Daily Camera (Boulder)
A busy offseason of change for Broncos
Organization turns attention to free agency, draft
INDIANAPOLIS >> At the outset of a busy week at the NFL Scouting Combine here, Broncos head coach Sean Payton had a lengthy to-do list.
Denver’s executives and coaches worked deep into the night interviewing players. Payton told reporters he had a conversation on the books with former Detroit head coach Matt Patricia about a spot on his staff. He still has a spot on the strength staff and a couple of other openings to round out his first coaching staff since accepting the job last month.
It’s par for the course for all coaches, especially newly hired ones.
“For the early part of six, seven, eight months, whenever you go to sleep at night, your checklist won’t be complete,” Payton said when hired Feb. 6. “That’s just part of the deal.”
As the Combine wraps and the start of free agency draws closer — the negotiating window opens March 13 and the new league year officially begins March 15 — Payton and company will turn their attention more fully to the current roster. Denver has 17 impending unrestricted free agents.
“I don’t know if it was a deep dive,” Payton said Tuesday when asked about how thoroughly he’s worked through the roster. “It wasn’t with scuba tanks, but it was with a snorkel. I’ve had the chance to work with (GM George Paton) and talk about our players.
“When we get back from the Combine, we’ll have another meeting that will take the better part of two days. We’ve been ongoing with that.”
As the NFL heads into player acquisition season between free agency and the draft (April 2729), following is a look at where the Broncos’ roster stands and possible next moves:
Free agents to be
The Broncos’ biggest impending free agent is defensive lineman Dre’mont Jones. The 26-year-old is unlikely to be tendered after Paton said in Indianapolis that Jones “is going to hit the market” on March 15. So, too, will fellow defensive lineman Deshawn Williams.
The other 15 break down like this:
Offensive line (5): Calvin Anderson, Tom Compton, Cam Fleming, Dalton Risner and Billy Turner
Tight ends (3): Andrew Beck, Eric Saubert, Eric Tomlinson
Running backs (3): Mike Boone, Marlon Mack and Latavius Murray
Inside linebackers (2): Dakota Allen and Alex Singleton
Defensive backs (2): Safety Kareem Jackson and corner Darrius Phillips
Denver also has four restricted free agents (quarterback Brett Rypien, defensive back P.J. Locke, cornerback Essang Bassey and long snapper Jacob Bobenmoyer) and four exclusive rights free agents (inside linebacker Jonas Griffith, outside linebacker Jonathan Kongbo, offensive lineman Quinn Bailey and punter Corliss Waitman).
Salary cap situation
Denver sits around $9.6 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap data, which is in the middle of the pack for the NFL. The Broncos have not made any known moves to clear cap space, but they have several they can explore.
The emergence of 2022 rookie Damarri Mathis at cornerback may make Paton and company think about cutting veteran Ronald Darby, which would save $9.6 million on the cap and cost $3 million in “dead” money. Similarly, cutting offensive lineman Graham Glasgow would net $11 million in cap savings ($3 million dead). They are almost sure to address running back Chase Edmonds’ contract as the Broncos owe him no guaranteed money despite a cap number of $5.92 million and could cut outside linebacker Jacob Martin (potential $3.8 million in savings) and others at less impactful amounts.
One of the benefits of having a new, deep-pocketed ownership group is the Broncos can create cap space by converting salary to bonus money. Most of the top-paid players on the roster are candidates for some kind of contract conversion if Denver needs the cap space.
Essentially, the Broncos aren’t swimming in salary cap resources, but they have the flexibility to be aggressive in free agency.
Once again, the Broncos are light on draft capital. Their original first- and second-round picks belong to Seattle as part of last year’s trade for quarterback Russell Wilson. They acquired San Francisco’s first-round selection via Miami for Bradley Chubb, but dealt it to New Orleans for the right to hire Payton as their head coach.
Denver currently has six draft picks. Its first selections come back-to-back at Nos. 67 and 68 near the top of the third round.
“We’re always looking to add. It’s not always easy,” Paton said. “It’s easier to do during the draft, to move back and you can acquire picks. We’ve done that here. We’ve done that at other places I’ve been. I do think the top five (selections) of the third round is kind of the sweet spot of the draft.
“If we can get a couple really good players to contribute, we’re going to do that. But we’re always looking for picks.”
The third round has been fruitful for the Broncos’ general manager. He’s turned all three picks in the past two drafts into starters in right guard Quinn Meinerz (2021, No. 98), outside linebacker Baron Browning (2021, No. 105) and tight end Greg Dulcich (2022, No. 80).
If Paton doesn’t like his options at the top of the third, he could trade one of them to add picks later in the draft.
The Broncos could also decide to trade a player for draft picks. The players that could command the biggest returns are often ones teams are unwilling to part with — All-pro cornerback Pat Surtain II, for example. But if Denver finds itself looking for mid-round picks, perhaps it could shop one of its veteran receivers such as Courtland Sutton or Tim Patrick.
Two positions of need Offensive line
Paton minced no words when addressing the position group likely to see the most action this offseason.
“Obviously, we need to upgrade on the offensive line,” he said.
Denver will be looking for quality and quantity, considering its quintet of free agents and overall underwhelming 2022 production. Risner (15), Fleming (15), Turner (seven) and Anderson (six) combined to start 43 games but all also missed time due to injury.
The Broncos continue to look for long-elusive continuity at right tackle — Could Atlanta’s Kaleb Mcgary make sense as a free agent target? — and are in the market for multiple starting-caliber players.
“It just kind of depends on what’s stronger: Is free agency stronger or the draft stronger?” Paton said.
Interior options via free agency include guards Ben Powers, Isaac Seumalo and Nate Davis and centers Ethan Pocic, Connor Mcgovern, Garrett Bradbury and Jon Feliciano, among several others. At tackle, the big names include Mike Mcglinchy and Orlando Brown, though they could land back with San Francisco and Kansas City, respectively. Perhaps Paton and Payton will like the idea of bringing back Fleming and/or Anderson as swing options, but that won’t be enough.
Another spot Paton said the Broncos have to address as Javonte Williams still has months ahead in his rehab from a serious knee injury Oct. 2 and Denver has three free agents.
“I look at our depth chart and we have, like, nine running backs,” Paton said. “We obviously had a lot of injuries there.” Indeed.
What’s interesting is the Broncos should have several options. It could end up being a star-studded free agency crop. Saquon Barkley will lead it if he doesn’t receive an extension or get franchise tagged, but Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, David Montgomery, Miles Sanders and NFL rushing touchdowns leader Jamaal Williams (17) could also be out there. This is also considered a strong draft year for running backs.
Will the Broncos be content to bring back Latavius Murray, who is one of Payton’s favorites and emerged as a strong locker room presence in 2022? Will they mine the middle rounds for a back like Tulane’s Tyjae Spears? Or will they swing big in free agency? Edmonds is also in the picture, though only if he agrees to some form of contract restructure.
Defensive line is another key position for the Broncos and two other interesting spots are inside linebacker and tight end. The Broncos would love to get linebacker Alex Singleton re-signed, but the free agent crop is an interesting one and now headlined by Bobby Wagner. After him, there are several others, including San Francisco’s Azeez Al-shaair, who should draw interest.
The Broncos have three free agent tight ends and will build around Dulcich after his promising rookie season. They need more blocking — reasonable options including Tomlinson will be available via free agency — but could capitalize on the fact that it’s considered a strong draft at the position, too.
“I think the tight end group is the best I’ve seen in the last 10 years. It’s outstanding,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said on a pre-combine conference call.
Substantial movement ahead
Amid a lot of uncertainty, this much seems clear: The Broncos are set for a busy spring on the personnel front. Payton harkened back to his first years in New Orleans when he was introduced: “There was turnover in that first couple seasons. There were a number of players that ended up playing on our Super Bowl team in 2009 that were a part of that transition. It was difficult. It was uncomfortable.”
He installed a system around newly signed quarterback Drew Brees. He revamped his entire offensive line that first offseason. Then the Saints made hay in the middle rounds of the draft, landing offensive lineman Jahri Evans (six Pro Bowls) in the fourth round and offensive lineman Zach Strief (2013 first-team All-pro) and wide receiver Marques Colston (9,759 career receiving yards and 72 receiving touchdowns) in the seventh.
Maximizing the relatively modest resources at Denver’s disposal this offseason will likely include creating more cap space and perhaps adding draft picks. It will also rely heavily on Payton and Paton — and their respective staffs — quickly getting on the same page about what they’re looking for in the first place.
“You never stop learning,” Paton said about understanding what particular coaches want in players. “I was with Mike Zimmer (in Minnesota) for four years and you’re still learning because things evolve, things change, defenses change, offenses change. But the more time — Sean and I, we’ve talked a lot of football. We talked coaches, but we’re digging into, ‘What are we looking for at left tackle? What are we looking for at the X position?’
“You never quite become an expert, but the goal is for our scouts to be experts. They can walk on a campus and say, ‘That’s a Denver Bronco player.’ And so, the more we talk — and it’ll start this week with our new coaches — the better decisions we’ll make.”