By Alex Bartlett

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Denver Broncos:

2020 Recap

Denver Broncos
Credit: Jack Dempsey (Associated Press)

The Broncos came into 2020 with a lot of momentum behind second-year quarterback Drew Lock after a 4-1 finish to his rookie season. They added some young dynamic playmakers on offense and bolstered their defense with a number of veteran starters. However, a year that began with so much promise soon turned to disaster as injuries ravaged through the locker room and the team spent a fifth straight January watching the playoffs from home.

With stars on both sides of the ball including Von Miller and Courtland Sutton sidelined for the season, the Broncos looked to Lock for inspiration. But the 42nd overall pick in the 2019 draft regressed, leaving the franchise with questions at the game’s most important position.

Such was the disappointment of the 2020 season in Denver, it will likely be best remembered for the 31-3 week 13 defeat to the New Orleans Saints, which saw practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton start at quarterback after Lock, Blake Bortles and Brett Rypien missed the game due to breaking Covid protocol. 

Now entering his third season at the helm in Colorado, defensive mastermind Vic Fangio is on the hot seat and under pressure to close the gap to the division and conference champion Kansas City Chiefs. 

Staff Changes

Denver Broncos
Credit: Aaron Ontiveroz (Denver Post)

While Fangio’s coaching staff remains much the same it is all change at the top in Denver. Mr Bronco himself John Elway has moved on from his role as general manager after 10 seasons. The first half of the legendary quarterback’s tenure in the front office was successful as he managed to lure Peyton Manning to the franchise who subsequently led them to their third ring in 2015.

However, the Hall of Famer has received a lot of criticism from fans for the failure to find Manning’s replacement, placing faith in a number of sub-par single callers, most notably Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. Lock’s fall from grace in 2020 was the nail in Elway’s coffin. The two-time Super Bowl champion remains in the building and has taken up a role as President of Football Operations. His first job was finding his replacement. 

That man tasked with turning the Broncos fortunes around is former Minnesota Vikings assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel George Patton. 

State Of The Roster

There is plenty to get excited about for Broncos fans and this team is a lot closer than their 5-11 record in 2020 suggests. If Sutton can return to his brilliant best from his ACL injury then the receiving corps is one of the better young groups in the NFL. Rookie Jerry Jeudy flashed signs of the potential that made him a top prospect, but several drops have raised concerns over the Alabama star. 

The improved offensive line was the most pleasing aspect of last season with 2017 first-round left tackle Garett Bolles finally fulfilling his potential and earning a new four-year deal. With right tackle Ju’wan James set to return from injury in 2021, whoever starts at quarterback will be well protected.

On the other side of the ball, the Broncos are stacked with playmakers. Bradley Chubb showed just how disruptive he can be with 7.5 sacks in just 13 games, and second-team all-pro Justin Simmons – the team’s best player last season –  will be the number one priority when it comes to free agency.

Aside from the obvious questions at quarterback, the biggest hole on Denver’s roster is at cornerback. Look for Paton to upgrade the position in free agency and the draft. 

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

Denver Broncos
Credit: Isaiah J. Downing (USA TODAY Sports)

The Broncos came into the offseason with the seventh most cap space in the league at an estimated $31.7 million and Paton has quickly set about creating more room. One of his first moves was to release corner AJ Bouye earlier this month. Bouye missed the last four games of the regular season as part of a six-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. And late last week former Titan defensive tackle Jurrell Casey followed Bouye out of the door, clearing a further $12m in cap space. 

After Paton promised ‘tough decisions’ on a number of key players when he was introduced to the media many speculated over future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller. The Super Bowl 50 MVP missed the whole of the 2020 season after dislocating his peroneal tendon in practice and his last healthy season was below par for his career (eight sacks and 20 quarterback hits). While there is undoubtedly something left in the 2011 2nd overall pick, with Chubb and other young players in the front seven now may be the time to move on from Miller and his $22 million cap hit. 

Free Agents

Denver Broncos
Credit: Roy Chenoy (USA Today Sports)

As previously mentioned Simmons, who has earned the Broncos’ Man of the Year in two-straight seasons, is an obvious priority for the front office to re-sign. Losing him would be a killer blow for any hopes of competing with the high powered offenses of AFC West in 2021. 

After failing to reach a deal during the season, the Broncos are now competing with the rest of the NFL for their third-round pick in 2016. With a career total of 16 interceptions, Simmons’ high IQ play and ball skills have transformed the secondary. Most importantly, he helped bring stability to a defense dealing with injuries and backups all season. 

The Boston College standout played under the franchise tag last year and there is a possibility he will do again next season but that would essentially rule out any hope of a return in 2022. The best case for both parties is they can complete a long term deal and Simmons can continue his role at the heart of Fangio’s defense.  If he does put pen to paper and remains in Denver the pro bowler could become the highest-paid safety in the NFL.

If they lose out on Simmons keeping, Kareem Jackson around would be smart. Like Miller, the Broncos have a team option on Jackson which would mean a $12.3 million cap hit. If they don’t pick it up, it’s $2.3 million in dead cap.

Elsewhere, defensive tackle Shelby Harris almost certainly earned a new deal with the promise he showed in Fangio’s scheme last term, recording 2.5 sacks, seven passes defended, 32 tackles and 11 quarterback hits in 11 starts. 

Resigning restricted free-agent Alexander Johnson will be a no brainer. Johnson has been a beast since entering the starting line up and is a consistent force in the middle. After leading the team in tackles last term (124 combined), he is as good as a lock to be back.

Team Needs

Denver Broncos
Credit: Roy Chenoy (USA Today Sports)

Speaking of locks, the biggest talking point of the offseason in Denver is the quarterback position and the future of Drew. 

With Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff all already on the move, the dominos have started to fall. Paton’s pursuit of Stafford shows that the organisation’s faith in Lock is wavering and there will likely be some move made at the position. Whether that comes in free agency, through a trade or the draft is yet to be seen. 

The biggest prize and easiest fix would be landing a disgruntled Deshaun Watson. Trading for the Texans superstar would provide both a short and long term solution at the position, and give the Broncos their own MVP calibre player to compete with Patrick Mahomes and Chargers rookie sensation Justin Herbert. However, landing the former Clemson Tiger has its obstacles. 

First, there is the no-trade clause in Watson’s contract. Would he want to play in the same division as Mahomes year in year out? Is Denver an attractive landing spot? Moreover, does Denver have the capital to get him? It is possible the early offseason cuts by Paton could be paving the way for a play in the Watson stakes, but from a Texans point of view, other teams will likely be able to offer more compensation.   

Perhaps a more likely scenario would be to give Lock – who they invested a second-round pick on just two years ago – a final chance to keep the job and bring in a veteran to compete with him. Grabbing Marcus Mariota via a trade from the division rival Raiders is an intriguing option, given the former Titan showed his skills in relief of Derek Carr against the Chargers in week 15. Other possibilities include younger players such as Gardener Minshew and Sam Darnold. 

Of course, all of these might be redundant if Paton ends up falling for one of this year’s talented draft class and decides to go ahead and draft “’his guy’ to ultimately replace Lock as the starter. As each day passes, though, this option seems more and more unlikely. Picking ninth overall in the first round could mean four of this year’s quarterback group are off the board and taking a risk on another unproven passer may be something Paton wants to avoid in year one. 

I think a veteran alongside Lock makes the most sense and don’t rule out Andy Dalton, who the Broncos pursued hard last March before the red rifle landed in Dallas.  

As for that ninth pick, trading down seems a high possibility for Paton to accumulate more ammunition for his drafting debut. If they do remain at nine, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons would be a great scheme fit in Fangio’s 3-4 defense. With a somewhat mediocre cornerback free agency group, Paton will likely address the position in the draft. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley has Pro Bowl potential and would be a much-needed upgrade on the current group.