At the conclusion of each Broncos season, I pave out a road map as to what my suggestions are to improve the roster. At this time of year, most relevant roster decisions have been made. Thus, as always, it’s a good time to evaluate my road map as compared to what the Broncos actually did, keeping me honest and making sure that I address anything I got wrong.
1. Indemnify the quarterback position.
a. Cut Jeff Driskel.
This one took longer than most of us thought, or may have wanted, but it eventually did happen just after the draft, and in the end, the extra time made no practical difference. Driskel is now in Houston as part of a competition preparing for a hard-to-believe post-Deshaun Watson possibility.
b. Budget $9 million APY for a high level backup quarterback.
I’m not wild about giving up draft capital in attaining this goal, but I can definitely buy the argument that Teddy Bridgewater could be a better veteran option than the quarterbacks that were in unrestricted free agency. But what made this acquisition particularly impressive is that the Broncos were somehow able to get the Panthers to eat $7 million of his guaranteed base salary. That is excellent work done by George Paton to get well below my maximum stated budget, as the Broncos will only pay Bridgewater a maximum of about $4.4 million in 2021.
c. Acquire a rookie quarterback
This, to me, is easily the most disappointing thing about the Broncos’ offseason. I can buy arguments that passing up on Justin Fields and Mac Jones make good sense. But if either quarterback becomes a success in the NFL, this decision will haunt the Broncos no matter how well Patrick Surtain plays, just as it has with taking Bradley Chubb over Josh Allen.
(As an aside, I do find it fascinating that almost all the criticism going the Broncos’ way on this decision involves Fields, drafted by the infamously and historically QB-starved Bears, and hardly any involving Jones, drafted by one of the greatest coaches ever in Bill Belichick.)
However, even if neither Fields nor Jones succeeds, it was inexcusable for the Broncos to not come out of this rookie class with even an undrafted free agent. Neither Bridgewater nor Drew Lock has done enough to demonstrate that either can be counted on for sure as the long term answer at the position. We all hope that one of them will do so. But until that day comes, the Broncos need to be acquiring at least one rookie quarterback every offseason. Instead, they put all of their chips in Lock and Bridgewater, and if both of their career trajectories stay the same, the Broncos risk yet another disappointing season if the quarterback play cannot be overcome by the rest of the roster.
2. Exercise Von Miller’s 2021 option, and do nothing with his contract until after training camp.
I’m still quite surprised that this was once considered to not be a slam dunk decision, but it was correctly made in the end. We should all look forward to seeing what Miller can do in 2021, starting in training camp, and if he is looking particularly impressive during then, his future with the team beyond 2021 can start to be discussed as soon as then.
3. Address the safety position.
a. Retain Justin Simmons.
Status: Succeeded cum laude
Although it briefly took a second franchise tag to get a long term contract done, it got done well in advance of any July deadline, as was common with many past Broncos extensions. Simmons got a fair deal in line with what I expected him to get, and I’m very happy that a player of his caliber can be presumed to be a Bronco for the foreseeable future.
b. Do nothing with Kareem Jackson’s contract until training camp, if at all.
Status: Failed in the name of succeeding much better
I badly misread Jackson’s market, and thankfully Paton and the Broncos did not. They took a gamble that clearly paid off, as they declined Jackson’s option for $10 million in 2021, then let him test the market and discover that he wasn’t going to get anything better than going back to the Broncos for half of that salary. I look forward to seeing Jackson in Denver for one more season with his veteran presence.
c. Acquire a rookie safety.
The Broncos used back to back 5th round picks to draft Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson. Both of these players should aim to try to become the long term successor to Jackson after the 2021 season.
4. Budget $12.281 million for one starting veteran defensive lineman.
As expected, the Broncos only kept one of Shelby Harris and Jurrell Casey, cutting the latter, and extending the former to a three year, $27 million contract that is a great deal for the Broncos and very well deserved for someone like Harris that has had to excessively grind to get the long term contract that he has sought.
5. Take a look at AJ Bouye’s contract against the current roster and veteran cornerback market.
Status: Succeeded with overwhelming emphasis
I was not surprised when the Broncos chose the second of four scenarios on how to handle Bouye: they determined that Ronald Darby at three years, $30 million was better than retaining Bouye. I was surprised–not by the Broncos, but inexplicably by the Bears–when Chicago stunningly cut Kyle Fuller. When something like that happens, you have to pounce even if it’s unexpected, and that’s what Paton did, getting Fuller on board for one season at $9.5 million. By this point, I presumed that the Broncos were more than set at cornerback, with Darby, Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, and Essang Bassey. But then, it was the Broncos that surprised me heavily this time when they used the 9th overall pick on Surtain.
I was skeptical of takes that suggested that cornerback was a major position of need for the Broncos, but clearly Paton was not, and I will cede a possible mistake on my part there. That said, I can totally understand the drafting of Surtain even with who they acquired beforehand. From a pure roster management standpoint, both Fuller and Callahan will be free agents next offseason. But in a deeper analysis that conjoins what’s been done at cornerback with all of the retentions and acquisitions at safety, it suggests that Denver is working on a unique strategy of overwhelming their opponents’ passing games with a high quality and quantity of defensive backs. When Patrick Mahomes is your division, that may very well be a wise strategy, and if it works, it could be revolutionary.
6. Work on the running back position.
a. Give Phillip Lindsay a 2nd round restricted free agent tender.
I’m not sure why the Broncos did not view Lindsay in a regard as higher that others have. Even at the lower right of first refusal tender that the Broncos did initially offer, I thought that would be a good deal to keep Denver’s running back depth chart deep. But in any case, when it became clear that the Broncos were not truly invested in having Lindsay in Denver for 2021, they did right by him by rescinding the RFA tender and to let him find a new team on an expedited basis.
That team ended up being the Texans, who promptly signed him to $3.25 million for one season. I wish Lindsay well in Houston and am eager to see how he will do there.
b. Make no decision on Melvin Gordon’s status until NFL discipline for his DUI is resolved.
Status: To be determined
Gordon had his DUI charges dismissed, so his judgment in the court of law has been settled. Whether that will settle the matter in the court of Roger Goodell, however, remains an open question. Gordon will see his $4.5 million salary guarantee voided if he is suspended. But on the other hand, unless that decision comes down before training camp, he is in much better shape to be able to earn a $2 million reporting bonus to training camp. Particularly with Lindsay now gone, I would expect Gordon to remain a Bronco in 2021, but we shall see.
c. Acquire a rookie running back.
The Broncos traded up to the 35th overall pick to draft Javonte Williams. As a matter of draft capital management, I am not a fan of selecting a running back this high, and especially not a fan of trading up to do so, for a team in Denver’s situation. However, I am willing to cede to those who agree with Paton in believing that the Broncos may have gotten a special player. In any case, Williams will be expected to be the Broncos’ running back of the future for quite some time if all goes to plan, and they did need some long term answer for that position to be addressed in 2021.
7. Work on the linebacker position.
a. Give Alexander Johnson a 2nd round restricted free agent tender.
Very little to talk about here.
b. Acquire a rookie linebacker.
There may be some question about whether third round pick Baron Browning should play at linebacker or at edge rusher, but for now he’ll start at linebacker, so I’ll mark this goal as a success. Browning and Justin Strnad will give the Broncos some depth options after this season should they by unable or unwilling to retain Johnson and/or Josey Jewell.
8. Give Tim Patrick a 2nd round restricted free agent tender.
Once again, a straightforward decision.
9. Address the right tackle position
a. Presume Ja’Wuan James as the starting right tackle.
I have no idea how to evaluate what happened here. Due to his $10 million salary guarantee, at the time the Broncos had no choice but to keep him for 2021 and see what he could do–and in press conferences Paton conveyed just as much.
But then, in an unfortunate act of solidarity with his union gone horribly wrong, James tore his Achilles tendon while working out away from the Broncos’ facility. This allowed the Broncos to cut James with a non-football injury designation, thus relieving them of that $10 million guarantee.
It’s terrible that it had to come to this for James, but the Broncos really had no choice but to go forward with this transaction. After missing most of 2019 with injury, and opting out of 2020, it wasn’t sustainable for the team to sink another $10 million in James given all the unknowns regarding his future. I would have been amenable to some sort of settlement that kept the door open for James in 2021, but I fully understand the Broncos deciding to move on.
b. Budget $2 million for a swing tackle
Status: Succeeded, but as a completely different goal
With James now gone, the Broncos now needed more than just a veteran swing tackle–they needed a starting right tackle. And they acted quickly by bringing in Bobby Massie for $2.5 million, and Cameron Fleming for a base value that’s undetermined right now but was reported to be “up to” $3.67 million. Between those two and Calvin Anderson, the Broncos hope to find one starting right tackle and one reserve swing tackle.
10. Address depth at tight end.
a. Do not give an RFA tender to either Jake Butt or Troy Fumagalli, but consider bringing either or both back for cheaper.
Status: Succeeded by moving on
Neither Butt nor Fumagalli has found new teams yet, so unfortunately we may have to consider whether their NFL careers will even continue at this point.
b. Consider looking at Nick Vannett’s contract.
Status: Succeeded by cutting him
As I suspected, Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam are the future of this position in Denver, and it left no practical room for a veteran contract like Vannett held. For further depth the Broncos will instead look young, with Austin Fort coming back from injury and priority UDFA Shaun Beyer looking to fill those roles.
Unlike Butt and Fumagalli, Vannett was able to quickly find a new home with a three year contract with the Saints. I wish him well there and hope his career can continue.
11. Bring back any of the following UFAs as backups if the price is right.
Status: Succeeded by moving on
These players were Jeremiah Attaochu, Will Parks, Joseph Jones, and De’Vante Bausby. All but Bausby found places elsewhere, and I think the other three all found places where they have a good chance to contribute more than they would in Denver.
12. Exercise Bradley Chubb’s fifth year option
The road map concludes with another very obvious decision.
* * * *
Out of 21 identified goals in the road map, I only count two that can I could reasonably call outright failures. One of them, letting Lindsay walk, was at least mitigated by the drafting of Javonte Williams, and it likely leaves the Broncos’ depth at running back even.
The more concerning failure, in my mind, was not deepening the quarterback position more with a rookie. Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater, and Brett Rypien is a chart that, while not completely hopeless, as of now looks to be one of the weaker ones in the league. That’s not good for the most important position in football. Yes, adding a rookie would have not changed the bottom line on that immediately, but it would have given them another chance to improve against the more known players already on the roster, and what’s known has not been sufficient. Of course I hope that one of them shatters what’s known for the better. But if they don’t, and the Broncos have another unacceptable season due to poor quarterback play, I will be very disappointed that they didn’t do more to try to avoid it.
But with that heavy caveat established, overall I’m quite pleased with Paton’s first offseason in Denver. I felt he correctly addressed the needs of the team in free agency, sought to take good football players not chained to need in the draft, and acted, as promised by him, aggressively but not recklessly. If the Broncos can get enough good quarterback play, I expect them to contend seriously in 2021, and Paton deserves much credit for getting them in that position.