ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When new Denver Broncos general manager George Paton pulls into his parking space each day, it’s for a team that has missed the playoffs in each of the past five seasons.
But the Broncos have enough salary cap room to dive into free agency — currently north of $40 million with room to make more. They also have the No. 9 pick in the 2021 NFL draft and four picks among the first 109 with nine selections overall.
In short, they can get some things done — even in a year when the salary cap has gone down in the wake of the pandemic. The cap is expected to be somewhere between $185 million and $189 million per team.
So, what would a perfect offseason look like?
Many would say Desahaun Watson, but that’s gold at the end of the rainbow down a hidden, gilded path inside a Faberge football. And until it looks like the Houston Texans are actually taking calls about Watson it is little more than something fun to debate.
The Broncos must figure out what do do with linebacker Von Miller, who is the subject of a police investigation. Any decision on Miller will involve some discussion with his representatives about his contract and a clearer understanding between Miller and the Broncos about what any potential charges are or aren’t coming from the 18th Judicial District District Attorney.
Until more is known, let’s put this question off to the side.
As for the rest, here’s how the Broncos could win their offseason:
Re-sign Justin Simmons. The Broncos can let their top safety move on and say it just “didn’t work out” or that they “couldn’t get to a deal.” But every player left in the locker room will wonder: If you do what Simmons has done — five interceptions and 77 tackles in 2020 — and don’t get re-signed, is giving the Broncos a discount the only way to stay in Denver?
The Broncos have already released A.J. Bouye, and if they don’t engage the option year in safety Kareem Jackson‘s contract AND let Simmons go in free agency, they will be overhauling their secondary in the division where Patrick Mahomes plays.
Cornerbacks: The Broncos must address this position early, often and with both cash and draft picks. The No. 9 pick of the draft, or a slight trade down in the first round, will be the sweet spot for one of the top three cornerbacks on the board — Patrick Surtain II, Caleb Farley or Jaycee Horn.
There are cornerbacks with scheme-fit potential to be found on Day 2 and 3 of the draft and the Broncos should come away with at least two by the end of the three-day affair.
In free agency, long looks at the under-30 cornerbacks could include William Jackson III, Desmond King II and Shaquill Griffin. Older players at the position who have shown some recent durability and should get a look include Jason McCourty (16 games with 665 snaps played in ’20) and Patrick Peterson (16 games and over 1,000 snaps in ’20).
Don’t forget the big guys: Even if Ja’Wuan James returns from his opt-out season to be the right tackle — as expected — the Broncos still need to add here. The last time James played more than three games in a season was 2018 and he has never played more than eight in back-to-back seasons. Former starters at right tackle in the market will include Rick Wagner, Taylor Moton and Daryl Williams (Williams missed 2018 with a torn ACL, but started 16 games for the Bills last season). The Broncos should be ready to use multiple draft picks on at least one tackle and one swing interior player at guard/center.
Talk to people around the league and it’s clear Johnson and Patrick will quickly draw some interest if the Broncos don’t tender them at the second round or above — expected to be just above $3.3 million salary for the season for a second-round tender and more than $4.5 million on a first-round tender.
The Broncos were reticent to work through a long-term deal for Lindsay a year ago even when they said they would look at it. It seems clear that Lindsay could simply be tendered at “right of first refusal” given he entered the league as an undrafted rookie. In that scenario the the Broncos wouldn’t receive any compensation if he was signed elsewhere and that would be a clear indication they don’t quite believe in the Colorado native.
Aaaaand at quarterback: Watson ain’t on the market folks and the Broncos likely don’t really have the draft pick juice even if he was (that first first-rounder in any deal has to be better than No. 9) . So, go with Drew Lock for one more extended look and pay up for the best veteran free agent who can both mentor and push Lock without being a problem.
A caveat would be if Dak Prescott is truly allowed to enter the market, then take the longest of looks and get the checkbook ready. But many in the league see the Cowboys eventually ending the odd, somewhat inexplicable, dance they have done with Prescott with a contract.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is 38 years old, but has proven to be a player who can both mentor and play well enough to push the player he’s mentoring. Jameis Winston has two 4,000-yard passing seasons as well as a 5,000-yard passing season on his résumé — to go with the 30 interceptions that season. He’s talented enough and is just 27 coming off a football rehab year in New Orleans.
Lock must clean up his footwork and decision-making and the Broncos must have a backup QB good enough to help win games if Lock can’t. The 2021 season is not one for hurt feelings and the Broncos have proven they’re not too concerned with Lock’s psyche since they dipped into the Matthew Stafford discussions.