Around this time last year, I took a brief long term look at where the Broncos could be headed. With training camp starting tomorrow, I felt that it would be a good idea to expand this to an annual effort to coincide before training camp. The goal here will be to break down the take into a look at three time spans when roster questions will come up:
- Immediate: questions that need to be (and likely will be) answered before the upcoming regular season. This may include a few training camp battles, but my take will be lighter on those battles, as they will be covered heavily elsewhere in any case.
- Next offseason: questions that need to be kept in mind for after the conclusion of the upcoming season.
- Further beyond: possible questions that could come up with the roster in multiple years in the future.
Running back depth
Much to my very pleasant surprise, Javonte Williams will not begin training camp on PUP, not even as a brief “use it or lose it” designation–they’re choosing to lose it from the start. This is a strong showing of confidence in Williams’s availability for the entirety of the regular season. Nonetheless, even if he is fully available, there still needs to be tempering for his full range of skills being available. With only Samaje Perine and three very unheralded running backs alongside, and with the possibility of still not wanting to stress out Williams too much in camp, the entire position needs to be scrutinized, and to see if more veteran talent is needed to get the depth where it needs to be.
Who’s the third starter at interior defensive line? If it’s even needed?
DJ Jones and Zach Allen will take control of two of these positions with little doubt. But beyond them lies huge questions. 32 year old Mike Purcell is one possible answer. Second year players in Eyioma Uwazurike and Matt Henningsen are two others despite snap counts not exceeding 20% in 2022. Journeyman Jonathan Harris could be a fourth. There are of course other players below them that are longer shots.
One aspect to watch for in the preseason is what formation Vance Joseph trots out with nickel or greater at defensive back. It is entirely possible that we could often see just two IDLs in that formation, alongside the two edge rushers and two off ball linebackers. But if we see three down linemen more often, the third alongside Jones and Allen needs to be scrutinized closely, and to see if production there is sufficient, or whether they need to look at available veterans.
Too much depth at wide receiver?
Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, and Marvin Mims should all be locks for the roster. That leaves Kendall Hinton, KJ Hamler, Marquez Callaway, Montrell Washington, Jalen Virgil, and Brandon Johnson at the very least battling for what might be just one or two more WR spots on the roster. Hinton and Hamler will be at immediate disadvantages due to Hinton being placed on PUP and Hamler being placed on NFI. If neither is able to emerge off those lists, then the logjam is lessened a bit.
Otherwise, this is a position that I would look hard to highlight with competition, and if that competition goes well, there might be an outside chance that a trade could emerge for a player who’s near the outside looking in in Denver, but might not be elsewhere. The Broncos could still use as much draft capital as they can get.
Who’s the future at edge rusher?
Randy Gregory and Frank Clark look to be the present starters. But that present may not last into the future. Clark is on a one year contract, and come next year Gregory will be 32 and have no more guaranteed money left on his contract. There is a decent chance that come 2024 the Broncos will have entirely new starting edge rushers.
That transition would be far less painful if younger players on the team can step up and produce. The good news is that there’s plenty of them on the roster in Baron Browning, Jonathon Cooper, Nik Bonitto, Aaron Patrick, and Christopher Allen. Someone on this group needs to step up this season. If not, the Broncos could be stuck looking at a hole at one of the most important positions on the defense.
Can anyone currently on the roster succeed Lloyd Cushenberry?
Cushenberry is perhaps the most notable young player on the roster entering the final season of his contract. The Broncos also have a habit of not prioritizing center for extensions. Cushenberry’s overall production has been uncertain enough that it could be wise to let him walk in 2024. But if so, the team could really use an assist from an incumbent offensive lineman to show some potential in training camp. Second year player Luke Wattenberg, rookie Alex Forsyth, and veteran Kyle Fuller will be the key names to watch for on lower strings in training camp and the preseason.
Is this the last season for Josey Jewell in Denver?
When the draft comes, it’s never quite certain which incumbent players might see their successor drafted, due to the high uncertainty of how the chips will fall as names are called. For 2023, those chips may fall on Jewell after the Broncos drafted Drew Sanders in the 3rd round. With Alex Singleton recently extended, along with Sanders and Jonas Griffith on board, if all players show a base level of production, there just may not be room for Jewell after this season, and after he turns 30. That answer will likely not come as soon as training camp, but clues in or away from that direction may start to emerge.
The obligatory Russell Wilson mention
So many pixels have been spilled on this subject, and so many more will be, but the bottom line is quite simple: if Wilson bounces back, they let the $37 million injury guarantee on his 2025 salary vest to full, and proceed forward with him for the subsequent two seasons. If he doesn’t, before that injury guarantee vests, they cut him with a June 1 designation and move on. There’s really nothing more to say for his future.
Who are the safeties of the future?
The presumptive goal for 2023 would be to have Justin Simmons and Caden Sterns as starters, Kareem Jackson and PJ Locke as main backups, and JL Skinner and Delarrin Turner-Yell as possible promising young players.
However, the main backups will be be free agents after this season. not to mention that the age defying Jackson will be 36 by next offseason. And the presumed starters will be free agents the offseason after that. And while Simmons has been consistently one of the team’s best defensive players ever since he entered the league, he’ll be 31 next season. According to new work I just released on Over The Cap that I am terming contract fate, among 38 safeties that received 4 year vested veteran contracts since 2011, only ten of them, making for a paltry 26.3%, either finish out their contract or have a renegotiation that saw their pay rise. Simmons will make it through Year 3 of his contract, but according to past history, it’s a coin flip as to whether he’ll make it through the final season without being cut or asked to take a pay cut.
Simmons should see fellow 2016 3rd round safety Kevin Byard being forced into the latter fate as a warning sign, and no matter how much Broncos fans will want to see Simmons stay for a long time, they should also prepare themselves for a possible and eventual future without him, especially if Sterns and Skinner in particular take a big step forward.
How much more in the tank does Garett Bolles have?
It should be clear that in the immediate short term, unlike with Javonte Williams I have no worries about Bolles being 100% ready for the 2023 season. However, the same longer term veteran question asked about Simmons also has to be asked about Bolles, who like Simmons has two seasons left on his four year contract extension.
A mitigating factor from my contract fate research is that left tackles compete with quarterbacks for the least likely negative results against finishing out their contract. But an aggravating factor for Bolles is that, as someone who notably entered the NFL at an older age, he’ll be 32 next season. Nonetheless, I am overall bullish that Bolles will finish out his contract, if for no other reason that unlike with Simmons, there are not obvious successors to his role. But after hopefully finally ending their long regional nightmare at filling right tackle by signing Mike McGlinchey, similarly hopefully the Broncos start to do the work to avoid the same problem emerging at left tackle should Bolles start to show his age.