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.
Of course, this year proved exceptional, as my initial road map was steered in a vastly different direction due to the agreement to trade for Russell Wilson before the 2022 league year started. Therefore, this evaluation is instead on the reoriented road map that was tweaked after the Wilson news broke.
1. Nothing more to see at quarterback, goal succeeded, move on.
Status: Didn’t exactly move on
I don’t particularly see the need to sign Josh Johnson as a backup to Wilson, but it’s hardly an objectionable signing. And fairly, I have to admit that I would have been OK to see the team take a flier on Sam Howell in the 4th or 5th round. The likely plan here appears to be to hope to sneak Brett Rypien on the practice squad for one more season. Whether that succeeds or not is yet to be determined.
2. Fix the right tackle position
a) Offer a right of first refusal RFA tender to Calvin Anderson
Status: Succeeded with security
The Broncos and Anderson agreed to what turned out to be a one year, fully guaranteed $2.5M extension. This was slightly higher than the $2.433M right of first refusal RFA tender that Anderson could have been subject to, a tender that would not have been guaranteed. Instead, the Broncos show good faith in one of their hardest working players by securing Anderson a salary in exchange for securing no competition from other teams for his services.
b) Sign a veteran right tackle
The Broncos bring back old friend Billy Turner at $2.44M, and also signed longtime Shanahan system tackle Tom Compton at $2.25M. The hope for 2022 is that they’ll be able to patch this extensively troublesome position for one more season with one of Anderson, Turner, or Compton, and kick the can on this trouble to 2023.
c) Draft a right tackle
I get that it’s not good to force a position at the draft if the talent just isn’t there. At least they did give themselves a UDFA shot by signing Sebastian Gutierrez. But the Broncos are setting themselves up for a very difficult shot at a long term solution for this position in 2023. As it stands now, they will only have five draft picks, none higher than the 3rd round. Unrestricted free agency, meanwhile, is set to have Mike McGlinchey as the top right tackle, perhaps followed by Jack Conklin, Jawann Taylor and Rob Havenstein. Any of those players could end up getting extended to narrow that market further. I hope they’re well aware of how daunting of a task they’ll have ahead.
3. Replace Shelby Harris on the interior defensive line
a) Sign a veteran IDL.
The Broncos signed DJ Jones to a pretty standard 3 year veteran contract for $10M APY with two years fully guaranteed. When the Broncos play with three interior defensive linemen, DJ Jones should form a trio well with Dre’Mont Jones and Mike Purcell, with rotation as appropriate.
b) Acquire a rookie IDL.
The Broncos doubled down on this position in the draft with Eyioma Uwazurike in the 4th round and Matt Henningsen in the 6th round. These rookies should put some pressure on the remainder of the IDL depth chart, with some of those players perhaps not making the active roster.
4. Acquire a backup tight end
The Broncos drafted Greg Dulcich with the 80th overall pick, brought back Eric Saubert, and also signed Eric Tomlinson. These three players will give plenty of depth behind Albert Okwuegbunam at this position.
5. Bolster the running back position
a) Re-sign Melvin Gordon for no more than $4 million APY.
Status: Succeeded, likely under budget
Unable to get more satisfactory offers elsewhere, Gordon elected just before the draft to return on a one year, $2.5 million contract, with the ability to get to $4 million via incentives. Gordon will be coupled once again with Javonte Williams, but unlike in 2021 I would not expect an even steven snap count load, and for Gordon to be a clear backup to Williams for 2022.
b) Acquire a rookie running back
The Broncos signed Tyreik McAllister as an undrafted free agent.
6. Bolster the edge rusher position
a) Offer a 2nd round RFA tender to Malik Reed
Status: Succeeded under budget
The Broncos instead elected to go with the ROFR tender with Reed. They were correct to gamble more than I was willing to, as Reed received no interest on the restricted free agent market and quietly signed his tender.
b) Sign a veteran edge rusher
After it appeared that Randy Gregory might return to the Cowboys, the Broncos were able to snipe Dallas on signing him for the same contract, but without guarantee waivers the Cowboys were demanding.
c) Draft a rookie edge rusher
The Broncos drafted Nik Bonitto with the 64th overall pick.
Given the moves the Broncos have made at edge rusher, they have set themselves up for a very deep depth chart here for 2022, with Bradley Chubb leading the way, followed by Gregory, Reed, and Bonitto, as well as Jonathon Cooper from the previous draft, plus consistent statements that Baron Browning will play “outside linebacker”, although it might still be determined as to whether that equates to edge rushing. However, it’ll be highly unlikely that Reed will return in 2023, and all this depth will also put into some question as to what Chubb’s future will be in Denver beyond 2022, as a contract extension for him will have to account for the other talent at his position on the roster.
7. Sign two linebackers
Status: Succeeded in part, failed in part
The success is straightforward: the Broncos extended Josey Jewell for two years at $5.5M APY, right in line with the budget I had set for a starting linebacker.
However, the Broncos have yet to make a move for a backup linebacker, as I suggested. Micah Kiser and Kenny Young have both defected to the dark side. Alexander Johnson surprisingly remains unsigned, and thus could remain an option to build depth. However, it appears likely that the Broncos under Ejiro Evero will elect to run light on snaps for off ball linebackers, playing plenty of nickel and dime formations that may very well keep Jewell as the only such linebacker accruing a high number of snaps, relying on Jonas Griffith and Justin Strnad as primary depth, with Alex Singleton perhaps also available aside from a special teams role.
This current depth chart is what makes me skeptical about Browning being transitioned to a true edge rusher. We’ll learn more as training camp and preseason progresses, but it would not surprise me if “outside linebacker” equates more to a hybrid position that keeps Browning mostly off the ball, but also allows the Broncos to take advantage of his athletic ability to give him a multitude of duties while still garnering a high number of snaps.
8. Sign a nickel cornerback
The Broncos signed K’Waun Williams to a two year, $2.6M APY contract. Williams will look to compete for snaps with incumbents Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey, along with competition from 4th round rookie Damarri Mathis, 7th round rookie Faion Hicks, UDFA Ja’Quan McMillian, and veteran Blessaun Austin. Many of these corners should get plenty of snaps under the likely nickel and dime formations that are coming to Denver.
9. Let Kareem Jackson walk unless he’s willing to sign for cheap
I had set a budget of about $2 million for Jackson to return, and that is what he got, fully guaranteed. I’m happy to see Jackson back in Denver for one more campaign, and I’m eager to see his veteran leadership continue to seep into the younger defensive backs on the team.
10. Do not offer RFA tenders to Diontae Spencer, Andrew Beck, Austin Schlottman, or DeShawn Williams
Of these four, Beck and Williams returned for near minimum salaries for guaranteed money amounts of $200,000 each. Neither should be guaranteed roster spots but both should provide good competition for the team as a whole in training camp at the very least.
* * * *
Ignoring the quarterback point, out of fifteen goals I mapped out for the Broncos this offseason, George Paton and company concurred in thirteen and a half of them, and dissented on only one and a half. The half is in regard to the lack of veteran linebacker depth, but that is a situation that will likely be mitigated by nickel and dime formations that reduce the need for linebackers on the field, and can likely be remedied easily on the street free agent market (including, but not limited to, bringing back Alexander Johnson).
The full point of dissent is at right tackle, where the answer remains unsatisfying even if there were not more practical options available. Aside from that position, the Broncos have done well to decidedly fill their needs in free agency, and stock up above and beyond that with their rookie class. As a result, this team should be well poised to be in very serious contention in the 2022 NFL season.