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2021 Broncos Offseason Road Map

The Broncos will enter a new era of football leadership, with John Elway moving on to a presidential role with the team for 2021, and hiring a GM that will take over the duties of improving the team.

And that new GM is going to have some pressure to improve immediately, because what has happened recently is simply not Denver Broncos football. Five straight seasons of missing the playoffs. Four straight losing seasons. 29th in DVOA. Swept by the Chiefs for five straight seasons. Swept by the Raiders–the Raiders!–for the first time since the rock bottom season of 2010. This is unacceptable. Yes, injuries and a pandemic have taken their toll. But that should only raise the expectations further for 2021, and expectations should always be high in Denver.

As always, here my annual recommendations on how to turn things around for the positive.

1. Indemnify the quarterback position.

57.3% completion rate. The number of touchdowns was only one more than interceptions, the latter of which he tied the league in number. 75.4 passer rating, 48.8 QBR. 63.5 PFF grade. -16.2% DVOA, -151 DYAR. Whether directly suggested by that last number from Football Outsiders, or indirectly via all of those numbers, Drew Lock performed below replacement level in 2020, and as such, the Broncos need to obtain a potential replacement.

I want to stress that doing so does not mean giving up on Lock. There is no good reason to do when he is on the usual reasonable rookie contract for two more seasons. He should be given a very fair chance to retain his starting role in 2021–but unlike in 2020 he should not be given the benefit of the doubt, and should receive real competition for the job.

a. Cut Jeff Driskel.

Driskel was woefully inadequate as the primary backup in 2020. Cutting him relieves the Broncos of the $2.5 million that’s due to him in 2021, of which needs to be contributed for a better answer at the position.

b. Budget $9 million APY for a high level backup quarterback.

Marcus Mariota is the current clubhouse leader in this department at $8.8 million APY. The Broncos need to find the best backup quarterback that they can get from the veteran ranks. If they can negotiate one for a lower price, that’s great, but they cannot go so low that they end up settling for a Driskel level talent.

c. Acquire a rookie quarterback

As always, I will not suggest who, when, or how the Broncos acquire this rookie quarterback. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss this in the months ahead. However, I would make this clear: the Broncos need to be thinking big at this position. Patrick Mahomes ain’t leaving the AFC West any time soon. In order for the Broncos to regularly contend with the Chiefs, and the rest of the league, they need at least a well above average quarterback to do so. That doesn’t necessarily require using the 9th overall pick in 2021, but it shouldn’t preclude it, either. if it’s determined that there is an opportunity to pounce on such a quarterback in the 2021 rookie class, at any point in the acquisition process, the Broncos must do so–and should regularly do so until that goal is achieved.

2. Exercise Von Miller’s 2021 option, and do nothing with his contract until after training camp.

There’s been a lot of chatter about Miller’s future with the team ever since he suffered an injury that ended up costing him the entire season. In particular, people are observing the final season of his contract where he is due $18 million as a possibility for something to change.

It is important to note that with only one season remaining, Miller’s contract cannot be automatically restructured by the Broncos. Even adding void years to convert his base salary into a signing bonus would require Miller to agree to it. And given that he’s missed an entire season, I do not foresee much desire for either Miller or the Broncos to agree to an extension as of now.

If I’m right in that guess, then the only remaining ways to gain spending elsewhere via Miller’s contract is to let him go or ask for a pay cut. And despite the projected loss in revenue from the pandemic, I do not see that as necessary at all. Given Miller’s Hall of Fame reputation, I would instead leave his contract alone, see how he plays in training camp, and if he’s still the Von Miller we’ve all come to enjoy, negotiate a possible extension at that point.

Finally, one last quick point: declining Miller’s option will no longer allow the Broncos to get a compensatory pick for his departure, via Appendix V, Paragraph 8 of the 2020 CBA.

3. Address the safety position.

a. Retain Justin Simmons.

I’ve already made it clear that Simmons needs to, and eventually will be, paid as a top tier safety, and his long deserved Pro Bowl honor only cements this further. As I also made clear, this is not a contract that should be difficult to negotiate. The Broncos and Simmons should get to work on it right now and get it done.

The only way I could understand using the franchise tag on him again, at a still below market $13.73 million tender, is only to buy time to put the finishing touches on an extension. Otherwise, if the Broncos aren’t serious about paying him at the top tier, they should let him go to unrestricted free agency and work on getting a 3rd round compensatory pick for his departure.

b. Do nothing with Kareem Jackson’s contract until training camp, if at all.

Like Miller, Jackson is entering the final season of his contract, and is due $10 million in salary. Also like Miller, Jackson’s salary cannot be automatically restructured. Given that he’ll be 33 in 2021, I would not consider an extension for him, nor use void years to spread out the $10 million against the cap (which would require guaranteeing the salary that is spread out) until it becomes evident in training camp that he’s still a clear cut starter.

c. Acquire a rookie safety.

Given the presence of Jackson (one more season under contract at age 33), the Broncos should be looking for young talent at this position, either in the draft or undrafted free agency, to provide competition for Trey Marshall as Jackson’s eventual successor.

4. Budget $12.281 million for one starting veteran defensive lineman.

This precise number is what is due to Jurrell Casey in total salary in 2021. Whether Casey should be paid that amount, however, is up for very fair debate. Indeed, he will likely be the leading candidate on the team to be approached with a pay cut for 2021–and when a team does so, they must be ready to cut that player if he balks at the offer. Once again, the Broncos can offer fully guaranteed money from what’s left after the pay cut.

Furthermore, Shelby Harris is set to become an unrestricted free agent again after being forced to settle for a one year, $3.25 million contract in 2020. I thought Harris would get far more on the open market when it appeared that the Broncos wouldn’t re-sign him. I haven’t bothered examining an extension for him because I am still very uncertain what his market for 2021 will be.

Regardless, unless there is unexpected market undervaluing once again, in my opinion the Broncos should retain only one of Harris or Casey, and not both. They will have Mike Purcell coming back on an extension of his own, and Dre’Mont Jones should be expected to emerge as the third starter given his production in 2020.

5. Take a look at AJ Bouye’s contract against the current roster and veteran cornerback market.

Bouye will be suspended two more games to start the 2021 season. After the salary and per game bonuses that he will lose, Bouye will be due exactly $12 million if there are 17 games in 2021, or just a shade below if there are 16. I’m not yet certain of the proper path for Bouye’s future; I would instead want to first ask the defensive coaching staff and the pro scouting department some questions:

  1. Is a starting nickel lineup of Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, and Essang Bassey sustainable for 2021? If the answer is yes, then the Broncos should move on from Bouye and look to fill the #4 CB spot with a rookie or a veteran on a low level contract.
  2. If the answer to question #1 is no, then is there a veteran cornerback set to be available that can do better than Bouye? If yes, the Broncos should pursue that veteran instead of retaining Bouye.
  3. If Bouye is still a good option, is he still a good option at $12 million? If not, then can be convinced to take a pay cut, once again in exchange for giving him some guaranteed money?

I can be accepting of all three of these scenarios, or even the fourth in which Bouye is retained at his current unguaranteed salary, as adequate cornerback depth is critical in the NFL. But the Broncos should do the work in investigating all four scenarios to see which one is likely to be the best one.

6. Work on the running back position.

a. Give Phillip Lindsay a 2nd round restricted free agent tender.

Such a tender is likely to come in to around $3.4 million. Despite a tough 2020 season, it appears likely to me that given his reputation as a Pro Bowl rookie, another team would pay him more than that, given the running back market, were he to be given only a right of first refusal RFA tender that would not return any draft compensation.

b. Make no decision on Melvin Gordon’s status until NFL discipline for his DUI is resolved.

Gordon is due a $2 million reporting bonus for training camp, per game roster bonuses (PGRB) totaling $500,000, and a fully guaranteed $4.5 million base salary. However, if he is suspended, not only will he obviously lose game checks and a little PGRB money, but his full guarantees will also void. It would seem likely that a decision from the NFL should come down before late July, when his reporting bonus is due. If so, the Broncos and Gordon can then negotiate as needed on whether it’s appropriate to ask for a pay cut in exchange for restoring some guaranteed money and/or paying his roster bonus earlier than scheduled.

c. Acquire a rookie running back.

No matter what happens with Lindsay and Gordon in 2021, both will be unrestricted free agents in 2022. Given this scheduled desiccation of the running back depth chart, as well as the position’s notorious deprecation, the Broncos would be well suited, either in the draft or undrafted free agency, to look for young talent here in cause Lindsay and/or Gordon are not retained after 2021.

7. Work on the linebacker position.

a. Give Alexander Johnson a 2nd round restricted free agent tender.

This is another tender decision that should be straightforward. One thing to watch at inside linebacker, however, is that both Johnson and Josey Jewell will be unrestricted free agents in 2022. Justin Strnad could be a potential replacement for one of them, but this could be a position that loses depth quickly…

b. Acquire a rookie linebacker.

…hence this pairing subgoal. Like with running back, it can be either in the draft or in free agency, but expanding the depth for the future here would be prudent.

8. Give Tim Patrick a 2nd round restricted free agent tender.

Earlier in the season, I was tempted to say that it would not surprise me if the Broncos only offered an ROFR tender to Patrick. However, my opinion has changed for two reasons. One is that Patrick is starting to attract attention leaguewide as a quite productive receiver. The other is that Jerry Jeudy has surprisingly but mightily struggled his rookie season, so much that he came in second to last in DYAR. It’s very reasonable to suggest that this will be an aberration for Jeudy, but in case struggles continue for him and KJ Hamler, making sure that Patrick stays in Denver for 2021 for around $3.4 million is a price well spent.

9. Address the right tackle position

a. Presume Ja’Wuan James as the starting right tackle.

This is likely not going to be a popular goal among the fans. But the Broncos have no other practical choice. He is fully guaranteed $10 million in salary for 2021. I can’t foresee any team willing to take on all or even most of that salary in a trade. That $10 million is likely going to be a sunk cost, so the Broncos should see what they can get out of James in 2021. He should compete for his job like any other player, but that competition is going to have to come at a low cost.

b. Budget $2 million for a swing tackle

Regardless of how one feels about James, the Broncos still need someone to cover for him or Garett Bolles should either get hurt, as both Demar Dotson and Elijah Wilkinson will be UFAs. The Broncos should either bring one of them back, or look for an external free agent to provide this insurance.

10. Address depth at tight end.

The future at the top of the depth chart here should be clear: Noah Fant as the starter and Albert Okwuegbunam as the primary backup. Who should follow them is less clear.

a. Do not give an RFA tender to either Jake Butt or Troy Fumagalli, but consider bringing either or both back for cheaper.

An estimated $2.24 million is too much for a likely #4 TE at best. Things have been challenging for the careers of both Butt and Fumagalli, and the challenges will continue for them to continue in the NFL, either in Denver or elsewhere.

b. Consider looking at Nick Vannett’s contract.

Similarly, Vannett is due $2.6 million in total salary for 2021. His contract was signed before they drafted Okwuegbunam, so the Broncos may want to consider whether that’s an appropriate expenditure at the #3 TE spot, especially if Shurmur continues to run an offense that’s heavy on 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE). There need not be a burning desire to move on from Vannett, but he’s a player to watch in training camp depending on both his performance alongside Okwuegbunam’s recovery from ACL surgery.

11. Bring back any of the following UFAs as backups if the price is right.

Those players are, in no particular order:

  1. Jeremiah Attaochu
  2. Will Parks
  3. DeMarcus Walker
  4. De’Vante Bausby
  5. Joseph Jones

These players have all proven worth in varying ways. I would welcome them all back if they’re unable to get better deals elsewhere.

12. Exercise Bradley Chubb’s fifth year option

His deserved Pro Bowl honor should raise that price for his services in 2022 up from about $10 million to about $13 million. The fifth year option will also be fully guaranteed, a change in the 2020 CBA. But all of that is money well spent to keep Chubb under contract for another season at an overall reasonable price compared to the edge rusher market as a whole.

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A final note on the salary cap

As always, I dislike lumping NFL contractual matters overwhelmingly into the framing of the single word “cap”. In truth, the cap is only one slice of many important matters when it comes to building an NFL team. And I believe that this will be more true than ever for this offseason.

The Broncos will be paying a little more than their base rookie contracts for Courtland Sutton, Josey Jewell, and DaeSean Hamilton due to achieving Proven Performance Escalators. They’ll also get a credit for the salary lost by Bouye due to his suspension. After the Broncos place tenders on all their exclusive rights free agents, the 2nd round restricted free agent tenders I have recommended for Johnson, Lindsay and Patrick, I’m guessing they’ll only have about $6 million in cap space in a likely scenario where the leaguewide salary cap plummets to the lowest possible, at $175 million. On the surface, that does not seem like it’ll be enough to complete the entire road map as I’ve laid out.

However, allocation of cap dollars can be greatly manipulated to take advantage of the hurdles at hand. The Saints regularly prove this every season under Mickey Loomis. Furthermore, the Broncos will have more flexibility to leverage this than most other teams in the league: they are above average in cap space as compared to their peers. And I expect all teams to use this leverage, as the pandemic will come to an end, and imminently new TV deals likely shoot future salary caps up to new records.

When the Broncos negotiate an extension with Simmons, they should keep his 2021 cap number as low as feasible, as they did with Bolles. Should they follow my advice of signing a high tier backup quarterback, they can use void years to spread out a Year 1 salary if it takes $10 million to get that quarterback. Any pay cut requests can also use void years to better deliver guarantees to those players in a form of a prorated signing bonus.

Do not buy into any possible fear mongering that the cap will stop the Broncos from doing what they need to do to improve the team. It won’t, nor should it, given the heightened expectations and pressure that the front office should be under to get this team’s performance back to where it belongs as regular contenders.