2022 ended up being one of those Murphy’s Law seasons for the Broncos that’s liable to strike at any moment to any NFL team. It’s also particularly cruel that it had to strike at the time where they’re not reaping high draft picks from it, but at least they went into the season knowing that they would not be reaping such regardless of record. The team got caught in two very vicious negative tail end distributions to end up with a 5-12 record.
The first was a ridiculously high amount of injuries. I’m not sure if I can remember a Broncos season that had this magnitude. The Broncos were regularly leading the IR department throughout the season. In sum, the Broncos saw their starting running back, their #3 and #4 wide receivers, their starting left tackle and center on the offensive line, and one each of their starting edge rushers, linebackers, and cornerbacks spend considerable time on injured reserve. And this doesn’t even get into multiple games missed by almost every major wide receiver and offensive linemen on the team, as well. There are very few teams that could come out of those type of injuries with a good record.
And the second was an unusually bad choice at head coach, with Nathaniel Hackett becoming the very rare coach that didn’t even make it out of his first season. And this was quite deservedly so, as he looked like he was in over his head from the start of the season and just continued to progress more toward that conclusion as the season progress. Unlike, say, Josh McDaniels, Hackett did not contain non-coaching aggravating factors, but it was evident that the Peter Principle remains a constant. I hope Hackett can find a good job elsewhere in the NFL even if he proved quickly he is not head coaching material.
Resolve the first tail end distribution with better luck, and the second with better skill, and there’s a great chance for the Broncos to bounce back. But as with every team with every offseason, there’s always work to be done, and as always I’m here with my opinion through my annual offseason road map.
1. Make signings at interior defensive line
This position is set to become very shallow at the depth chart, with Dre’Mont Jones and DeShawn Williams being two starters set to become unrestricted free agents, and plenty of uncertainty as to whether Jonathan Harris or 2022 rookies Eyioma Uwazurike and Matt Henningsen will be able to step up to be starters. Efforts to retain Jones and Williams should be made.
a) Budget $14 million APY for a high starting veteran IDL contract (Dre’Mont Jones)
In the summer, I had proposed a $11 million APY deal for Dre’Mont Jones that was similar to what the team signed DJ Jones for last offseason. Dre’Mont Jones has played his way up a tier to above the $13 million APY or so of a DJ Reader or Javon Hargrave. But I would not push much further beyond $14 million to retain Jones. That’s about at the level where contracts could start to begin to be valued in the 3rd round for compensatory pick purposes, and that would be a convenient upper bound to draw. There’s been some talk that Jones could be a franchise tag candidate, but with that projected to come close to $20 million, I see that as impractical.
b) Budget $5 million APY for a low starting veteran IDL contract (DeShawn Williams)
At his age (Williams recently turned 30), a one or two year contract of this APY is more appropriate. If Williams is not retained, a younger player might be able to secure a contract that’s slightly longer and slightly higher in APY, but alongside the high starting veteran, there’s not much higher the team should reasonably go at this specific spot of the depth chart at IDL.
2. Make moves within the interior offensive line
a) Cut Graham Glasgow unless he is willing to take another pay cut
$11 million in 2023 salary due is obviously too high for Glasgow, and he is thus the one and only obvious cut candidate on the roster. If Glasgow is willing to do a similar pay cut down to about $3 million as he did last season, then by all means bring him back, but his current scheduled salary cannot remain on the books.
b) Sign a starting left guard
Dalton Risner should be the leading candidate for fulfilling this goal. However, while I had proposed a four year, $40 million contract for Risner in the summer, I would now recommend a one year deal as best for both sides due to the uncertainty and turmoil the entire offensive line was thrown under, and allow Risner and the Broncos to reestablish themselves. $10 million for a one year deal would still be an appropriate limit, as anything above that would likely put Denver eligible to get a 4th round 2024 compensatory pick for his departure. If Risner does not return due to getting more from another team, any UFA eligible to become to a free agent should be signed for less than $10 million APY, as an effort to potentially avoiding direct cancellation of Risner’s departure.
c) Sign a backup interior offensive lineman
This can be Glasgow for around that same $3 million salary, or it can be an external option, but there should be some veteran depth and/or competition for Quinn Meinerz and Lloyd Cushenberry.
3. Try the best to fix right tackle
No position has bedeviled the Broncos for a longer active drought than this one. Can it finally be solved?
a) Sign a starter…very cautiously
I was consistently pessimistic to Broncos fans that top tackle talent like Elgton Jenkins, Jack Conklin, and Mike McGlinchey would not hit the fully unrestricted free agent market. Indeed, Jenkins and Conklin signed extensions less than two hours within each other, and I will be stunned if the 49ers do not at least use the franchise tag on McGlinchey. That leaves a grim free agent market at the position. The Broncos need to find someone who is capable and worthy of starting, but they must not overpay, and avoidance of such of an overpay should also include the contract being short, either one or two years in length. I won’t venture to list a specific budget here due to that grim uncertain market, but I will observe that the transition down from the top tier descends rapidly from $17 million to $7 million in APY. I’d be skeptical of any contract that ventures much beyond $7 million APY.
b) Sign a swing tackle
This goal, however, is more straightforward to acquire at or near the minimum salary. There are plenty of incumbent candidates to consider among Cameron Fleming, Calvin Anderson, or Billy Turner, as well as likely external candidates as well.
4. Bolster the running back position
This position is in a troubling status of uncertainty right now. Javonte Williams suffered a multiligament knee tear early in the 2022 season, and while Williams says he is confident he will be ready for next season, multiligament knee injuries are not a joke, and out of caution, I expect Williams to enter 2023 training camp on the Physically Unable To Perform list, and I would not be surprised if that stay unfortunately creeps into the early part of the regular season. The Broncos must have good depth at running back if Williams is indeed not ready to play by Week 1.
a) Budget $7 million for multiple veteran running backs
The number of $7 million is calculated by taking the $6 million in non-guarnateed salary due to Chase Edmonds in 2023, plus another $1 million to approximate the minimum salary due to a vested veteran NFL player. I would be fine with keeping Edmonds at that salary, and bringing back one of Latavius Murray, Marlon Mack, or an external veteran running back at the minimum salary. I would also be fine with cutting Edmonds or approaching him with a successful pay cut, and allocating more of that budget to Murray, Mack, or others. But in both scenarios, the Broncos need to be prepared to be deep at the position without Williams if need be.
b) Acquire at least one rookie running back
But the depth should not stop with veterans. As always, this rookie may be acquired drafted or undrafted, but getting into training camp at least four deep without Williams (Tyler Badie or Damarea Crockett are younger incumbents for RB4) should be the goal. Successfully getting a productive rookie can also help keep the position budgeted very properly should Williams and the rookie be atop the depth chart for at least the next two seasons.
5. Bring back Alex Singleton at around $4 million APY
Singleton was a very pleasant surprise at linebacker, becoming a critical contributor when Jonas Griffith went down for the season. A one or two year extension to allow to keep Singleton rotating in with Griffith and Josey Jewell should keep this position deep. Singleton also provides special teams value, keeping consistent with two thirds of the snaps played there, just as he did when he was with the Eagles.
6. Place a right of first refusal RFA tender on Brett Rypien
OTC currently estimates this to be a little over $2.6 million. That is typically fair for a standard backup quarterback contract. The Broncos should not entirely preclude looking for an upgrade at backup quarterback, but retaining Rypien at little cost and with little effort needed is an easy first step for the Broncos to take, even if it’s ultimately not the only step.
7. Bring back Kareem Jackson on another similar one year contract if he wants to keep playing
It’s amazing how Jackson still keeps making plays well into his mid-30s–and playing very high snap counts too: his 93.6% contribution when Caden Sterns went down for the season was very much needed. If he doesn’t think he’s done, throwing another couple million his way and see if he can still make the team alongside Sterns and Justin Simmons would be good.
8. Exercise Jerry Jeudy’s fifth year option
There might have existed a universe early on when the exercising of his option could be put in doubt, but Jeudy extinguished that exhaustively with a torrid pace to conclude the season–particularly the last game. Making the decision easier, although it came at a cost of not having Jeudy on the field as much as desired, is that Jeudy will only be due the lowest level of fifth year option (a figure perhaps below $13 million) due to failing to play 75% of the snaps in any season, nor breaking 50% in all three seasons. As with all things regarding this ridiculously bad injury luck, it needs to be expected to get much better in the future, with a future that has Jeudy reaching new heights.
9. Make no decision on Ronald Darby’s contract until after the draft at the earliest
Darby is due $10 million in non-guaranteed salary in 2023. However, he is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in October, and while rehabbing, he would be eligible for a CBA mandated injury protection of $2.1 million. Even by the beginning of May, it would be a stretch for Darby to be football ready. The good news is that the Broncos need not rush on allocating Darby’s scheduled $10 million elsewhere: the team has great restructure potential should any salary cap balancing be needed.
And of course, it’s always important for teams to have an abundance of good cornerbacks. The prudent course of action would be to welcome Darby back to training camp (even if there’s a bit of a PUP start), and see how he fits among Patrick Surtain II, Damarri Mathis, K’Waun Williams, and other veterans and possible rookies. If the abundance grows to a point where Darby at $10 million does not make sense, perhaps a trade could be investigated, and Darby could be cut until as late as right before Week 1, when termination pay under the CBA would come in play.
Get as many great football players in the draft and as UDFAs as possible
This is obviously not an official goal on the road map, but a reminder of a general observation that the Broncos should take with regard to building the 2023 rookie class. No position should be forced, as that’s where reaches happen, and I have high confidence that George Paton would not do so. I do want to emphasize this point for right tackle in particular, due to, as described above, this position still leaving a massive hole on the roster, and it will be tempting for observers to pencil in the best one at that position in the first round, even if he’s nowhere near the best player available.