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Broncos Free Agency Primer: Who should they keep and let go of?

After a pretty tough season, the Broncos will be faced with some tough free agency decisions. Who should they keep around?

Chargers Broncos at SoFi Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The end of the Denver Broncos season is upon us, and an offseason of change is upon us. The Broncos will have plenty of questions for GM George Paton to answer. The one I want to answer in this article is: which free agents should the Broncos bring back? The team took care of some important ones through dealing Von Miller and extending wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, but there are still some notable names to keep an eye on as well.

Per overthecap, these are the Broncos’ pending free agents in 2022:

I’ll be going over each one, talking about their 2021 impact and potential impact in the future, and whether or not the team should bring them back. I’ll be sorting them by UFA, RFA, ERFA, and then SFA for easier navigation.

For definitions of what each type of free agent is, here’s a very helpful link to Over The Cap and their breakdown of each.

Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)

QB Teddy Bridgewater

For the most part, Teddy Bridgewater has been fine at quarterback. There have been better and there have been worse this season. He’s been good enough for the Broncos to win with at quarterback. There are a lot of detailed aspects of his game that don’t necessarily translate to the numbers like his ability in the pocket, and Bridgewater has been a solid player. There are plenty of hot takes out there about him, but it’s hard to deny he’s been the Broncos’ best QB since Manning.

This one might stir up some controversy, but if the Broncos can’t get their quarterback situation sorted out, why not? You could do a lot worse than Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, and he’s obviously well-received and liked in the Broncos locker room. With an offensive coordinator that might know what he’s doing, the efficiency numbers for Bridgewater ought to be good enough to put Denver in the playoffs. It’s not the popular answer and I get it, but Teddy is a perfectly fine bridge option. We’re now apparently all agreeing that the problem was Shurmur (funny how throwing short of the sticks is now a Shurmur problem after Lock did it repeatedly). If the Broncos are looking for a bridge to get them to the 2023 draft class of much better quarterbacks or a mentor to one they draft in the 2022 draft, Teddy being back on a franchise tag or a similar short-term deal is a fine option.

RB Melvin Gordon

Melvin Gordon has been fantastic this season for the Broncos. Playing as the RB1, he’s been reliable and efficient as a runner and has been an excellent mentor for Javonte Williams. Gordon processes much better due to his experience, and there were many runs where he’d squeeze an extra yard or more because of that. The negative attention given to him by many people (many of whom coincidentally had Javonte Williams on their fantasy team) was a bit unfair, as it was evident on film why he was so involved.

The problem comes from the overall value of his position. Gordon is an older back, and the Broncos have his replacement ready behind him. Paying running backs that aren’t elite just doesn’t happen a ton these days-especially if the Broncos are preserving cap space for an expensive QB. However, the Broncos are in a little bit of a pickle if Javonte Williams’s processing on zone runs doesn’t improve if they don’t pay Gordon. If it were up to me, I’d probably let Gordon walk and draft a zone runner.

CB Kyle Fuller

Kyle Fuller had high expectations coming into the season. Re-uniting with Fangio in an already very deep Broncos secondary provided plenty of enthusiasm over the summer. Unfortunately, that’s never really culminated in much for Denver this season, especially after a rough start to the season. Many people suggested the Broncos should have traded Kyle Fuller. Patrick Surtain II took his job at LCB and bumped Fuller to the slot while Bryce Callahan was hurt. He held up better there (outside of a rough outing against the Week 12 game vs the Chargers and Keenan Allen), and helped the Broncos’ defense solidify after midseason. Unfortunately, when Surtain, Darby, and Callahan were all active for Weeks 15 and 16, Fuller barely saw any snaps.

There are some good plays on Fuller’s film from this season. Unfortunately, I don’t think there were enough to justify extending him. With Surtain and Darby playing well outside and Callahan and Hairston playing well inside (more on them later), there doesn’t really seem to be enough spots available. With a potential Fangio departure as well, there aren’t any justifications for a contract extension.

CB Bryce Callahan

Bryce Callahan has had an up-and-down 2021. He’s established a reputation as one of the best slot corners in the NFL, and that’s well-deserved over his career. In the first eight games of the season, he allowed 15 receptions for 204 yards and a single TD on 26 targets. He recorded 4 PBUs in that time span as well. Unfortunately, Callahan was hurt with a knee injury and missed some critical games in the middle of the season (out from Week 9 to Week 15). Since returning from injury, he’s played at a similar level. He missed the Week 17 game against the Chargers on the COVID list but was taken off on Wednesday and should be able to play in Week 18.

Bryce Callahan has been one of the better nickel corners in the game, there’s no denying that. However, the Broncos are in a bind with a potential contract extension. First, Callahan is on the wrong side of 30. Obviously, he’s still playing well, but age does play a role in these extensions. The bigger problem lies in his durability. He’s not played a full 16 games in the NFL once. He missed the entire 2019 season with injury as well in Denver. He’s coming off of his worst season by pretty much any metric in 2021. These are problematic for a long-term extension. If it were up to me, I’d extend Callahan for something along the lines of a two-year incentive-driven deal but I’d be looking to draft a long-term answer in the 2022 draft.

S Kareem Jackson

Kareem Jackson has been an important player for Denver for the last few years. He’s a vital glue piece working in tandem with Justin Simmons. Together, they’re one of the best safety duos in the NFL. He’s an experienced player who has no problems filling any role the Broncos have asked of him, filling in the box, deep, in the slot, or even outside at corner a few times. He’s an important locker room player, being named as a team captain in 2021. He’s enjoyed a decorated career in Houston and Denver.

I’d imagine that his time in Denver is coming to a close. For one, he’s showing his age more. There’s still some good play in him, but Jackson is soon to be 34-years old. That’s obviously problematic for a long-term deal. George Paton declined to pick up his option last season already, so there’s precedence on this happening. After the flashes of what we’ve seen from Caden Sterns already, who George Paton drafted, and the depth in the safety room, I’d be a little surprised to see him back. He’s been a great player, but I’d probably pass on an extension.

LB Alexander Johnson

The Broncos face a tough question with the fates of Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell moving forward. Johnson is one of the better run-defending linebackers in the NFL, but has had his share of struggles in coverage. In just 6 games this season, Johnson accumulated 17 stops, which is 6 more than Baron Browning has recorded. He flies around the field with range and is certainly the more athletic between himself and Josey Jewell.

It’s a tricky spot for the Broncos, with Johnson coming off a torn pectoral muscle. He got a late start to his NFL career after a complicated backstory, so he’s only played in about 38 games, which suggests there’s not a lot of wear and tear on him. On the other hand, he’s 30 years old already. What we’ve seen from him has been great, but the age will beg the question of “When will it decline?”. It’s one of the more unusual situations in free agency, and it’ll be interesting to see how Paton handles it with Josey Jewell and a few other linebackers this free agency cycle. I don’t think Johnson would be particularly difficult for Denver to retain in terms of money, so I’d offer him a deal similar to Bryce Callahan’s and shore up my LB depth-just in case.

RT Bobby Massie

Overall this season, Massie has been “OK.” He’s had good games and bad games throughout the season and has been a better run blocker than pass protector. As a stop-gap, the Broncos could certainly have done worse than Massie. It’s important to acknowledge his contributions to this team while also pointing out that he’s just not the guy long-term. GM George Paton was put in a tough situation with the Ja’Wuan James debacle that happened in May here. Massie and Cam Fleming were added to the team as free agents. As far as stopgaps go, they could have done worse.

Should he be retained? If Paton more or less ignores the right tackle spot in this offseason, there’s a major concern. If that does happen, bringing back Massie wouldn’t be a bad idea. He’d be a quality depth piece and is a particularly adept run blocker. It wouldn’t be an ideal solution but Massie getting another one-year deal is “fine”. Adding Massie would be my backup solution, so I personally would let him test the market first.

EDGE Stephen Weatherly

George Paton made the trade for Weatherly with his old stomping ground right before the trade deadline, exchanging a 2022 6th rounder for Weatherly and a 7th-rounder in 2023. Weatherly has about 250 total snaps with the Broncos, and what he’s shown has been worth the picks. The Broncos desperately needed a pass-rusher with the Von Miller trade and no Bradley Chubb, and Weatherly has filled in that role well. He’s not going to win many over as a starting pass-rusher, but he’s been a solid player with 13 pressures and 4 sacks for Denver in eight games and has Denver’s highest pass-rush win rate. Getting him for cheap was a good move for Paton in hindsight, given how much Malik Reed has struggled.

I don’t think I’d extend him, however. Paton made the move in part because the organization felt they were still in the playoff hunt. With a full offseason to attack the EDGE spot and the emergence of Jonathan Cooper, I’m not convinced the Broncos should bring him back, but he’s solid depth to keep around. As the Broncos should know by now, you can’t have enough pass rushers.

IDL Shamar Stephen

George Paton signed Stephen because he was a familiar name coming from the Vikings. He’s an experienced player, hanging on the Vikings since the 2014 NFL Draft. The idea behind signing him was for him to be an additional run defender in the middle of the defense to shore up an iffy run defense. That would be a fine idea...if he were a good run defender. He’s currently ranked 106th in PFF’s run defense grade and is 75th in run-stop percentage. Stephen’s also been a poor pass-rusher but continues to get snaps as a pass-rusher. He ranks 146th in pass-rush win rate, behind virtually everyone on the Broncos DL chart (min. 50 pass-rush snaps).

I wouldn’t re-sign him. All there is to it. The Broncos need to get better up front, and settling for Stephen isn’t how they do it.

RT Cam Fleming

GM George Paton was put in a tough situation with the Ja’Wuan James debacle that happened in May here. Massie and Cam Fleming were added to the team as free agents. As far as stopgaps go, they could have done worse. Fleming was a year removed from being one of the worst tackles in 2021 with the Giants, and he’s given up 7 pressures on 123 pass-blocking reps.

Once again, he’s another player the Broncos should let hit the market. You could do worse for a depth guy, but you could also do much better.

CB Mike Ford

The Broncos claimed Ford off of waivers in September as additional corner depth, but he’s not played a ton for Denver. He missed time while on IR, and he’s mainly been a special-teamer. He’s not been a super-impactful player for the Broncos with just six total tackles on the season, and he’s allowed two catches on his three targets. He tested very well before the 2018 draft, but went undrafted.

There are reasons to keep special teams guys, and he’s a player this front office directly picked up. You could do worse for special teams gunners with his athleticism. It’s a move that either way you could justify. I’d keep him around.

TE Eric Saubert

Saubert has bounced around the league for a few years, and the Broncos brought him on board over the summer to add some depth to their TE room. He’s been the TE3 behind Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam and is mainly used as an additional blocker. As a receiver, he’s been moderately productive, recording 8 receptions on 11 targets for 47 yards and his first career touchdown.

Where Saubert makes his money is as a blocker, and if the Broncos are switching to a “Shanahan-style” offense, a blocking tight end is a must-have. He’s been reliable and steady for the Broncos this year. For a TE3, he’s worth keeping around. However, Shaun Beyer was one of Paton’s prized UDFAs and has been stashed and protected this season. We’ll see how that battle plays out.

CB Nate Hairston

Nate Hairston spent time with the Colts and Jets before ending up in Denver. He’s filled in this year for Bryce Callahan in the nickel and Caden Sterns in dime looks, and I have to say I’ve been impressed with his 2021 film. He felt like a player in decline until this year, and he’s been good in his limited sample size for the Broncos in those roles. This season, he’s allowed 8 receptions on 15 targets for 55 yards, good for 3.6 yards per target. Hairston posted a forced incompletion rate of 20%, good for t-20th in the league.

With the uncertainty of Bryce Callahan’s health and Kyle Fuller’s likely departure, the Broncos could use the quality corner depth that Hairston provides as a nickel. I’d keep him around on another short deal, but I’d still look to draft a long-term player there.

C Brett Jones

I wish I had enough to write about for Brett Jones, but he’s not taken a single snap with the Broncos. He has missed the entire season with a bicep injury.

The Broncos have Lloyd Cushenberry, Quinn Meinerz, and the potential return of Austin Schlottmann for depth at center. I don’t see a reason to keep Jones around.

IDL Justin Hamilton

The Broncos signed Hamilton off of the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad late in December, but he has yet to record a snap for the team.

From what I’ve seen of Hamilton in reserve roles for Dallas, he’s flashed a lot as a run defender for the team and absolutely overpowered Vikings’ center Garrett Bradbury when those two played. Unfortunately, we’ve not really seen enough from him in Denver to say one way or the other on keeping him around.

LB Micah Kiser

The Broncos signed Kiser after the injury to Josey Jewell. Kiser played a significant amount of games and even started several for the Los Angeles Rams over his career. He’s played in just five games for the Broncos so far in 2021 after being placed on IR in October for a groin injury. He flashed in the game against the Week 17 game vs the Chargers with Baron Browning out but generally hasn’t been enough of a contributor to justify an extension.

LB Josey Jewell

Like I said above, the Broncos face a tough question with the fates of Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell moving forward. Baron Browning should be the unquestioned LB1 for the team moving forward, and I doubt the Broncos bring back both of Johnson & Jewell. Of the two, Johnson is the more athletic and disruptive but I’d argue Jewell is a smarter player and just as good a run defender. I don’t trust either in coverage much, but with Baron Browning and Jonas Griffith showing positive play there, it’s not my biggest worry. This team struggles versus the run and Jewell is as sure of a tackler as there is.

Much like Johnson, I don’t think Jewell would be particularly difficult for Denver to retain in terms of money. A short-term extension to shore up the depth and draft another player to fill out the room would be my move.

LB Kenny Young

If you had asked me a month ago, I would have made the case for Denver to extend Young. With the emergence of Jonas Griffith over the last month, that changes things. The Kenny Young trade was a smart move at the time for George Paton, but he never really clicked in Denver. After a concussion early on in the Lions game, Griffith has stepped into the role opposite of Baron Browning and filled it in much better.

Kenny Young still has a place on any roster as an athletic pursuit linebacker. However, I’d let him hit the market.

Restricted Free Agents

WR Diontae Spencer

A career return man for the Broncos, Spencer hardly plays on offense. He has 1 catch on the season for -3 yards. Given that he has some of the worst return metrics in the NFL and doesn’t impact the offense at all, I don’t see a real reason for Spencer to stick around on the roster under a new coaching staff.

LB Natrez Patrick

Patrick hasn’t played a snap for Denver and is still on IR. He started off on the Rams, but there’s not enough tape for Denver to say one way or the other. A pass for me.

LT Calvin Anderson

From what we’ve seen of Calvin Anderson, he’s a definite yes to return. The play we saw this season against a ferocious Dallas pass-rush and his overall effectiveness against the Eagles and Chargers are absolutely deserving of an extension. I’d imagine Anderson’s services will be in demand as a swing tackle, but luckily for Denver, he’s a Restricted Free Agent.

I’d offer something along the lines of a two-year, $4-5M deal and lock him up for the next few years as a key reserve.

IOL Austin Schlottmann

Schlottmann has been a bit of a pet project for Mike Munchak, and he’s been on the team for each of Munchak’s years. He’s played in 41 career games for Denver, starting for seven of those. In 2021, his first real game action came when he took over for Lloyd Cushenberry III in the Week 16 game against the Raiders. It didn’t end well, and he struggled mightily throughout the whole game.

While he’s been a Munchak guy for years, it’s really tough to swallow that bitter pill. While the Broncos could keep him around due to his versatility, that’s not nearly enough for me to agree with an extension given how he has held up in live games. He might be extended for cheap, which is fine, I just think you could find better late in the draft for even cheaper.

IDL DeShawn Williams

Another player that has shined some this season, Williams has been a solid contributor for Denver on the defensive line. He’s sixth on the team in total pressures and tied with Dre’Mont Jones at 10 total stops. Playing some nose and defensive tackle for Denver, he’s been a solid player, if unspectacular. He wins primarily with power, though he’s shown good quickness out of his stance when he fires off the line of scrimmage to complement. He’ll stunt

He’s a Restricted Free Agent that can be brought back for some depth upfront for cheap, but he’s almost 30 years old. Williams was also recently placed on IR for an elbow injury that ended his season. It’s a move that I can go either way with, but I’d personally prefer to look to add a younger guy in the draft.

EDGE Malik Reed

This is a bit of a tough call. Malik Reed has flashed as a pass-rusher in Denver. There were some pretty hot takes being thrown about him in the offseason, but his play this season has put paid to those. Most of Reed’s plays have come in cleanup or unblocked duties, and he’s not winning enough as a pass-rusher. He has a pass-rush win rate of just 9.6% this season, which ties Jaylon Ferguson at 127th place. Yes. 127th. Even in his 2020 year, he posted a 10.5% win rate and ranked 121st. Add in his very poor run defense, and it paints a pretty bleak picture. 10 of his 26 total pressures this season came in cleanup duty or unblocked, which points to 16 “real” pressures on 359 pass-rushing snaps.

Even if he can be brought back for cheap, I’m not sure I’d be ok with doing so. Yes, 17 career sacks is a high number, but that sack total doesn’t tell the full story of the film. I’d be hesitant to bring him back, given that teams have targeted him and exploited him.

TE/FB Andrew Beck

Fullback isn’t the most glamorous position, but it can be important for the right team. The Broncos didn’t really play Beck a lot on offense, with just 55 offensive snaps, and most of those were as an additional lead blocker in the run game. He’s made most of his money on special teams in Denver. He’s dealt with some nagging injuries over the last few years, including an elbow injury that put him on IR in December.

There’s an argument to be made for keeping him, especially if the team is switching to a Shanahan-style offense. However, Beck’s not produced anything statistically for the team since 2019. It’s a decision that I couldn’t fault them for making either way.

Exclusive Rights Free Agents

QB Brett Rypien

The only Broncos quarterback to win 100% of his starts, Brett Rypien is best known as a crush for the infamous Draft Twitter. He’s played in some mop-up duties here and there but really hasn’t done much for the Broncos after winning his only start. He’s pretty cheap and a smart backup, so if they want that QB3 (or QB2) after they figure out their starting quarterback, Rypien would be a fine option to keep around. I personally would.

S P.J. Locke

PJ Locke has flashed some good play in the preseason and regular season for Denver the last couple of seasons. His attitude in the run game can be appreciated, as he is not afraid to fly down and fill versus the run. For a safety who is about 5’10, 200, he’s certainly physical and plays aggressive. The Broncos have played him a little all over in the regular season, but he’s mainly played the deep “FS” and in the slot. I’ve been a big fan of what he’s put out on film over the years, and with the likely Kareem Jackson departure, there’s some depth needed in the safety room.

What makes it a bit tricky for Locke is that two safeties were drafted by this current GM, and one has already played more. However, Locke is one of the Broncos’ most important special teamers, and retaining him would help keep that safety room a strength of the team. A definite yes from me.

LB Jonas Griffith

What a surprise Jonas Griffith has been the last month. Early on in the season, GM George Paton made a trade that flew under plenty of radars when he traded for linebacker Jonas Griffith from the San Francisco 49ers. A UDFA out of the 2020 class, Griffith had spent time on the Colts and 49ers’ practice squads. Griffith was the seventh different starting linebacker for the Broncos. Since his start however, he’s been nothing but productive. He has started just three games for the Broncos and is already third on the team in total stops. His 29 tackles are eighth on the team, and he’s had just two missed tackles. The team has to be thrilled with what he’s put on film so far this season.

Personally, I don’t see a reason why he wouldn’t be in the plans for at least next season and potentially long-term. With Browning and one of Johnson or Jewell as the top two, I’d keep Griffith as the third linebacker and draft another one on Day 3 to fill out the depth in that room. Griffith is a definite yes.

RB Adrian Killins

Killins hasn’t played a snap for Denver all season and has been on IR. He was cut from the Eagles’ roster in the summer. Not really enough film to justify an opinion, but I probably wouldn’t.

IDL Jonathan Harris

We’ve not really seen enough from Harris to justify an opinion either way, but his game against the Chargers in Week 17 was a pretty solid option that earned him a promotion from the practice squad. If he has another good showing against the Chiefs in Week 18, I could see them taking a chance on bringing him back as a depth interior rusher. They’ve moved him all over the formation, but he’s also played just 48 snaps this season. Tough to call either way.

WR Seth Williams

A sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Seth Williams spent most of the season on the practice squad. He was called up from the practice squad to play against the Chargers in Week 17 due to COVID, where he caught his only target for 26 yards (it was a pretty nice catch). Again, it can go either way for me, but I’d imagine they would keep him around for at least next season.

Street Free Agents

WR Tyrie Cleveland

A seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Cleveland hasn’t done much for the Broncos since he was drafted. He’s played less than 300 snaps for the team, and most of those have been on special teams. He was a solid kick returner in 2020, handling kickoff returns while Diontae Spencer handled punt returns. However, they’ve mainly played him on the coverage units instead of as a returner this season. He’s been off and on the practice squad this season. I’d imagine he’ll stick around in Denver for at least through the summer in camps, but the Broncos could just as well draft another receiver and knock him out of a spot.

That’s all I’ve got for this one. A somewhat in-depth look and breakdown of each free agent the Broncos have slated to hit free agency. A couple of last-minute notes: One, some of the stats won’t necessarily match up with final tallies, with the Chiefs game still left on the schedule. That game won’t really sway my opinion on anything written here though. Second, these are all my own personal opinions and takeaways after watching every game and snap.

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