season, there will need to be some tinkering.

Of course, there’s always questions George Paton won’t be able to address until the next offseason. Some of this is by design while other problems may crop up over the 17+ game campaign ahead. A good GM isn’t caught by surprise, and so I’m willing to bet the Broncos staff is already working on what to keep an eye on for this upcoming draft. It’s time the rest of us catch up.

With college football’s return and a week before the Broncos begin their pursuit of the Lombardi trophy, now is the perfect time to dive into what is needed on this side of the 2021 season.

6. Wide Receiver

Currently the envy of the NFL, this position of strength doesn’t look like it will last long. Three of the Broncos’ five receivers are playing on expiring contracts in 2021, and it looks unlikely that both Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick will return to Denver next year. Diontae Spencer is also set to become a free agent following the season.

I suspect that whoever receives an offer from Paton depends in large on Sutton’s return from a torn ACL that limited him to 31 snaps in 2020 as well as the market for his services. Keep in mind that back in 2019, Sutton looked like he was headed towards a contract that averaged something like $20 million a season. The last two drafts have looked very strong at wide receiver, a trend that looks set to continue, and with Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler entering the second season of their rookie contracts, the Broncos’ general manager may be reluctant to pay premium for a pass catcher.

5. Off Ball Linebacker

Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson are playing out the last year of their respective contracts. While both have overperformed their limitations in the Fangio defense, neither is the kind of top tier athlete Paton seems to prefer at the position. The offers they receive in free agency as well as Denver’s coaching situation probably play a huge factor in their 2022 status with the Broncos.

It’s worth noting that there remains a distinct possibility this position could be solved in house. We’ve yet to see Justin Strnad, Baron Browning, or Jonas Griffith log a regular season snap in the NFL. I am optimistic about Browning’s future, and Strnad showed hints that he could become a solid coverage backer in the preseason. With bigger needs further down this list, Paton may elect to give this young group an extended run next year.

4. Defensive back

It may seem hard to believe that George Paton could spend more resources on DBs. After all, there’s technically 14 on the current roster, and the Broncos signed Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby before Paton drafted his franchise corner. Still, Denver’s secondary is littered with long-term questions.

As I write this, there’s three expiring contracts among the Broncos’ starting DBs: Fuller, Bryce Callahan, and Kareem Jackson. Both Fuller and Callahan have been part of ongoing trade discussions this preseason while Jackson will turn 34 in April.

The one thing helping this group is that Paton has already devoted a ton of time and energy to them. If the preseason is any sort of hint, Patrick Surtain II is going to be very good very quickly, rookie Caden Sterns may yet emerge as a future starter, and Justin Simmons remains one of the very best safeties in football. If all three of these things prove true, the big questions about the secondary linger around Michael Ojemudia and the need to groom a starting nickel corner to replace Callahan.

3. Edge

We may be watching the end of the Von Miller era. The Broncos considered turning down his team option last March before Leonard Floyd signed a $64 million extension from the Los Angeles Rams, and the soon-to-be 33-year-old Miller looks unlikely to receive a substantial offer from Paton next spring. I expect us to see a lot of talk about how Von could return if he takes a pay cut as the public relations staff try to get ahead of the fact he won’t receive a fair market deal from the only NFL team he’s ever known.

While it could prove impossible to replace the type of pass rusher Von’s been for the last decade, the Broncos may be equipped to weather the storm. Bradley Chubb is a formidable pass rusher in his own right when he’s healthy, and Malik Reed led the team in sacks a season ago. Both should return in 2022 as Chubb’s set to play on his fifth year option while Reed is a Restricted Free Agent. The Broncos have also rostered rookies Jonathon Cooper and Andre Mintze this year, and both youngsters flashed the kind of promise to potentially grow into Reed’s role down the road.

2. Right Tackle

There’s been concerns about this spot dating back to the days Peyton Manning was calling audibles. After Ja’Wuan James’ injury, Paton signed the 32-year-old Bobby Massie and 29-year-old Cameron Fleming to one-year contracts, and while Massie looks set to start the season, Fleming has been a massive disappointment.

If you see Calvin Anderson as the long-term answer across from Garett Bolles, you may take issue with this ranking. He’s shown notable improvement in the preseason, though I’d like to see him become more patient in his sets. I’m curious to see where Paton lands on his potential, as the 2019 undrafted free agent is playing on an expiring contract.

1. Quarterback

How will George Paton address the most important position in sports? During his first offseason we watched the Broncos display interest in Matthew Stafford, Sam Darnold, Andy Dalton, Deshaun Watson, and Aaron Rodgers. They wound up trading a sixth round draft pick to acquire Teddy Bridgewater.

While we’ve seen reports from Peter King that suggests Paton wanted to “do right” by Drew Lock, I have it on good authority the Broncos would have drafted Trey Lance if he was available at ninth overall. They considered Mac Jones and Justin Fields for QB4 and QB5 in the 2021 draft class, which is the real reason Paton took Patrick Surtain over either quarterback. There were significant concerns about Fields’ ability to process and read the field. Only time will tell if the first year general manager had it right.

All of this brings us back to where the Broncos currently find themselves. Odds are neither Bridgewater or Lock solve the QB conundrum for the long-term. Bridgewater has a contract that expires after the season and could price himself out of Paton’s pay scale if he lights it up this year. Lock has one year remaining on his rookie contract, which may be enough to give him a chance to serve as the veteran bridge in 2022.

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