The old saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ would seem to apply to the Denver Broncos under head coach Sean Payton. This implies that you simply don’t turn a team that had missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons into a perennial contender in one offseason, but you had better start laying down some of the foundation for that.
After missing the playoffs for the eighth-straight time, Rome continues to be constructed here in Denver for another offseason. Like their 2023 NFL Draft class, their 2023 free agent class was also a bit of a mixed bag in reviewing their first season with the Broncos. Unlike the rookies, free agents shouldn’t need multiple seasons to begin making an impact for their new team. That is why you sign veterans for big contracts in the first place, but let’s look at where Payton hit and missed last year.
G Ben Powers
There was a lot of hype around the signing of guard Ben Powers to a four-year, $52 million contract and seemed to point towards a big focus on an improved rushing attack this season. Our own offensive line guru, Ross Allen, gave Powers a ‘B’ grade at the midway point this season, but from there it really seemed like his play fell off. Pro Football Focus ended up grading him out with a pedestrian 61.5 on the season.
Given the up and down nature to his season, I’m going to remain neutral on this grade. We saw some potential from his early on and some poor play late, so maybe he’ll clean that up and come back much stronger next season.
T Mike McGlinchey
In their worst free agent signing of the year, the Broncos picked up former San Francisco 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey for a massive five-year, $87.5 million deal. McGlinchey did not perform anywhere near his contract as he ranked near the bottom of the league in blown block rate at 5.32% and gave up the fourth-most sacks on the season with eight.
Denver is stuck with McGlinchey through at least the 2025 season due to the way his contract his structured. His 2025 salary becomes fully guaranteed in a few months if he remains on the roster. If his play doesn’t pick up significantly next year, he could be a thorn in the offensive line’s side until 2026. Hopefully he’ll pick things up next season.
DE Zach Allen
The Broncos rounded out their first phase of free agent signings with a three-year, $45.75 million deal for veteran interior defensive lineman Zach Allen. His performance this season was a bit up and down. There were games where he was absolutely dominant and worth every penny of that big deal, but there were many games where he was just non-existent.
PFF gave him a grade of 71.9, which is about average. He finished the season with roughly similar stats to his previous season with the Arizona Cardinals, so in that regard Denver got what they paid for since he basically matched his best season statistically. The Broncos will likely keep him through the end of his three-year deal despite the cap number.
TE Chris Manhertz
When the Broncos signed tight end Chris Manhertz, they got exactly what they were looking for which was a blocking tight end for short yardage situations. He signed just a two-year, $6 million contract, which likely means he’ll be around through 2024.
With Russell Wilson, Sean Payton’s clear focus this season was to establish a strong rushing attack. While that strategy ended in mostly another mixed bag of results, Manhertz did his job in the short yardage situations. I’d call him a hit considering what he was signed to do in Denver.
QB Jarrett Stidham
No one thought much of the Jarrett Stidham signing when it happened, but he would be starting by seasons’ end due to the likely divorce between Denver and Russell Wilson coming this offseason. In his two starts, he performed at roughly the same level as Wilson had all season with 496 yards passing with two touchdowns and one interception.
His two-year, $10 million deal was fairly reasonable in year one, but his cap number rises to $7 million in year two and he could face the chopping block this offseason. I would think that if Denver goes big in the 2024 NFL Draft with a first-round quarterback, then they might keep Stidham for another year just as a solid backup option.
RB Samaje Perine
In what I would call their best free agent signing of the cycle, the Broncos added running back Samaje Perine to their roster. The two-year, $7.5 million deal is super friendly and I would expect him to finish that contract out here in Denver.
While the backfield was initially dominated by the return of Javonte Williams and rookie speedster Jaleel McLaughlin, but by midseason it seemed like Perine was clearly the best running back of the three and most consistent. The running back position is one that fans likely think is strong, but if Williams doesn’t come back fully from injury in 2024 they could have some major issues to solve there.
Denver rounded out their free agency in 2023 with four more signings that I would consider all hits for what they were signed for. Often, this late in the free agency period, these would be depth additions. However, Denver got two major contributors from the bunch and a solid depth guy as well.
- CB Tremon Smith
- FB Michael Burton
- P Riley Dixon
- RB Tony Jones Jr.
Tremon Smith ended up being a significant special teams contributor all season playing 85% of snaps with that unit. While both Michael Burton and Riley Dixon became starters at their positions. The only miss from this group was Tony Jones Jr. who didn’t make it out of the preseason with Denver.
Final Thoughts on the 2023 Free Agent Class
Overall, I think the free agent class was okay. Sean Payton hit on most of the depth picks and even found some major contributors there, which is pretty important for a team trying to get above .500 for the first time in over a half decade. However, he mostly either missed or meh’d his biggest signings and that hurts. If you are paying a dude big money and they don’t perform up to that contract it hurts your football team — just look at Russell Wilson’s contract.
We already know the Broncos don’t plan on being active in the first phase of free agency this year, but that might be a good thing given their short track record here. They hit pretty solidly on those second tier signings and if they can duplicate that type of success this time it will certainly help them next season and improve the overall depth of the roster.
What did you think of the 2023 free agent class? Let us know in the comments section below.