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How would you grade George Paton’s first season as the Broncos GM?

Did the new GM set the table to “win from now on?”

NFL: Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos hired George Paton to serve as their general manager one year ago today, which makes it the perfect opportunity to take a look at the major moves and decisions made since. Admittedly, I am cautiously optimistic about Paton going forward. With that said, my hope is to provide an objective review of the major transactions the Broncos GM made in his first season. What follows is a move by move review in the order that they happened, as I believe this provides a better picture as to how the year played out.

At various points I’ve provided links to past film studies I did on players as well as reports of the moves themselves. All contract numbers are via OvertheCap, unless otherwise noted charting numbers are via Pro Football Reference or Sports Info Solutions, and DVOA metrics are per Football Outsiders.

Without further adieu:

February, 2021

Released CB A.J. Bouye.

Released DL Jurrell Casey.

Two big trade acquisitions John Elway made during the 2020 offseason who failed to live up to expectations during their one season in Denver.

A five-time Pro Bowler when he was acquired from the Tennessee Titans for a seventh round pick, and I wondered if he had a lingering injury concern when I studied his film. Casey only played 90 snaps because of a September injury, and finished his season with four pressures and zero sacks.

After reviewing the film, I came away from Bouye’s 2019 tape believing it was a worthwhile gamble on a corner who may have begun to decline. Bouye played in seven games due to a combination of injury and PED suspension after he was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fourth round pick. Releasing the veterans created $25.09 million in cap space without a dollar in dead money.

March, 2021

Re-signed DL Shelby Harris on three-year, $27 million contract with $15 fully guaranteed.

Signed CB Ronald Darby to three-year deal worth $30M with $19.5M fully guaranteed.

Declined S Kareem Jackson’s team option, re-sign him on one-year deal worth $5 million.

Signed RB Mike Boone to a two-year, $3.85 million contract with $2.6 million guaranteed.

Paton used the first wave of his first free agency to bolster his defense and acquire a backup running back who could help on special teams.

The decision to bring back Harris came after the veteran posted his second consecutive 20+ pressure season in Fangio’s defense, and his contract was structured to coincide with the end of 2020 third round pick McTelvin Agim’s rookie contract. Harris dealt with an ankle injury for the later part of the year and did have more trouble against the run than the previous two seasons under Fangio, but still played in 56% of the Broncos’ defensive snaps this season and finished the year with five sacks and 24 pressures. Harris will count for $11 million against the 2022 cap.

Darby joined the Broncos after a one-year stint with the Washington Football Team where he played a full 16+ game schedule for the first time in his career and ended the season without a single interception. After studying his 2020 season, I came to the conclusion that Darby would be a good addition when healthy. Darby played in 11 games this season and finished with zero interceptions. He broke up six passes and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59.4% of their passes in his direction, including three for touchdowns. Darby will count for $13 million against the 2022 cap.

The Broncos declined Jackson’s team option after he finished the 2020 season with 90 tackles and three pass breakups. They re-signed him about a week later. The moves cost the Broncos $2,882,353 in dead money, but freed up $10 million in cap space. The 33-year-old finished this season with 88 tackles and two pass breakups. Jackson is credited with allowing two touchdowns in each season.

Paton signed just one offensive player during free agency, and said the decision to add Boone had as much to do with what he could contribute on special teams during his press conference on March 18th. Boone was active for eight games this season, and played 73 special teams snaps. He finished the season with four carries for 35 yards and two receptions for 22 yards after logging 25 offensive snaps. He will count for $2.05 million against the 2022 cap.

“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 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.”

Franchise tagged and extended S Justin Simmons on four-year contract, $61 million contract with 32.1 fully guaranteed.

The Broncos placed a second franchise tag on Simmons before the sides came to an agreement on March 19th. Simmons was an All Pro in 2019 and a Pro Bowler in 2020, and the extension paid him like one. He broke up nine passes and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 52.8% of their passes in his direction, but did not allow a single touchdown. He finished the season with five interceptions, and could have had three more. He will count for $18,850,000 against the 2022 cap.

Signed CB Kyle Fuller to a one-year, $9.5 million contract with $9 million fully guaranteed.

The Broncos signed Fuller less than an hour after he was released from the Chicago Bears, reuniting the 2018 All Pro with his former defensive coordinator. The Broncos received calls for the 29-year-old at the trade deadline but didn’t move him. While his charting numbers between 2020 and 2021 are very similar, he 340 less snaps. In October he lost his job as the left boundary corner following the Broncos’ week five loss to the Raiders and played a combined four snaps in the next three games before he took over the nickel spot against the Dallas Cowboys.

Released TE Nick Vannett.

In late March Paton released another one of Elway’s 2020 signings and created $2,678,125 in cap space. A blocking tight end who played in 15 games and caught 14 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown with the Broncos, Vannett signed a three-year, $8 million with the New Orleans Saints. The 28-year-old played in seven games for the Saints this year and finished the season with nine receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown. He’s set to count for $3.3 million against the Saints’ 2022 cap.

April, 2021

Signed DL Shamar Stephen to one-year, $2 million contract

The veteran defensive tackle played 662 defensive snaps for a 2020 Vikings unit that finished with the worst run defense in football by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. He settled in as a member of the defensive line rotation in Denver, notching six pressures across his 393 defensive snaps. The Broncos finished this season 24th in Adjusted Line Yards.

Traded a 6th round pick to the Carolina Panthers for QB Teddy Bridgewater

The Broncos acquired a starting quarterback the day before the 2021 NFL Draft.

Trading for Bridgewater gave the Broncos’ a veteran quarterback to compete for the starting quarterback job with incumbent Drew Lock. The deal served as a reunion for Paton, who was the assistant general manager in Minnesota when the Vikings traded back into the first round to draft Bridgewater out of Louisville in 2014.

During his one season in Carolina Bridgewater completed 69.1% of his passes for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. With Bridgewater starting 15 games the Panthers finished the 2020 season 17th in offensive DVOA. After winning the starting job during the preseason, Bridgewater started 14 games for the Broncos in 2021. He completed 66.9% of his passes for 3,052 yards, 18 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He was placed on Injured Reserve after suffering his second concussion of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals. Denver finished the season 12th in offensive DVOA, but according to the metric two of their three worst games of the year came after Bridgewater’s injury.

As a part of the trade, Bridgewater agreed to revise his contract, which turned the remainder of the quarterback’s previous $63-million contract into a one year deal worth $10 million. The Carolina Panthers agreed to pay the $7 million signing bonus during the trade, and the Broncos picked up the remaining $4.5 million salary. Bridgewater counted for $17.06 million against the Panthers 2021 cap as part of the transaction.

The 2021 NFL Draft

1. Patrick Surtain II - CB

2. Javonte Williams - RB

3a. Quinn Meinerz - iOL

3b. Baron Browning - LB

5a. Caden Sterns - S

5b. Jamar Johnson - S

6. Seth Williams - WR

7a. Kary Vincent Jr. - DB

7b. Jonathon Cooper - ED

7c. Marquiss Spencer - DL

Nine of the Broncos’ 10 draft picks logged at least one regular season snap of playing time during their rookie season, with Vincent Jr. being the lone exception.

Surtain II turned heads throughout his rookie season and looks like a future All Pro. He scored on an interception return in his first preseason game, played in every game but the season finale, and became the starting left corner after Fuller was benched. He broke up 12 passes, intercepted four more, and opposing quarterbacks completed 51.9% of their passes in his direction. He did drop one interception and allowed three touchdowns while in coverage. The Broncos’ pass defense was the best in football against passes to the right, where Surtain typically lined up.

Williams split running back duties with Melvin Gordon all season and finished the year with 1,219 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. Williams’ elite contact balance stood out through most of the campaign, and by Pro Football Focus charting he forced 63 missed tackles, the second best mark by any back since 2006. Through the first 14 games of the season he averaged almost 4.8 yards per carry. While he played in every game during his rookie season, his numbers took a rather drastic dip across the final three games: 33 carries for 88 yards and a touchdown, five receptions for 28 yards.

The day after he was drafted Paton admitted that Meinerz performance in the Reese’s Senior Bowl helped him rise up the Broncos’ draft boards. He began his career as a reserve along the interior offensive line and split time between center and guard in the preseason. He found playing time when right guard Graham Glasgow missed time and finished his rookie season with nine starts under his belt, including the final eight games. The rookies play strength stood out as a run blocker. He’s been credited with 13 blown blocks on the year.

“I think he raised up everyone’s draft board because there were a lot of unknowns about him. When you see him in one-on-one drills blocking guys that are first-and second-round picks, it was pretty amazing. You don’t see that very often. The more you dig into the person, the player, Whitewater, and where he came from, I think that he rose on everyone’s draft boards.”

Browning missed most of the Broncos’ OTAs and training camp with a knee injury and didn’t see a snap of playing time on defense until week eight, but finished the season with nine starts. He finished the year with more than 50 tackles and looked like a future asset in pass coverage. While he started at inside linebacker for Fangio, there remains a possibility he will be moved to outside linebacker going forward.

The Broncos’ fifth round safeties had vastly different rookie seasons. Sterns earned rave reviews in training camp and the preseason and carved out a role in dime personnel by the second week of the season. Due to Jackson missing time with injury, he made two starts and looked like he belonged. Johnson missed time on the Covid-19 list in training camp and never seemed to find his footing. He was inactive for most of the campaign and only logged 38 special team snaps at the end of the season.

Three of Paton’s late round picks look like they remain in the Broncos’ plans. After a quiet start, Cooper had some very promising moments in the edge rotation following the Von Miller trade and looks like he’ll be a good role player moving forward. Due to Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy missing time, Williams started the Broncos’ second game against the Los Angeles Chargers and caught his one target for 34-yards. Spencer also played 21 snaps in week 17 and looks set to compete for snaps in the defensive line rotation in year two.

Signed college free agents shortly after the draft

TE Shaun Beyer

ILB David Curry

WR DeVontres Dukes

T Drew Himmelman

WR Warren Jackson

G Nolan Laufenberg

WR Branden Mack

CB Mac McCain III

OLB Andre Mintze

FB Adam Prentice

ILB Curtis Robinson.

Three members of Paton’s first batch of undrafted rookie free agents look like they remain a factor in the plans for 2022. Beyer and Himmelman signed future’s contracts earlier this week and look set to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster next year. Andre Mintze made the Broncos’ roster out of camp but landed on Injured Reserve in October because of a hamstring injury. He finished his rookie year with 133 total snaps, generating one pressure on 32 pass rush snaps.

May, 2021

Released QB Jeff Driskel

Signed TE Eric Saubert to a one-year contract worth $990,000.

Placed T Ja’Wuan James on Reserve/NFI list before releasing him.

Signed Bobby Massie to a one-year contract worth $4 million.

Signed Cameron Fleming to a one-year contract worth $1.395 million.

May was right tackle month in Broncos Country. James’ injury led to Massie and Fleming’s signings.

On the Monday following the NFL Draft Driskel was released and Saubert was signed. The quarterback was one of Elway’s 2020 signings who made starts against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in place of the injured Drew Lock. He signed with the Houston Texans, made a position change to tight end, and suffered a season-ending injury in December. Saubert made the Broncos’ roster as the third tight end and finished the season with eight receptions for 47-yards and his first NFL touchdown.

Presumably the starting right tackle despite playing in just 65 snaps across his first two seasons with the Broncos, James suffered a torn Achille less than a week after the Paton elected to bypass the 2021 tackle class in the NFL draft. Because the injury happened while James was working out away from the team’s facilities, the Broncos released James with the intent to void his $10 million guaranteed salary.

Days after James was injured Paton signed Massie and Fleming. While I believed there could be a close competition when I studied the tackles in June, Massie seemed to take control of the starting job in OTAs and never relinquished it. The 32-year-old former Bear played in 13 games and finished the season 19 blown blocks. The 29-year-old Fleming played in his place in the remaining four games, and had eight blown blocks.

August, 2021

Traded Trinity Benson and a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Detroit Lions for a fifth and seventh round pick in 2022.

Traded a 2022 sixth-round pick and 2023 seventh-round pick to San Francisco 49ers for linebacker Jonas Griffith.

Paton made two moved leading up to the cutdown deadline, essentially swapping out a promising wide receiver for a special teams linebacker.

Benson made a number of plays in training camp and the preseason, including a touchdown in the Broncos’ preseason opener. He looked like a lock for the final roster, but questions about how he’d help special teams and the crowded wide receiver room led Paton to trading him. He played in eight games for the Lions and finished the season with 10 receptions for 103 yards.

Griffith became an immediate contributor to the Broncos’ special teams, but landed on Injured Reserve at the end of September with a hamstring injury. After he was activated off I.R. the day before Halloween, Griffith resumed his role on the coverage units and eventually found his way into the starting lineup after Kenny Young’s concussion against the Lions. He was the Broncos’ eighth off ball linebacker to see playing time on defense in 2021, and showed promise. Griffith is an exclusive rights free agent this offseason.

Initial practice squad

WR Tyrie Cleveland

WR Seth Williams

WR Kendall Hinton

T Drew Himmelman

T Quinn Bailey

TE Shaun Beyer

G/C Austin Schlottmann

QB Brett Rypien

RB Damarea Crockett

DL Marquiss Spencer

CB Nate Hairston

LB Barrington Wade

LB Curtis Robinson

CB Mac McCain III

What stands out most about Paton’s first practice squad is how many players wound up contributing, as every player but McCain wound up playing at least one snap. Hinton, Hairston, and Rypien were all promoted to the active roster during the year. Bailey earned a gameball for his performance against Joey Bosa in the Broncos’ first game against the Chargers. Crockett was signed to a futures contract after he served as the Broncos fourth back in 2021, logging 187 snaps.

September, 2021

Claimed DB Mike Ford off waivers from the Detroit Lions

Claimed RB Nate McCrary off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. McCreary was waived

Signed OLB Aaron Patrick to the active roster from Jacksonville’s Jaguars practice squad.

Signed QB Brett Rypien to the active roster from Broncos’ practice squad

Signed WR David Moore to active roster from Las Vegas Raiders practice squad

Shoring up depth amidst injuries marked the beginning of the regular season.

Ford was acquired to serve as a special teams ace after playing 467 special teams snaps the first three seasons of his career. He played in 13 games, logging 240 special teams snaps and never played less than 60% of the ST snaps in a game he was active for. McCreary was signed to replace the waived Royce Freeman, who would go on to play 293 snaps for the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans. McCreary didn’t suit up for the Broncos and was released before the end of the month.

Moore was signed off the Raiders practice squad to help fill the void left by injuries to K.J. Hamler and Jerry Jeudy. He played 23 snaps for the Broncos, earned two targets, and didn’t haul either in. He was cut in November and signed with the Green Bay Packers, where he played in one game as a punt returner.

October, 2021

Signed WR John Brown to the practice squad.

Traded 2022 seventh-round pick to Minnesota Vikings for Stephen Weatherly and 2023 seventh-round pick

Traded a 2024 6th-round pick to Los Angeles Rams for Kenny Young and 2024 7th-round pick

Brown was brought in to help fill the remaining void left over by injuries to Hamler and Jeudy. He played in two games before he was released on the 26th, and finished his Broncos’ career with 19 offensive snaps, one target, and no receptions. Following his release the Jacksonville Jaguars signed him, and he played in two games but did not haul in a reception.

Paton traded for Weatherly after Denver’s 17-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns where Von Miller suffered an ankle injury. The 2016 seventh round pick took a paycut before the beginning of the regular season to remain with the Vikings but still wound up in Denver. The Broncos paid him $916,667 for 11 weeks, and during that time he played 307 snaps in a rotational role and notched 14 pressures, including two and a half sacks.

Like Weatherly, Young was acquired shortly after Denver’s loss to the Browns. The former Ram had begun to lose playing time in L.A., but he became a starter less than a week later against the Washington Football Team and started every game until a concussion ended his season in week 14. He gave Fangio an adequate run and chase linebacker with the athleticism to survive in space.

November, 2021

Traded Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2022 second and third round pick

Released WR David Moore

Paton traded Miller to the Rams one day before the NFL trade deadline, and the Broncos paid $9 million of Miller’s $9.7 million salary for 2021. The move came days after Miller was injured in the 17-14 loss to the Browns. He notched four and a half sacks during his last season in Denver, and finished the year fourth on the Broncos in pressures with 21, despite playing in just seven games. Since his move to L.A. Miller’s created an addition 19 pressures to go with his three sacks.

January, 2022

Fired Vic Fangio

Re-worked Graham Glasgow’s contract

The decision to fire Fangio came after the he finished the 2021 season 7-10 despite playing the fourth easiest schedule in the NFL. He will end his tenure with the most losses through three seasons of any head coach in franchise history. Terminating Fangio opened the door for Paton to seek out and hire his own head coach, and the Broncos are now in the process of interviewing 10 candidates.

Elway’s last premier free agent signing from the 2020 offseason, Glasgow re-worked his four-year, $44 million contract to return to the Broncos in 2021, reducing his $8.4 million dollar salary to $3.1 million dollars. The new deal is laden with incentives tied to playing time after he missed 10 games in 2021, and he has the opportunity to make $1.4 million back if he plays 90% of the offensive snaps.

Poll

What grade do you give Paton’s first year as GM?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    A+ - couldn’t do better if he wanted to.
    (301 votes)
  • 48%
    A - I can’t complain.
    (1111 votes)
  • 28%
    B - It was pretty good.
    (648 votes)
  • 7%
    C - Some good, some bad.
    (160 votes)
  • 1%
    D - I got beef.
    (41 votes)
  • 0%
    F - Paton was a bad hire.
    (14 votes)
2275 votes total Vote Now