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Paton’s Spaces: How many roster spots are really left on the Broncos’ roster?

Can the Broncos make the playoffs in year one of the Russell Wilson era?

The Denver Broncos have made it out of the first wave of free agency with painfully little cap room to spare. As I write this the structure of D.J. Jones, Alex Singleton, and Josh Johnson’s contracts have yet to hit Over the Cap, but it’s safe to assume they have less than $21,812,913 in cap space. It appears they restructured Tim Patrick’s contract to give them room to sign Alex Singleton and Josh Johnson last Friday, restructured Courtland Sutton for breathing room going forward.

As I thought about the Broncos remaining needs last week I kept thinking about how George Paton will address them. We’re so far away from training camp and the preseason that a ton can change between now and then, but contracts tell a tale about what the team expect as far as a roster makeup. So I decided to take a look and see what I could glean. All contract numbers come via Over the Cap.

Specialists

Sam Martin, Brandon McManus, Jacob Bobenmoyer

Musings:

There is a chance the Broncos try to bring in competition at both kicking spots for training camp. McManus is the only Super Bowl 50 veteran on the roster and Martin’s looked solid in orange and blue, but the camp crunch could push Paton to chase cheaper replacements.

Defensive backs

Justin Simmons, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke, Jamar Johnson, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, Essang Bassey, Michael Ojemudia

  • Simmons, Surtain, and Darby are locks for the roster.
  • Sterns is in the second year of a fifth round contract after showing promise as a rookie and Christian Parker remains the Broncos defensive back coach. He looks like the front runner for the starting safety spot beside Simmons and factors into sub packages if the Broncos sign a veteran safety.
  • Locke played 690 snaps on special teams over the last two seasons and showed promise as a satey last preseason. He entered this offseason an exclusive rights free agent and is playing on a veteran minimum contract.
  • Johnson is Paton’s second safety from the 2021 draft and enters the second year of his career after playing just 38 snaps as a rookie.
  • Bassey entered the league with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent and played in 11 games as a rookie slot corner. Fangio benched him during the week four contest with the New York Jets and he didn’t play on defense again until week seven. He tore his ACL in week 13 and started the 2021 season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Paton waived him on December 18th and picked him up off the the Los Angeles Chargers waivers in January.
  • Ojemudia is in the third year of his rookie contract after John Elway drafted him in the third round of the 2020 draft. During his rookie season he played in 14 games with 11 starts. He was benched after the Falcons game in week week eight and a healthy scratch ‘til week 11.. He was the Broncos’ fifth corner last preseason before an injury sidelined him ‘til week 16. Should Paton move him after June first it’d free up $1,041,946 in cap space with only $253,890 in dead money.

While Paton was never the general manager in Minnesota, I took a look at the Vikings draft history during his tenure last year to see if there were any trends. A few stand out after looking back on Paton’s first year with the Broncos.

Musings

I believe this is the biggest immediate need on the roster. There are three players who are locks for the roster in a position group that actually has five starters. At present there are no spots up for grabs because the Broncos will probably carry at least eight defensive backs. Every member of the current cornerback room spent time on Injured Reserve or the Physically Unable to Perform list last year and Bassey is the only natural nickel.

The Broncos look like they’re creating cap space to pursue a defensive back and the structure of that deal could dramatically impact Paton’s plan for the secondary in the draft. If it were up to me I’d try and draft at least two defensive backs this year with an eye on 2023. Darby’s contract makes him a cut candidate, Locke will be an unrestricted free agent, and Paton doesn’t know he can count on Ojemudia, Bassey, or Johnson in any real capacity yet. The NFL is a nickel league and it pays to dabble in dime in a passing league. You need DBs for that.

Linebackers

Josey Jewell, Alex Singleton, Baron Browning, Jonas Griffith, Justin Strnad

While Paton was never the general manager in Minnesota, I took a look at the Vikings draft history during his tenure last year to see if there were any trends. A few stand out after looking back on Paton’s first year with the Broncos.

  • Since 2007, the Vikings only ever spent one pick in the first three rounds on a pure inside linebacker: Eric Kendricks. I say “pure” because the Vikings also drafted Anthony Barr ninth overall in 2014. His game is built around the versatility to play off ball and also rush the passer. So let’s just say I have high hopes for Paton’s 2021 third round pick Baron Browning, who tested out as one of most athletic linebackers of all time.

Musings

If the Broncos only plan to carry four linebackers on the final roster this position group doesn’t figure to receive much attention. Strnad and Griffith’s contracts do give Paton flexibility to continue looking for competition, however. It’s worth noting that the Vikings spent 10 day three draft picks on linebackers during Paton’s tenure there.

Edge

Randy Gregory, Bradley Chubb, Jonathon Cooper, Malik Reed, Andre Mintze, Aaron Patrick, Jonathan Kongbo

Musings

The Broncos will probably carry four, maybe five edge rushers on the active roster next year. Despite the Gregory signing I consider this one of the bigger question marks on the roster, but Paton may disagree. Gregory and Chubb have combined to play one full season between them, and the depth brings physical limitations that’ll show up against the burlier lines on the 2022 schedule. When you add in Chubb and Reed’s expiring contracts I believe it’d behoove Paton to consider adding to the edge rotation in the draft. The upcoming rookie class is quite rich at the position and the veterans in the room would give them a runway during their first year in the league.

Defensive Line

D.J. Jones, Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim, DeShawn Williams, Marquiss Spencer, Justin Hamilton, Jonathan Harris

Musings

The Broncos probably carry no more than six defensive linemen on the active roster. Don’t be surprised if the Broncos chase a 5 technique who can slide inside on passing downs. It’s a position group the Vikings routinely took day three swings on during Paton’s tenure. This is one position group where it’s hard to pin down the needs with so much uncertainty about Ejiro Evero’s scheme. In the purest sense, Paton has yet to replace Shelby Harris because D.J. Jones lacks the length to thrive as a base end. The free agent signing from San Francisco does raise questions about Purcell’s long term future and leaves room for DeShawn Williams and McTelvin Agim to carve out a role in the Broncos’ 3-4.

Wide Receivers

Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Travis Fulgham, Seth Williams, Kendall Hinton

While Paton was never the general manager in Minnesota, I took a look at the Vikings draft history during his tenure last year to see if there were any trends. A few stand out after looking back on Paton’s first year with the Broncos.

  • During Paton’s time with the Vikings they used more draft picks on wide receivers than any other position group. Paton drafted Seth Williams on day three of his first draft despite having a strong receiver room and carried him through the season as a member of the practice squad.

Musings

Denver went with as few as five wide receivers at one point last season, which made me pretty antsy. Hackett will use 11 personnel on at least 60% of their snaps going forward so they actually have three starting wide receivers. Questions after the “big three” suggests there’s a good chance the Broncos draft a receiver, and if last year’s any indication Paton will bring in quite a few undrafted free agents to compete in training camp.

Offensive Line

Garett Bolles, Calvin Anderson, Tom Compton, Cody Conway, Drew Himmelman, Casey Tucker, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Quinn Meinerz, Netane Muti, Ben Braden, Zack Johnson

  • Bolles, Glasgow, and Meinerz are locks for the roster.
  • Anderson and Compton signed similar one year contracts that guaranteed about $1.5 million. Both look like locks for the roster.
  • Conway, Himmelman, Tucker, and Johnson are playing on veteran minimum deals.
  • Risner was Elway’s first second round pick in 2019 and became the starting left guard in his first season. He’s started 47 games since, missing two games last season. Should Paton elect to move him he could create as much as $2.79 million in cap space while the Broncos would be on the hook for a $803,597 dead cap hit.
  • Cushenberry joined the Broncos as one of Elway’s third round picks in 2020 and he’s played in 32 of 33 games since. He could find himself in a fight for a starting job this season, and Paton could create $1,033,272 in cap space by moving him after the first of June. Such a move would carry a $236,544 dead cap hit.
  • Muti entered the league as Elway’s sixth round pick in 2020 and played 516 snaps backing up the guards the last two seasons. Moving him creates roughly $850,000 in cap space.
  • Ben Braden signed a one year deal to join the Broncos during the first day of legal tampering this year. He was cut from the Green Bay Packers active roster in January.

Musings

This is one of the bigger question marks facing the current roster. Bolles is the only tackle the Broncos have drafted since 2017 and he’ll continue to hold down the blind side, but he turns 30 this year. The interior looks rather crowded and a new coaching staff probably means starting jobs are up for grabs, at least in the early going. Anderson and Compton’s cap hits suggests neither is going anywhere and they’re planning on them competing for a starting job this year. In February Paton told the Broncos’ Aric DiLalla that they needed to “fix the position for the next five, six years, or however long it is.”

Tight Ends / Fullbacks

Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Tomlinson, Shaun Beyer, Andrew Beck

  • Okwuegbunam is the presumptive starter. Elway’s 2020 fourth round pick has caught 44 passes for 451 yards and three touchdowns his first two seasons in the league. He did miss time each year with lower body injuries.
  • Tomlinson signed a one year contract that carries a million dollar dead cap hit to be the Broncos’ blocking tight end. Presumably he’s Nathaniel Hackett’s new Mercedes Lewis.
  • Beyer was a priority free agent after the 2021 draft and spent his rookie year on the practice squad.
  • Beck signed a one year contract to remain with the Broncos shortly before the legal tampering period began. During the Shurmur years he was a core special teamer who moonlights as a fullback. Back in 2019 he was Elway’s Andy Janovich replacement.

Musings

There’s quite a bit of uncertainty around this group. They could be relatively set as they’re unlikely to carry more than five tight ends tops. Okwuegbunam’s shown flashes of top tier play when he’s been available, but there’s no proven receiver after him on the depth chart. Tomlinson’s contract also leaves the future of this room in question. It would make sense for Paton to take a swing on a prospect in or shortly after the 2021 draft, as this class has depth at the position.

Running backs

Javonte Williams, Mike Boone, Damarea Crockett

  • Williams was Paton’s first second round pick after the Broncos traded up to acquire him in the 2021 draft. In a split backfield he rushed 203 times for 903 yards and four touchdowns and added 43 receptions for 316 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver. While the offensive supporting cast surely played a role, it’s noteworthy that he averaged 3.33 yards over the final month of the season.
  • Boone opened the season on I.R. with a quad injury and rarely saw the field on offense because of the presence of Williams and Melvin Gordon. He carried the ball four times for 35 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs and finished the year with 73 special teams snaps under his belt. He’ll count for $2.05 million against the 2022 cap and moving him would create $1.250 in cap space against a $800,000 dead cap hit.
  • Crockett signed off the Broncos practice squad and is set to make the veteran minimum.

While Paton was never the general manager in Minnesota, I took a look at the Vikings draft history during his tenure last year to see if there were any trends. A few stand out after looking back on Paton’s first year with the Broncos.

  • During Paton’s tenure with the Vikings they used more selections in rounds 1-3 on running backs than day three picks. Paton traded No. 40 and No. 144 to the Atlanta Falcons in order to acquire the 35th pick to select Javonte Williams in 2021.

Musings

I doubt the Broncos carry more than four backs on the final roster, and it may be as few as three. I do have some questions about Williams fit if Hackett and the new coaching staff are pushing towards a wide zone offense as reports suggest. Keep in mind the Packers’ most utilized concept during the last three years was inside zone, however. The new scheme could be a real blessing for Boone should health luck shine on him. It is notable Paton said the Broncos had spoken with Melvin Gordon’s camp during his Combine press conference. While I personally believe running back is one of the easier positions to find rookie role players at Paton’s draft history suggests the Broncos will prioritize a backup to Pookie sooner rather than later.

Quarterbacks

Russell Wilson, Brett Rypien, Josh Johnson

  • Wilson became a Bronco after Paton sent eight picks and players to the Seattle Seahawks. A nine time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champion, and future Hall of Famer, there are questions around the 33-year-old Wilson’s fit in the Nathaniel Hackett offense. During the press conference following the Randy Gregory signing Paton said an extension is not imminent but the Broncos plan to have him around for a long time. He is currently playing on a two year $51 million contract.
  • Rypien joined the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad and played in three games during the 2020 campaign, winning his only start against the New York Jets. He is playing on a one year contract for $965,000.
  • Johnson entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He’s signed with 22 teams across four different professional football leagues since he left San Diego State. He’s started nine games in the NFL with the only victory coming during his stint with Washington in 2018.

Musings

While the Broncos won’t carry more than three into the season opener, NFL teams typically carry four arms into training camp. Denver’s cap space makes one of the proven veterans cost prohibitive. so look for Paton to grab a rookie passer at some point. Personally, I’m ready to embrace debate about backup QBs this preseason. For the first time since Peyton Manning retired the Broncos have a true franchise quarterback. The division and conference look so loaded nothing is promising during the Wilson era, but it should be more fun than the last six seasons.