An NFL roster is never truly set in stone. Injuries and age-related decline means holes continue to show up long after the initial depth charts are set at the end of training camp. Expiring contracts mean a strength one year can quickly become a weakness the next. So it goes for the Denver Broncos, who enter the offseason with a desperate need for pass rushers after Von Miller was traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
Edge rusher isn’t the Broncos’ only need, of course. There are currently two linebackers under contract, and one of them was benched last season. Vic Fangio’s former Bears are free agents, which means cornerback is once again a question mark. Confidence in Ja’Wuan James led Paton to pass on tackle prospects in the 2021 draft, which led to one-year deals for Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming. Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater turned out how most expected and the quarterback room remains one of the worst in football. In fact, the current roster looks significantly weaker on paper than it did this time one year ago.
The good news is the Broncos have five top 100 draft picks and almost $40 million in cap space by Over the Cap estimates. The bad news is this is considered one of the weakest drafts in recent memory, and next week’s franchise tag designation period will take some of the top tier free agents out of the veteran market. Talent acquisition is a perpetual process that requires unrelenting attention, and George Paton may need a few creative solutions if the Broncos hope to enter the 2022 draft without obvious needs.
With all that in mind, I thought it time to take a look at the Broncos’ biggest roster holes, as well as share a few players that could make a ton of sense.
5. Off ball linebacker
The fifth and fourth need on this list could swap spots on this list because their importance may shift with how the Broncos’ new defensive coordinator uses his personnel. Right now I expect the new system to operate like a variant of Fangio’s, which means both of the inside linebackers will play north of 90% of the defensive snaps. That means there’s a rather pressing need beside Baron Browning, who was drafted in the third round of the 2021 draft and battled past injuries to start nine games as a rookie.
Going forward I’m pretty curious if Paton’s approach to linebacker is similar to what the Minnesota Vikings did over the 13 years he was a member of their front office. From 2007 through 2020, the Vikings only used two picks in the first three rounds on linebackers, but they used 11 day three picks on the position. Additionally, they did not allocate significant cap space towards acquiring veteran backers from other teams.
Linebacker is an peculiar need this offseason. Paton could elect to re-sign Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, or Kenny Young, or he could look for outside help. De’Vondre Campbell is one of the headliners in free agency after his breakout season in a variant of the Fangio scheme in Green Bay. Minnesota’s Anthony Barr may also intrigue, after all Paton was the Viking’s assistant general manager when they drafted Barr ninth overall in 2014 and they brought him back on a five-year, $67.5 million deal in 2020. The draft also looks like it will have intriguing talent on all three days this year. Nakobe Dean and Devin Lloyd headline the group, but there’s players like Chad Muma, Brian Asamoah, Brandon Smith, and Leo Chenal who should be available after the first round.
Wyoming LB Chad Muma puts on a weekly tackling clinic out in the Mountain West...— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 27, 2021
Good size/speed combo. Always staying square to the LOS while he sorts through the trash... pic.twitter.com/dOa2Vfoyum
In today’s NFL nickel is the most utilized personnel grouping on defense, and three cornerbacks typically see the field on at least 60% of all snaps as a way to counteract opponents who live in three receiver sets. So while a reporter is sure to ask Ejiro Evero if he’ll base out of a 3-4 when the Broncos officially hire him from the Los Angeles Rams, the real question is how he plans to use his slot corner. As of today the Broncos have four cornerbacks under contract and three of them are best suited for playing along the perimeter.
Barring catastrophe Patrick Surtain II is going to start as the left boundary corner for the next decade. Ronald Darby enters the second year of a 3-year, $30 million contract and should start at the right boundary spot if he’s healthy, while Michael Ojemudia looks like the primary backup if he isn’t. It’s worth noting that all three of the trio spent time on Injured Reserve last year, and Darby’s played a full 16+ game season once in his career.
Essang Bassey is currently the Broncos only corner who is at their best in the slot. An undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest in 2020, Bassey played 461 snaps for Vic Fangio as a rookie before tearing his ACL in week 12. Last year he landed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list out of camp and was waived in November. He played in 19 snaps for the Chargers before they cut him in December and Paton brought him back to Denver.
While Darby’s $12,823,529 cap number suggests the Broncos won’t go out and sign a top corner on the veteran market this year, the way Denver can move on from him without a significant dead cap in 2023 hints that this may be his final season in orange and blue. It wouldn’t surprise me if Paton uses draft capital on the position to help shore up the depth this year and hopefully develop into significant contributors down the road. It’s worth noting that the Vikings have used more picks in rounds 1-3 on cornerback than any other position group during Paton’s tenure there.
There remains the possibility Paton brings back Bryce Callahan or Kyle Fuller on new contracts if the Broncos do plan to use a similar scheme to what Fangio used the last three seasons, though both have significant questions related to age and/or injury. Given Ejiro Evero’s time in L.A. it’s hard to eliminate the possibility Darious Williams lands in Denver after the Super Bowl if the Broncos seek outside help for the room.
As has been the case for a couple of years running now, this is also a pretty solid group of corners in the draft. Derek Stingley Jr., Sauce Gardner, Andrew Booth Jr., Trent McDuffie, Kaiir Elam, and Roger McCreary round out the top of the crop. Further down the board there’s intriguing names such as Coby Bryant, Alontae Taylor, and Kyler Gordon. While some list him at safety, Jalen Pitre could also make sense as a potential nickel.
Baylor DB Jalen Pitre makes a play on the football while in conflict— Nick Falato (@nickfalato) February 4, 2022
Pitre has to respect the QB run while gaining depth to work underneath the crosser
He plays it well and forces a PBU.
I really liked his film in college. He's a good nickel defender who isn't afraid to hit pic.twitter.com/EK7itf626F
3. Edge rusher
Von Miller was traded after playing in seven games and still finished fourth on the Broncos in pressures a season ago. In fact, by Sports info Solutions charting the future Hall of Famer only notched six less pressures than Malik Reed, who played in twice as many games. Right now the Broncos’ best edge rusher under contract is Bradley Chubb, who has spent time on Injured Reserve during three of his four NFL seasons with lower body ailments.
Every avenue at edge looks open for the Broncos right now. Lest we forget, the Broncos were interested in signing Leonard Floyd before he re-signed with the Rams last year and did try to trade back into the first round of the 2021 draft to acquire Miami’s Jaelen Phillips. Additionally, during Paton’s time with the Vikings they drafted 11 defensive ends, though only two came before the fourth round. They also made a blockbuster deal with the Kansas City Chiefs for Jared Allen in 2008.
The strongest position group in the 2022 draft is probably edge rusher, so the Broncos should have multiple opportunities to acquire a toolsy prospect or two. Once the consensus top pick of the draft, reports out of the Senior Bowl suggest there’s a possibility Oregon’s Kayvon Thibadeaux falls outside of the top five picks. Failing a slide, there’s also Purdue’s powerful George Karlaftis and Michigan’s freaky David Ojabo, who offers the length, bend, burst, and quick hands to suggest he could develop into an All Pro in the right situation.
What makes this class really exciting is how much developmental talent there is if the Broncos elect to chase edge rushers on day two or three. I’m a big fan of Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie, who has some of the best bend in this class. There’s also Cincinnati's Myjai Sanders and his inside spin.
As is always the case, signing a premier pass rusher in free agency would be very expensive as the demand for elite pass rushers far outweighs the supply. If age isn’t a concern Chandler Jones could make sense. It’s also necessary to note that Von Miller said he did not ask to be traded, which seems to leave open the door to a potential return if Paton is interested.
“I didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t me that wanted to leave. I got traded. If it was up to me, I’d still be in Denver trying to figure it out. That’s just how I am, that’s how I’m built.
2. Offensive tackle
At the moment there is one tackle on the Broncos’ roster who has played a snap in the NFL, which means there’s actually a need for both a starter and a swing tackle this offseason. While it was never realistic to expect Garett Bolles to maintain his All Pro form from 2020, he continued to look like a good starter a season ago. It is notable that he multiple games to injury for the first time in his career, however, as tackles rarely become more durable as they age and Bolles is about to turn 30.
The Vikings drafted four tackles on the first two days of the draft while Paton was in Minnesota, but given the way linemen typically take years to develop once they’ve reached the NFL the Broncos find themselves in a situation where they’re likely to see a significant decline along the offensive line if they do not sign a veteran tackle or two in free agency.
There’s only a handful of teams in the NFL who have two starting caliber tackles they’re content with, as there’s a scarcity of 300+ lb. men with the length and athleticism to hold up on an island on passing downs. That means teams typically hand out extremely rich contracts to so-so players in hopes that they’ll improve in a new environment, and that’s likely to continue this offseason. Terron Armstead is the most talented option, though the 30-year-old three-time Pro Bowler’s never played a full season and will undergo knee surgery this offseason.
The upcoming draft class is an appealing option for teams chasing a developmental tackle, but pretty light on pro-ready talent. Alabama’s Evan Neal looks like he’ll hit the ground running after he spent time at both right and left tackle for the Crimson Tide, but players like Ikem Ekwonu, Charles Cross, Trevor Penning, and Bernhard Raimann all look like they’ll need some seasoning once they’re drafted. It seems the Broncos will need a little luck if they’re hoping for an immediate upgrade over what Massie and Fleming provided them last year; half of the teams ahead of them in the draft order could take a tackle with their first pick.
All told, I hope Paton re-signs Bobby Massie and Calvin Anderson before chasing a tackle or two in the draft. It could also make sense to kick the tires on Billy Turner if the Green Bay Packers elect to cut him.
Terron Armstead suffered a knee injury during the first Tampa Bay game, according to sources. He's going to need surgery after the season. He chose to put it off with the hopes of helping the team down the stretch instead of getting it now and preparing for free agency.— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) January 1, 2022
As I write this Drew Lock is the only quarterback under contract for the Broncos. While hope remains in some corners of Broncos Country that he’ll become a historical outlier and break out in his fourth season in the NFL, there’s been no indication Paton and Nathaniel Hackett will count on the 2019 second round pick in any capacity.
During Paton’s time with the Vikings they tried just about every strategy under the sun to acquire a franchise quarterback. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder in the first round, traded first and fourth round picks for Sam Bradford, and signed Kirk Cousins, Brett Favre, and Matt Cassel in free agency.
Back in December I wrote at length about how abysmal the QB market looks this year, and it’s only gotten worse since.
Free agency is headlined by Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota. None of the trio have started a full regular season since 2019 and Winston threw 30 interceptions that season. The trade market could be down to Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Deshaun Watson. While Russell Wilson is reportedly interested in exploring his options, there is no indication the Seattle Seahawks are willing to move him as the 70-year-old Pete Carroll is reluctant to start a rebuild. The Vikings hiring Kevin O’Connell suggests Kirk Cousins won’t be available via trade, and Josh McDaniels isn’t about to trade Derek Carr in the division if at all.
That leaves the draft and perhaps the weakest quarterback class since the 2013. There’s a slew of developmental options if the Broncos are content to wait a couple of years, but few look like they’ll be anything more than competition for Lock in 2022. While Carson Strong has intriguing arm talent, he’s in the Mac Jones tier regarding his play outside of structure, and he also has significant medical questions about the long term outlook of his knee. 76% of Matt Corral’s production last season came via screens, RPOs, or play action. Desmond Ridder showed encouraging growth this past season but his ball placement is woefully inconsistent from down to down. Kenny Pickett looks like the most pro-ready of the bunch, but his game is reminiscent of a more athletic Bridgewater. Malik Willis is the most intriguing, but he’s a see-it, throw-it passer who has many of the same glaring issues Lock has with pocket presence, mechanics, and ball placement. Maybe Sam Howell is the answer, he looks like a decent fit in the Hackett offense and could be an option if the Broncos are willing to overlook his struggles with decision making.