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Paton’s Spaces: 2022 State of the Broncos’ Roster

Where did George Paton’s second offseason leave the Broncos roster? Will they chase a Super Bowl in the first year of the Russell Wilson era?

The major parts of George Paton’s second offseason are now in the book and they will define his legacy in Denver.

Following an injury-plagued 7-9 campaign against one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, Paton fired Vic Fangio, the head coach he inherited from former general manager John Elway. Days before the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs, Paton picked Nathaniel Hackett over Dan Quinn to become his head coach. In February the five-year contract extension John Elway signed with the Denver Broncos in 2017 expired, which officially marked the end of his run as President of Football Operations. He now serves Paton as an “outside consultant.” Hours after Aaron Rodgers announced he’d stay with the Green Bay Packers, Paton traded eight players and draft picks to acquire Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks. In between it all the Broncos went for sale to the highest bidder.

Every move that happened since has marked Paton’s final preparations to chase a Super Bowl in 2022. Welcome to the new era.

Specialists

Sam Martin, Corliss Waitman, Brandon McManus, Jacob Bobenmoyer

Musings

Paton said the personnel department took the blame for the Broncos’ special teams failures in 2022 and the Broncos prioritized special teams in the draft. I suspect Martin remains the Broncos’ punter.

Defensive backs

Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns, P.J. Locke, Jamar Johnson, J.R. Reed, Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, K’Waun Williams, Essang Bassey, Michael Ojemudia, Blessuan Austin, Donnie Lewis, Damarri Mathis, Delarrin Turner-Yell, Faion Hicks, Ja’Quan McMillian, Davis

  • Simmons is the Broncos’ best defensive player and one of the league’s most elite safeties. His instincts, range, and prowess in coverage are special. He’s as adept around the line of scrimmage as he is running the alley.
  • Surtain entered the NFL an elite cover corner and offers a special combination of instinct, length, technique, and the ability to match and mirror. He should have made the Pro Bowl in 2021.
  • Darby enters year two of a three-year, $30 million contract with the Broncos. He’s as I expected last offseason: a good scheme fit and one of the better CB2s in the NFL when he’s healthy, even if the interceptions aren’t there. Unfortunately he’s also missed time in all but one of his seven NFL seasons so durability is a concern.
  • Jackson was re-signed to a one-year, $2 million contract weeks before the NFL Draft. His physicality belies the fact he’s a former first round corner, and he pairs with Simmons to give Denver one of the best safety tandems in the league.
  • 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. If the 34-year-old Jackson shows signs of slowing down, Sterns looks like the favorite to eat into his defensive snaps.
  • Locke played 690 snaps on special teams over the last two seasons and showed promise as a safety last preseason. He entered this offseason an exclusive rights free agent and is playing on a veteran minimum contract. The addition of Turner-Yell and Jackson’s near-lock status seem to hurt Locke’s chances at the final roster.
  • 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. There’s a possibility he could compete for nickel snaps, but retaining Jackson and adding Turner-Yell suggests he’s on the bubble in year two.
  • Bassey entered the league with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2020 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 eight and a healthy scratch until week 11. He was the Broncos’ fifth corner last preseason before an injury sidelined him until week 16. Should Paton move him after June first, it would free up $1,041,946 in cap space with only $253,890 in dead money.
  • Reed signed a veteran minimum deal with the Broncos during free agency. Reed made the Rams roster after going undrafted in 2020 before he was cut last year. He’s played in 16 career games with L.A. and the New York Giants, and he’s someone Ejiro Evero and Dwayne Stukes will be familiar with.
  • Austin and Lewis signed veteran minimum deals with the Broncos following a minicamp tryout at the end of March. Austin’s played in 22 games for the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks with 17 starts. He could be a sleeper for a roster spot with the new coaching staff.
  • Mathis was the 115th pick of the 2022 draft. He’s an elite athlete who enters the league battle tested after 34 games across five years at Pittsburgh. A physical corner who is at his best in off coverage, he could be a factor in sub packages.
  • Turner-Yell was the Broncos’ first fifth round pick in the 2022 draft. A three year starter for the Oklahoma Sooners who missed at least a game in every one of his four seasons in Norman, he’s an instinctive tweener who is small for a safety and lacks the coverage chops of a corner. He’s good running the alley and looks like a strong contender for snaps on special teams.
  • Hicks was the Broncos’ seventh round pick this year. He’s a physical corner with the requisite twitch and ball skills to intrigue as a developmental prospect. He looks set to contend for a roster spot with his play on special teams.
  • McMillian and Cortez signed with the Broncos after going undrafted. McMillian is a feisty, albeit undersized corner who will need to improve his footwork to stick in the league.

Musings

According to Sports Info Solutions, the Los Angeles Rams used dime (6 DBs) personnel on 27% of their snaps last season, so these position battles are big for Denver’s defense under Ejiro Evero. It’s safe to assume Simmons, Surtain, and Darby are locks for starting jobs. I expect Jackson and Williams to start the season, but neither are guarantees for the roster in 2023. Mathis and Sterns loom as competition for snaps. Ojemudia’s play last season was encouraging while Mathis, Turner-Yell, Hicks, and McMillian all look like potential contenders for roster spots. At safety there’s four, maybe five spots available and three look set barring a massive sophomore slump from Sterns. I doubt the Broncos carry more than 12 DBs out of training camp.

Linebackers

Josey Jewell, Alex Singleton, Jonas Griffith, Justin Strnad, Barrington Wade, Kadofi Wright, Kana’i Mauga

Musings

I do not expect the Broncos to carry more than four off ball backers on the active roster. If the Broncos do not move Baron Browning back to linebacker, I expect Griffith to win the starting job beside Jewell. A new staff is probably good news for Strnad after last year’s disastrous final start, and I suspect Browning at edge would help his chances at making the roster.

Edge

Randy Gregory, Bradley Chubb, Nik Bonitto, Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper, Malik Reed, Andre Mintze, Aaron Patrick, Jonathan Kongbo, Christopher Allen

  • Gregory and Chubb are locks for the roster. If they’re back to peak form, Denver has one of the 10 best edge duos in the league, though both have significant durability questions. Gregory’s arm was in a sling following surgery during the Broncos’ most recent minicamp. While I believe it’s unlikely, the Broncos could create $12,716,000 in cap space by trading Chubb.
  • Bonitto is the Broncos’ first pick from the 2022 draft and has all the traits you look for in a speed rusher. He’s a twitched up athlete who can stress tackles’ set points as he bends the arc. He enters the league a designated pass rusher behind Chubb and Gregory, but he’ll have some issues against power teams if pressed into a starting role.
  • Browning is Paton’s second third round pick from the 2021 draft. An injury in OTAs derailed his first preseason, but he flashed promise once he saw defensive snaps as an off ball linebacker. Barring a major setback, he should make the Broncos’ active roster. The new coaching staff appears set on playing him at edge where he immediately becomes the best coverage player in the room.
  • Reed entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Broncos and quickly found playing time because of injuries to Von Miller and Chubb. He played 1992 defensive snaps over the last three seasons and notched 15 sacks. Paton tendered Reed with a Right of First Refusal tender and he’ll carry a $2.433 million cap hit this year. Denver wouldn’t eat any dead money if Paton moves him.
  • Cooper was Paton’s second seventh round pick in the 2021 draft and flashed promise as a rookie. Athletic limitations do raise some questions about his upside.
  • Patrick was signed off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad during the 2021 season and played 260 snaps. Special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes identified him as a core special teamer at his pre-draft presser.
  • Mintze signed with the Broncos after the ‘21 draft and played 133 snaps last season. Bonitto (and potentially Browning) really hurt his chances at the roster.
  • Kongbo signed a futures contract with the Broncos in January. He the fifth overall pick in the 2019 CFL draft and won two Grey Cups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
  • Allen received a $30 thousand signing bonus and $150 thousand salary guarantee to sign with the Broncos after he went undrafted this year. He had two significant lower body injuries during his career with the Crimson Tide, but offers the traits to intrigue as a developmental starter.

Musings

The coaching staff’s vision for Browning could have significant ramifications for the makeup of the linebackers. If he’s strictly an edge player, there’s maybe four other spots on the active roster and Chubb, Gregory, and Bonitto are locks.

Defensive Line

D.J. Jones, Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, McTelvin Agim, DeShawn Williams, Marquiss Spencer, Jonathan Harris, Eyioma Uwazurike, Matt Henningsen

  • D.J. Jones is a lock for the roster after signing a three-year, $30 million contract this offseason. He’s a quick nose tackle who can disrupt zone blocking schemes and eat doubles at the point of attack. He’s coming off a career year as a pass rusher in 2021 with 14 pressures by Sports Info Solutions’ charting.
  • Dre’Mont Jones entered the league as Elway’s third round pick in the 2019 draft. He’s quietly one of the better interior pass rushers in the league and entering the final year of his rookie contract.
  • Purcell signed with the Broncos after the Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF folded in 2019. He was resigned as a restricted free agent in 2020 and Elway gave him a three-year extension for $14.8 million in October. Since he signed the extension, Purcell has missed time to a season ending foot injury and a broken thumb. Fangio also deactivated him for the first matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. Paton restructured the contract in May of 2021 and he now looks like a prime cut candidate, as doing so would create $2,799,361 in cap space. If he’s designated a June first release it’d provide the Broncos $3,573,529 in cap space and carry $774,166 in dead money.
  • Agim entered the league as one of Elway’s third round picks in the 2020 draft. He has only played 250 snaps since he was drafted despite a clean bill of health and injuries to the defensive line rotation. Should Paton elect to move him after June first, it would free up $998,250 in cap space with a $214,317 dead cap hit.
  • Williams played 973 snaps for the Broncos over the last two years and Bill Kollar remains a defensive consultant after being his defensive line coach the last two years. Williams signed a one-year contract with the Broncos after Paton declined to use a restricted free agent tender on him.
  • Spencer was Paton’s third seventh round pick in the 2021 draft. He spent most of the season on the Broncos’ practice squad but did play 21 snaps in the Broncos’ second matchup with the Chargers.
  • Harris signed off the practice squad last December and played 70 snaps across the last two games of the year.
  • Uwazurike was the Broncos’ 116th pick in the draft and could quickly carve out playing time as a two-gapping five technique in the Broncos’ base personnel groups. A monstrous 6’6 and 316 lbs., he’s got the length and anchor to eat gaps.
  • Henningsen was the Broncos’ sixth round pick in this year’s draft. A former walk-on turned Academic All American who made Bruce Feldman’s Freak List, Henningsen’s traits make him an intriguing developmental player. He’ll need to improve the use of his hands to last in the league.

Musings

I expect the Broncos to carry six defensive lineman, though seven is a possibility. Both of the Jones’ are locks and Uwazurike isn’t going anywhere. It’s anyone’s guess after that.

Wide Receivers

Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Travis Fulgham, Seth Williams, Kendall Hinton, Tyrie Cleveland, Trey Quinn, Montrell Washington, Jalen Virgil, Brandon Johnson, Kaden Davis

  • Patrick and Sutton should be locks for the roster and their skillsets fully compliment the strengths of Russell Wilson’s game.
  • Jeudy was Elway’s last first round draft pick in 2020. Through two seasons he’s caught 90 passes for 1323 yards and three touchdowns. There is some debate about his fit in the new offense. Paton would not save money against the cap by trading him as he’s in the third year of his rookie deal.
  • Hamler was Elway’s second round pick in the 2020 draft. He’s caught 35 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns over his first two seasons in the league while landing on Injured Reserve each season. His 2021 came to an end in September when he suffered a season-ending knee injury that included a torn ACL. He was a limited participant in the Broncos’ pre-draft minicamp. Should Paton elect to move him after the first of June, it would free up $1,258,830 in cap space while creating a $687,661 dead cap hit.
  • Fulgham was signed to a futures contract after the 2021 season. He caught 38 passes for 539 yards and four touchdowns for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020 and logged nine snaps for Denver last year.
  • Williams was Paton’s sixth round pick in the 2021 draft and spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad. He played 43 offensive snaps in the second game against the Chargers and caught a 34-yard pass from Drew Lock.
  • Hinton is in the Hall of Fame after he served as QB5 against the New Orleans Saints in 2020. He also spent last season as the Broncos’ WR4 and caught 15 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He is playing on a veteran minimum deal this season.
  • Cleveland was a 6th round pick in the 2020 draft. He’s played 317 snaps across the last two seasons, mostly on special teams. Special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes identified him as a core special teamer at his pre-draft presser.
  • Trey Quinn was Mr. Irrelevant in 2018 and spent the first two years of his career as a receiver for Washington. He hasn’t played since 2020 when he logged five snaps for the Jaguars.
  • Washington was the Broncos’ second fifth round pick. The 5’9”, 181 lb. jitterbug looks destined for the punt return job and could moonlight as a slot receiver.
  • Virgil, Johnson, and Davis signed with the Broncos after they went undrafted this year. Virgil is a kick returner and size/speed receiver prospect who ran a 4.37 at 6’ and 210 lbs.

Musings

Hackett’s Packers usually carried five or six receivers on the active roster, which seems like a safe bet for Denver. Sutton, Patrick, and Jeudy make one of the more dynamic receiving trios in the league and I doubt Paton’s in a hurry to break that up before he sees them with Wilson. Washington’s draft pedigree suggests he has a roster spot earmarked for him. Hackett declined to put a timeline on Hamler’s recovery and it bears monitoring.

Offensive Line

Garett Bolles, Calvin Anderson, Tom Compton, Billy Turner, Drew Himmelman, Casey Tucker, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Quinn Meinerz, Netane Muti, Ben Braden, Zack Johnson, Luke Wattenberg, Michael Niese, Sebastian Gutierrez

  • Bolles, Glasgow, and Meinerz are locks for the roster. Bolles’ easy mobility makes him a strong fit in the zone/duo run game Hackett’s set to run. Glasgow’s anchor, hands, and savvy make him one of the better pass blockers on the team when healthy. Meinerz is a mauler who looked better handling stunts than I dared hope for last season. He recently said he wants to slim down after playing around 330 at points during his rookie season.
  • Turner, Anderson, and Compton signed similar one-year contracts that guaranteed about $1.5 million. All three look like locks for the roster because of the dead cap hits and the fact Paton did not draft a tackle. Each member of the trio offers some roster flexibility. Anderson’s a capable swing tackle while Compton and Turner offer guard/tackle versatility.
  • 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. I don’t think it happens, but if Paton elects 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.
  • Wattenberg was the Broncos’ third fifth round pick out of Washington. He enters the league as an older rookie after six years with the Huskies, but offers the kind of savvy, quickness, and versatility the new coaching staff looks for in their lineman.
  • Niese and Gutierrez signed with the Broncos after this year’s draft. Both are small school developmental prospects who look like they’re competing for a spot on the practice squad.

Musings

I suspect nine or maybe ten offensive linemen to make the active roster. Bolles, Glasgow, Meinerz, and all three right tackles look like they’re safe because of contract structures, if nothing else. That Paton didn’t spend any picks in the top 170 picks on a rookie offensive lineman bodes well for Dalton Risner, Netane Muti, and Lloyd Cushenberry.

Tight Ends / Fullbacks

Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Tomlinson, Greg Dulcich, Eric Saubert, Shaun Beyer, Andrew Beck, Rodney Williams, Dylan Parham

  • Okwuegbunam is the presumptive starter. Elway’s 2020 fourth round pick caught 44 passes for 451 yards and three touchdowns his first two seasons in the league and has the frame and hands to serve as a solid tertiary option for Wilson. He did miss time each year with lower body injuries.
  • Tomlinson signed a one-year contract that carries a million dollars in guarantees to be the Broncos’ blocking tight end. He’s caught 18 catches across 1218 snaps during stints with the New York Jets, New York Giants, and Baltimore Ravens. He’ll play the Marcedes Lewis role in Nathaniel Hackett’s offense.
  • Dulcich was the Broncos’ second pick after Paton traded down from No. 75 to 80 in the 2022 draft. He’s a dynamic receiver and savvy route runner who can log snaps inline, off the line, and in the slot. He caught six passes for 30+ yards his last year with the Bruins. Long-term I suspect he’s the starter, though he’ll need to improve his blocking technique.
  • Saubert signed a veteran minimum deal to return to the Broncos after the draft. He’s a sturdy blocker at 6’5”, 253 lbs. who also played 302 snaps on special teams.
  • 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 free agency began. During the Shurmur years he was a core special teamer who only rarely played on offense. He isn’t going to fool anyone into believing he’s Andy Janovich, but Beck’s a solid positional blocker and outlet receiver who could find new life as a fullback in Hackett’s offense.
  • Williams and Parham signed with the Broncos after they went undrafted this year. Williams has the type of athleticism to gamble on, but the numbers game doesn’t favor an UDFA tight end at all this year.

Musings

The Green Bay Packers usually carried four tight ends and a fullback from 2019-2021 and that’s a pretty safe bet in Hackett’s first year in Denver. I consider Dulcich and Tomlinson locks and believe Okwuegbunam will start. Beck is currently the prohibitive favorite for the fullback spot.

Running backs

Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone, Damarea Crockett, Tyreik McCallister

  • 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. There is some question about his fit into an outside zone run scheme, but his elite contact balance and very good athleticism makes him a big play threat.
  • Gordon signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million shortly before the NFL Draft. There’s conflicting reports about the incentives. 9News’ Mike Klis reported Gordon can earn up to $4 million while every other report is that he can make up to $5 million. The guarantees have not been reported yet. Like Williams, contact balance is a strength of Gordon’s all-around game and he compliments it with good vision. Inside zone is his bread and butter run play.
  • 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. A smaller back than Williams and Gordon, Boone brings the requisite acceleration, vision, and decision-making to take advantage of outside zone.
  • Crockett signed off the Broncos’ practice squad and is set to make the veteran minimum. Passing on backs in the draft suggests he’s in line for a role like last season where he’s the RB4 who bounces back and forth from the practice squad as needed.
  • McCallister signed with the Broncos after the draft out of Charleston. A diminutive runner at 5’9” and 181 lbs. who ran a 4.39 at his Pro Day, I suspect he’ll have to really impress as a returner to make the active roster.

Musings

I believe the Broncos will carry Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, and Mike Boone into the season opener, barring injury. How their workload is split up bears monitoring. Williams has everything you want out of a feature back, only the questions about his decision-making and vision add an element of uncertainty about his fit in outside zone until we see him against a live defense. Gordon will enter this season with more than 1,500 career carries on the odometer, a time when backs begin to decline.

Quarterbacks

Russell Wilson, Brett Rypien, Josh Johnson, Eric Barriere

  • 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.
  • Barriere will compete to make the Broncos’ roster at a minicamp tryout. A 24-year-old passer out of Eastern Washington, he won the Walter Payton award in 2021, given to the Offensive Player of the Year in the FCS.

Musings

The Packers carried two quarterbacks multiple times during Hackett’s time in Green Bay, so there’s a distinct possibility the Broncos enter the regular season with Wilson and one backup on the active roster.

Final Thoughts

Since Peyton Manning retired, John Elway and George Paton drafted, signed, or traded for 11 different starting quarterbacks. Some day years from now we can argue about Trevor Siemian vs. Case Keenum vs. Teddy Bridgewater as the best of them, but for now I’m merely grateful we’re done with the chase for competence. Barring significant injury or a precipitous decline off what he showed in 2021, Russell Wilson gives the Broncos the rightful heir to Peyton Manning. The trade created a Super Bowl window for a team that was “just a quarterback away,” so we’ll soon find out if Paton can build a roster to chase every Lombardi and win from now on.

If the new owner lets him.

Your Broncos’ News

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Paige has several other interesting notes in his article:

• Walton is the favorite because he can outbid Harris, has a close connection to Kroenke and would likely build a new stadium to rival Kroenke’s in Los Angeles

• Both Peyton Manning and John Elway would like to be part of whoever wins the bid and join the ownership group

• Harris has put together an extremely impressive group of folks who have purchased other sports teams who would be partners (like Johnson) However, according to a Broncos source, the process is not down to two finalists. The team is hosting multiple candidates, as the current step is still in the early stages. That is similar to what Paige tweeted above, changing his original reporting.