Next offseason, the Broncos will have a high number of unrestricted free agents to address. As of this publication, that stands at 21 players, and I identify 12 of those that could be important to retain beyond 2021. Normally, I would write up examinations of potential extensions for some of these players. This year, however, I believe there is so much uncertainty with nearly all these players that it would not be worthwhile to offer detailed contract examples at this point. Instead, I believe we need, at the very least, to see how these players do in training camp, and perhaps some regular season play as well, before we can get a better idea on what fair future compensation is, for both the team and the player.
Here’s a list of the players in question, and what we should be looking for on the field to help determine their contractual futures in the NFL.
There was immediate doubt on whether Miller would even play another snap in Denver after he went down with a season ending injury just before the 2020 regular season. But the Broncos, in my opinion, did the right thing in picking up his option for 2021 at the scheduled cost of $18 million. They will get one more season to see where Miller is at in his career as he recovers from his injury.
Due to a combination of likely vet days and very limited participation in the preseason, I think it would be in the best interest of both Miller and the Broncos to not broach extension talks until Miller has created some facts on the ground in the regular season. I also think that it’ll take a precise alignment of facts on the ground to secure an extension well before the start of the next league year. The Broncos have Bradley Chubb upcoming as the team’s leading edge rusher, and they have a promising young EDGE in Malik Reed that will likely be due a sizeable restricted free agent tender. Figuring out how Miller’s contract will align with them will be important.
It’s never easy to think about a team legend potentially departing, but that is a real possibility for Miller in 2022, and a decision on his future, on both sides, could come down to the wire, perhaps all the way to the two-day negotiating period before the start of free agency
Assuming all goes well in recovery from his torn ACL in 2020, Sutton figures to be the top priority among UFAs for the Broncos after this season. While that injury does add uncertainty that makes an extension right now perhaps unwise for both sides, even if Sutton had a healthy and excellent 2020 season I doubt anything would have been different contractually. That’s because the wide receiver market struggled mightily last offseason. The leading UFA contract went to Kenny Golladay at only $18 million APY, well below the top tier that’s broached $20 million. Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin came nowhere close to signing extensions after being franchise tagged. JuJu Smith-Schuster had to settle for a humbling $8 million to stay in Pittsburgh in hopes of finding a better deal in 2022.
Sutton is likely going to face similar uncertainty at his position’s market until some of those players that had to settle for one year contracts get more clarity on their long term futures. That’s why I think the franchise tag is the likely short term scenario for Sutton. That tender is currently estimated at a shade over $19 million, which beats out Golladay but is still short of the $20 million and over leaders. It should be enough to get Sutton to sign the tender, while both he and the Broncos watch where the wide receiver market goes to give guidance on how Sutton’s long term contract should look.
Patrick did well in relief of Sutton in 2020, racking up 762 yards and 6 touchdowns that translated to 183 in DYAR and 16.1% in DVOA. The question for him in training camp is whether he will be able to emerge any greater than the #3 WR on the team, with Sutton and Jerry Jeudy slated ahead of him, and KJ Hamler right behind him for some competition.
While it would be unfair to Patrick, unless he is able to ascend the depth chart, I have doubts that his free agent market will be substantial in 2022. In addition to the perception of being just a #3 WR, he will also turn 29 during the 2022 season. And all of that is on top of the aforementioned uncertain wide receiver market in general.
If I had to pick one Bronco on this list where I could see an extension before training camp begins, it would be Patrick. If it’s clear he’s going to be the #3 WR, and wants to stay in Denver long term, I could see he and the Broncos agreeing a two or three year contract that pays him in commensurate to that job before the regular season starts. I could also just as easily see Patrick wanting to roll the dice on finding a starting job elsewhere next season.
At his age, Jackson is clearly on a year-to-year arrangement with the Broncos. That arrangement was made more obvious when the Broncos secured a halving of his scheduled pay for 2021. If Jackson continues to play well this season, the door should remain open for one more season in 2022. However, Jackson will also have two drafted rookies in Caden Stearns and Jamar Johnson behind him on the depth chart, and if either shows good potential this season, it could induce the Broncos to move on from Jackson for good.
Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan
It’s going to be a crowded, but likely good, cornerback room for Denver in 2021 with Fuller and Callahan playing alongside top 2021 free agent acquisition Ronald Darby, and first round rookie Patrick Surtain II. Age will be an aggravating factor for both Fuller (turning 30 in 2022) and Callahan (31), but if both play well, both should be in line to get reasonable contracts. If that happens, the Broncos could be faced with a situation, similar to Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson in 2016, where the team may have to choose only one of the two to extend. Other factors could also be how Darby and Surtain perform in 2021, or whether the Broncos feel they need to prioritize keeping veteran cornerback on one of either the inside or outside.
Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell
Another either-or decision may come up at linebacker. Johnson is likely more talented than Jewell, but will also be the older player, turning 31 in 2022. There is also younger talent behind them with Justin Strnad and potentially Baron Browning ready to provide some competition. It might not hurt for the Broncos to try to offer them team friendly extensions to see if they can get one of them locked up long term. However, given that nickel is the new base in the NFL–and given the massive cornerback depth mentioned above, Vic Fangio may be running plenty of dime–I find it highly likely that the Broncos will not extend both, given that a linebacker will often go off the field in those packages.
Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming
These two players are clearly one year patches in the Broncos’ continuing struggle to find a good right tackle. With both being older than 30 at some point in 2022, I do not expect either back unless it is for the similar bargain prices that they are slated to earn this season. In such a scenario, they would either be a swing tackle for a more ambitious free agent acquisition, or for insurance should they try to find a long term solution in the draft.
The overwhelming prevailing wisdom is that this will be Gordon’s last season in Denver. I think that is the likely outcome, as the Broncos have invested significant draft capital in Javonte Williams, suggesting that he’ll be the primary running back in Denver for the foreseeable future. However, I do think there exists a scenario in which Gordon tries to find more money elsewhere, only to find out that his best offer is from Denver at a lesser price.
Finally we address what I believe could be the most complicated free agent question on Denver’s horizon in 2022. Now, this does not turn out complicated if Drew Lock emerges as the unquestioned starter in 2021–in that case, Bridgewater likely becomes ensconced as a career backup from here on out, and his market will be quite reasonable should the Broncos want to retain him in that role. Complications may also be low if Bridgewater starts but plays poorly, but that is a scenario that the Broncos do not want to see.
The complicated scenario is if Bridgewater ends up the starter and performs well enough to be a clear starter. This will put immense pressure on Denver to retain Bridgewater at the typical premium veteran starting quarterbacks get on the market. And the Broncos will have to ask themselves whether such a good year from Bridgewater can be proof of consistency in the long term, and whether they’re willing to make an expensive commitment to him.
Making matters more complicated is that if the Broncos were to let Bridgewater leave, they would not be eligible for a compensatory pick in return. This is because in exchange for getting Bridgewater to take a pay cut, the Broncos agreed to shorten his contract so he could reach free agency sooner. Such a shortening makes Bridgewater ineligible to become a compensatory free agent (CFA).
One option that could become more viable due to the lack of CFA status would be the transition tag. Usage of this tag also makes players ineligible to become CFAs, but as described above that is already the case with Bridgewater. This tag is currently projected to come in at about $26 million for quarterbacks, which would be the lower end of veteran starting quarterback pay. However, it would also put lateral pressure on the Broncos to get an extension done with Sutton without the aid of the tag, as teams can only use one of either the franchise or transition tag per season. If another team wants to pay Bridgewater more than $26 million APY, the Broncos can look at the contract structure and determine if that’s a price they’d be willing to pay.