The Denver Broncos made a league altering trade last week when they
stole acquired Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks for a massive trade package that included eight picks and players. General manager George Paton isn’t done yet though. The NFL’s legal tampering period begins at 10 PM MST on Monday, March 14th, and free agency begins at 4 PM MST on March 16th. With funny money season upon us, it’s the perfect time to write a primer on what’s ahead of Paton in his second offseason.
What is the legal tampering period?
In 2013 the NFL moved to open a window before free agency where teams and free agents can enter into negotiations. While agreements can not technically become official during this time, it essentially operates as the start of free agency.
NFL Cap Situation
The NFL agreed to a $208.2M salary cap ceiling for 2022 season last March.
Broncos’ Cap Situation
The Broncos have about $21 million in cap space following the moves they made on the eve of the legal tampering period. As I write this they have the 12th or 13th most cap space in the NFL.
Potential Cuts (cap savings vs. dead cap hit):
- Mike Purcell ($2,799,361 vs. $1,548,334)
- Dalton Risner ($2,790,000 vs. $803,597)
- Sam Martin ($2,250,000 vs. $483,334)
This happens when a club converts a player’s base salary into a signing bonus, which is then prorated over the remaining years of the contract. 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 any player who has a contract set to expire after the ‘22 season. It is difficult to nail down specific cap savings on potential re-structures since it depends on the amount of money converted and the length of the contract.
It’s worth noting that NFL teams and team reporters will often use the word “restructure” as a way to describe a pay cut. If extra years are not added to the contract, lowering a player’s cap hit this season is actually a pay cut.
What about a Wilson extension?
The Wilson trade can not be processed until the start of the new league year, which is there’s been no official announcement from the team at this time. As a part of the trade the Seahawks took on $26 million in dead money and the Broncos assume the remainder of Wilson’s contract. He is set to count for $24 million against the cap in 2022 and $27 million in 2023. 9News’ Mike Klis has said an extension is coming. That could dramatically reshape the Broncos cap situation depending on how it’s structured.
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. Paton retained all three of the Broncos ERFAs: Jonas Griffith, Brett Rypien, and P.J. Locke.
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 Malik Reed and the San Francisco 49ers sign Reed to a new deal, the Broncos would receive a first round pick.
There are three tenders with an escalating pay scale.
Following the Calvin Anderson and Andrew Beck extensions and the news that Austin Schlottmann and Diontae Spencer would not be receive tenders, there appear to be three RFAs who could yet receive a tender.
- DeShawn Williams
- Malik Reed
- Natrez Patrick
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. As I write this it appears the Broncos have 18 unrestricted free agents:
- Kyle Fuller
- Bryce Callahan
- Nate Hairston
- Mike Ford
- Kareem Jackson
- Alexander Johnson
- Josey Jewell
- Kenny Young
- Micah Kiser
- Stephen Weatherly
- Shamar Stephen
- Justin Hamilton
- Teddy Bridgewater
- Melvin Gordon
- Eric Saubert
- Bobby Massie
- Cam Fleming
- Brett Jones
So what do the Broncos need in free agency?
Due to the Wilson trade the Broncos’ first pick in the 2022 NFL draft is the last pick of the second round. That could have noteworthy ramifications on their strategy for free agency as it’s hard to rely on a late Day 2 or Day 3 pick to contribute meaningful snaps in their first season as most positions.
What follows is a brief tiered and ranked list of each position on the Broncos with my currently projected starters. For a more thorough look through each position group, please check out this post where I took a look at every player under contract. This post also looked at each position group on the roster to try and determine if the Broncos were simply “a quarterback away.” Obviously this is all 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.
McManus signed a four-year extension with the Broncos in September of 2020. He will count for $4,231,250 against the 2022 cap and cutting him would create a $3,693,750 dead cap hit. He isn’t going anywhere unless there’s an unforeseen disaster.
14. Long snapper
Bobenmoyer won a competition in training camp to become the Broncos long snapper in 2020. He has one year remaining on his current contract before he becomes a RFA. Barring some sort of meltdown, he’s not going anywhere.
The Broncos signed Beck to a one year extension the Sunday before legal tampering began. He’s played 561 special teams snaps since the Elway signed him off waivers in 2020, but only 121 offensive snaps the last two years as Pat Shurmur did not utilize a fullback. That could change with Nathaniel Hackett.
John Elway signed Martin to a three-year contract in 2020 and Paton did not add any significant competition last offseason, but he now enters the last year of his deal with a $2,733,334 cap hit. There is a realistic possibility Paton adds a cheaper option to potentially replace him before the regular season.
11. Interior offensive line
Dalton Risner, Graham Glasgow, Quinn Meinerz
The Broncos have used a lot of resources on this group over the last two offseasons, and there appears to be five locks for the ‘22 roster. I expect there to be a competition for the starting center job between Glasgow and incumbent Lloyd Cushenberry, while Netane Muti also fights for playing time at guard.
Tier 3: Depth never hurt anyone
One thing to keep in mind with the positions below this tier: Paton is building the Broncos for 2022 and beyond. So long term questions will probably influence some decisions this year.
10. Running back
Pookie is the starter after the Broncos traded up to select him in the second round of last year’s draft. Behind him on the depth chart is Mike Boone and Damarea Crockett. With Williams and Boone under contract it’s hard to consider this RB2/3 a big need, but it’s worth noting Paton said that there is interest in Melvin Gordon at the NFL Combine and he could return.
9. Wide receiver
Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick Jerry Jeudy
Sutton and Patrick signed extensions during the 2021 season and Jeudy looks poised for a breakout ‘22 with Wilson under center. There’s questions further down the depth chart. K.J. Hamler’s landed on Injured Reserve each of his first two seasons in the league. Behind him is Kendall Hinton and Seth Williams, who have shown flashes of promise.
After six long years the Broncos seem to have solved their QB conundrum. We know Wilson will start and he’s been extremely durable over the course of his career. Right now Brett Rypien is the only backup. It remains to be seen what the Broncos think of their backup quarterback spot, but there’s a strong possibility Paton acquires a couple of arms to push Ryp for the job before the start of the regular season.
Justin Simmons, Caden Sterns
Simmons is one of the best safeties in football. Sterns looked very promising in a nickel role last season and showed promise when he stepped into Kareem Jackson’s spot in the starting lineup against the Detroit Lions. Paton could pursue a veteran or prospect here, but I do not believe it is a dire need.
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.
6. Tight end
Noah Fant is now a member of the Seahawks and the Broncos are left with only two tight ends under contract, and Shaun Beyer’s never played an NFL snap to date. We could see a few different situations play out with this group. Okwuegbunam’s shown promise over the last two years, but Paton and the new coaching staff may prefer a proven veteran to start.
Baron Browning, Jonas Griffith
At present this looks like a pretty glaring need, but there’s been reports of mutual interest in a return for Josey Jewell. He would probably start over Griffith. Justin Strnad is the only other backer under contract and he was benched following Denver’s Thursday night loss to the Cleveland Browns last Halloween. There is also a distinct possibility new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero utilizes more dime personnel than Vic Fangio did, which could impact the role of the second off ball linebacker.
Tier 1: Glaring need
What Paton does at these positions will have a monstrous impact on the Broncos’ Super Bowl chances window in 2022.
4. Offensive tackle
Garett Bolles, Calvin Anderson
I went back and forth where to place this need before placing it here because Paton signed Anderson to a one year extension on the eve of the legal tampering period. Bolles turns 30 in May, while Anderson played 304 offensive snaps the last two years as an injury fill in. According to Sports Info Solutions charting Anderson’s allowed two sacks and blown 10 blocks across his 284 offensive snaps. The Broncos new coaching staff could see him as a starter or swing tackle. There is no other tackle under contract with NFL experience.
Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Essang Bassey
The Broncos have one of the better starting duos in the league if Surtain can build on a rookie season where he looked like one of the best corners in football. Depth is a huge question mark underscored by the fact every corner under contract spent part of ‘21 on Injured Reserve. At present there is no proven nickel on the roster. One thing that helps this group compared to those further down the list is the prevalence of rookie nickels holding their own in recent years. The Broncos may be able to solve this need with a draft pick.
2. Defensive Line
Mike Purcell, Dre’Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim
Trading Shelby Harris to the Seahawks leaves the Broncos with three defensive tackles who have played more than 71 snaps in the NFL. Jones has quietly emerged as one of the better interior pass rushers in the league. Purcell has played in 19 of 33 potential games since the start of 2020 and will count for $4,347,695 against this year’s cap. Agim has only played 250 snaps since he was drafted in the third round of the 2020 draft despite a clean bill of health.
Bradley Chubb, Jonathon Cooper
Vic Fangio was the Broncos’ pass rush for a significant part of the last two seasons and now he’s gone. In 2021 Von Miller finished fourth on the Broncos in pressures despite playing in seven games before he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. He had only six less pressures than Malik Reed, who played in twice as many games and led the edge rushers in pressures. Chubb’s had a stint on Injured Reserve each of the last three seasons with lower body injuries while Cooper’s length and bend look like they’ll limit his upside as a starter.