Under the leadership of George Paton, the Broncos decided to go with major changes at coaching. Nathaniel Hackett now takes over at head coach, and will call offensive plays while extensively turning over staff on all three phases of the ball. Knowing the extent of these changes was needed in order to build a proper road map–and even then, there is still a small bit of uncertainty. This road map assumes that the Broncos will hire Ejiro Evero as defensive coordinator after the Super Bowl is over, and will retain much of the structure that the defense had under Vic Fangio.
This road map will also be shorter than most offseasons, as Paton has is already far ahead of schedule in resolving several major questions that were otherwise coming up as outstanding for 2022: Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick were both extended, Von Miller was traded to the Rams before his contract expired, and Graham Glasgow took a significant pay cut very soon after the conclusion of the season.
But make no mistake: there is still plenty of work to do, and that is because the Broncos remain on a playoff drought that is completely unacceptable to the standards of the organization. It is imperative that the team does what is needed to immediately get back to playoff football, where anything can happen once a team is in that tournament.
1. Fix the quarterback position
How many times does this need to be the first item on this list? Let’s hope this is an offseason where they’re serious about truly fixing this.
a) Acquire at least one rookie quarterback, and preferably two
The odds are overwhelming that the true long term solution at this position is via the rookie class route. But the amount of effort spent on this has remained unacceptable: just one selection each in the 1st and 2nd round, a Mr. Irrelevant flier, and Brett Rypien being the only conceivably undrafted free agent of note.
Now, as always, I will not opine on exactly which rookie quarterbacks should be acquired, nor as to where in the draft or among the undrafted rookie class. And as always, I will not advocate acquiring rookie quarterbacks for the sake of such. Doing homework on scouting is important, and via that, avoiding taking major whiffs on quarterbacks like Josh Rosen or Dwayne Haskins (or potentially Justin Fields if he cannot significantly improve from his rookie season) is very important.
However, the Broncos are in a position where they are going to have to start taking more gambles, even if educated ones. No one scouting process is perfect–just look at how wrong almost everyone was on Josh Allen as the most prominent example. It will be unacceptable in every conceivable situation for the Broncos to come out of the 2022 rookie class without at least one quarterback. And as I’ve pointed out before with the Robert Griffin III/Kirk Cousins example in DC in 2012, sometimes the quarterback acquired later ends up being the better one–so increase your odds with quantity and quality.
b) Presume Drew Lock as the top veteran quarterback unless unusual opportunities arise
On balance, I think most Broncos fans have been unfair to Teddy Bridgewater. He finished 2021 12th in passer rating, 16th in adjusted net yards per attempt, 10th in DVOA, and 14th in DYAR. A couple metrics he was merely below average in were QBR (20th) and yards per game and per completion (21st in both). That performance was of course not sufficient for a long term answer, but the Broncos could do (and have done) far, far worse at the position, and it’s imperative for them not to get worse there. It can easily be argued that Bridgewater is the best option among a very weak UFA quarterback class, and I am guessing he will earn more in free agency than some may think.
However, the coaching staff the Broncos have hired on offense is likely to trend more toward a Shanahan system, even if Nathaniel Hackett gives it his own unique twist. And with MarsLineman stating recently that “the hiring of Klint Kubiak as QB coach/passing game coordinator is likely a very good thing for Drew Lock”, that is enough for me to side with Lock as the veteran quarterback on the Broncos’ roster instead of Bridgewater. Additionally advantageous is that Lock is still under contract for one more season on his rookie contract, so unlike with Bridgewater the Broncos need to do nothing to retain him, at a much lower price. It is a shame that Bridgewater is not eligible to generate a compensatory pick, as that would only tip the scales further.
Finally, I will not consider any acquisition of a quarterback under contract with another team (looking at you, rumors of Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson) as realistic unless and until enough compelling evidence emerges otherwise. The only such quarterback that currently meets that high bar would be Jimmy Garoppolo, and on a contract with only one season remaining with $25.5 million left to be paid, the difference between both that pay, and whatever the 49ers demand in draft compensation (it will be higher than a 3rd rounder, since they could otherwise get that as a compensatory pick by keeping him until his contract expires) is unlikely to be a positive tradeoff.
2. Fix the right tackle position
And once again, filling this position has been arguably even more disastrous than quarterback has been over the same time span. Yet another thing that needs to end, now.
a) Offer a right of first refusal RFA tender to Calvin Anderson
Anderson has proven to be a useful swing tackle, and excellent teammate to boot. An ROFR tender should be sufficient to ward off other teams from making offers to him.
b) Sign a veteran right tackle
Other than Anderson there is nothing at this position of substance, and at the minimum there will need to be some veteran to give Anderson competition. I am skeptical that a high level veteran right tackle that’s worth commensurate pay can be found, but even a cheaper one year contract to a veteran would help the depth chart dramatically. Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming could hypothetically be such as re-sign candidates, but in a Shanahan oriented offense I would not be surprised if someone else would be more appropriate to target.
c) Draft a right tackle
It is pretty damning that Garett Bolles is the only tackle the Broncos have drafted in the last six rookie classes. Hypothetically a UDFA tackle could work out, but with such abundant draft capital, they really need to snap this streak and look for a true long term solution with some of it.
3. Bolster the running back position
Javonte Williams will clearly be RB1 in Denver for the foreseeable future, but like almost all running backs, having a reliable RB2 to keep his snaps more impactful, even if limited, is a good thing.
a) Re-sign Melvin Gordon for no more than $4 million APY.
Similar to Bridgewater, I think Gordon has never gotten a fair shake from most Broncos fans, despite coming in with 10 touchdowns and just short of 1,000 yards in both his seasons in Denver. But unfortunately for Gordon, he will turn 29 next season, and as we all know running backs can decline like no other position, so the Broncos should not offer Gordon nearly as much as they did two seasons ago.
I set a budget of $4 million for Gordon for two reasons. One is that $4 million fits right at the lower end of the second tier running back contracts that we would expect from someone of Gordon’s production versus his age. The second is that anything above $4 million should solidify Gordon’s contract as being valued as a 6th round compensatory pick. I would take my chances on filling RB2 in a different direction in exchange for a potential 6th round pick getting added to the comp pick ledger in my favor.
I would also prefer a one year contract, in order to keep future comp pick consideration in play, but I would be OK with more than one year, as long as any guarantees are only kept in the first season.
b) Acquire a rookie running back
This is a position where a draft pick absolutely does not necessarily need to be used–we all know there are plenty of successful UDFA running backs out there. But given Paton’s early track record of success with Williams, I will also not be upset if he uses a draft pick on a running back as appropriate. Either way, finding a young long term solution at RB2 to succeed Williams, who in turn is succeeding Gordon at RB1, is prudent.
4. Bolster the edge rusher position
With Von Miller now off to Los Angeles as he seeks to match his old teammate Shaq Barrett in Super Bowl rings, depth alongside Bradley Chubb, entering the last season of his rookie contract, is needed.
a) Offer a 2nd round RFA tender to Malik Reed
Unlike with Anderson, due to the high valuation of the edge rusher position I do think Reed would get some attention on the restricted free agent market at only the ROFR tender. The cost for gaining that security is projected to be only about $1.5 million more.
b) Draft a rookie edge rusher
Kavyon Thibodeaux, Aidan Hutchinson, George Karlaftis, David Obajo, and Travon Walker lead what looks to be a deep edge rusher class. It does not need to be with the 9th overall pick, or even in the first round, but much like drafting Dre’Mont Jones in 2019, it strikes me as a good opportunity to find a long term solution among this rookie class, hopefully alongside Chubb.
5. Sign two linebackers
Baron Browning has done enough to presume one starting position in 2022, but beyond him, there are four linebackers (Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson, Kenny Young, and Micah Kiser) all set to become UFAs. While the Broncos could also turn to the rookie class here, they are going to need some veterans just to fill out the very shallow depth chart as it currently signs.
My preference would be to sign one linebacker to a mid-level veteran starter contract, and another to a clear backup contract. For the starter, my budget would be at $6.5 million, as that would be the approximate level that would clearly be valued as a 5th rounder in the compensatory formula. While it is not fair at all to either Jewell or Johnson due to suffering early season ending injuries in the final year of their contracts, it would not surprise me if the best offer they can get on the market is along the lines of a one year, “prove it” deal around that $6.5 million range in an effort to rebuild their stock for 2023. If so, the Broncos may be able to use that as a bargaining chip to retain one of them at a reasonable price.
While I would not outright oppose signing an external linebacker, between the four the Broncos have hitting free agency I would exhaust all options on retaining a couple of them first, while they have exclusive negotiation rights to them.
6. Sign a nickel cornerback
Patrick Surtain II looks to be a very special player, and with Ronald Darby alongside him should fill out the top two cornerback positions. But in today’s NFL, nickel cornerback is effectively a starting position, and the next man up under contract is the unproven Michael Ojemudia.
The Broncos could look to retain one of Bryce Callahan or Kyle Fuller, but both will be in their 30s next season, and even if Evero runs a system similar to Fangio’s, both may want to follow Fangio should he get a defensive coordinator job next season, and if so they would help to pad Denver’s compensatory free agent ledger in their favor. But should that happen, the Broncos will need to find a CB3 externally to keep the depth chart deep, even if they ultimately find a cornerback in the rookie class as well.
7. Let Kareem Jackson walk unless he’s willing to sign for cheap
This point hurts to type, as Jackson has exceeded expectations in his transition to safety, and has been a regularly excellent teammate and leader that’s given passion to the Broncos defense. But at age 34 next season, and with Caden Sterns having a very strong rookie season, this may be the time where all good things have to come to an end.
Sticking with comp pick projections here, the budget I would set as “cheap” would be about $2 million, as that amount would likely be enough for contracts to qualify for compensatory free agent status. If Jackson can get more than that elsewhere, I’ll be very happy for him and wish him well on continuing his long NFL career.
8. Do not offer RFA tenders to Diontae Spencer, Andrew Beck, Austin Schlottman, or DeShawn Williams
I doubt that there will be much to talk about with any of these players. It’s fine if the Broncos want to bring any of them back, but contracts that are below even the ROFR tender are what would be appropriate.
9. Plan to pick up Noah Fant’s fifth year option–after the draft
Fant’s fifth year option is projected to be at about $6.65 million, and that amount will be fully guaranteed. That would place him 13th in tight end pay among players under contract for 2022 and beyond. On the one hand, it may be a stretch to consider Fant the 13th best tight end in the league. But on the other hand, with abundant cap dollars and cash available, it’s a reasonable risk to take in committing those guaranteed dollars against the possibility of Fant significantly improving under Hackett.
That being said, I see no rush to make this commitment until after the draft. That’s because one will never know exactly how the draft will turn out, just in case there’s some path that leads the Broncos to drafting a tight end high as the best player available.