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Projecting GM George Paton's Approach to Retaining Broncos' Grip of 2022 Free Agents

The Broncos' list of free agents after this season is a who's who of key players. What factors will determine whether they stay or go?

The Denver Broncos have many notable players who will hit unrestricted free agency after the 2021 season, and many of them could have their futures dependent on what happens this year.

If Vic Fangio and his coaching staff can put together a season with 10 or more wins, particularly if the Broncos make the playoffs, some players stand a better chance of returning.

However, another losing record means Fangio and his coordinators are likely gone, and it means the bulk of unrestricted free agents could be allowed to depart because if the Broncos have a losing record, general manager George Paton is more likely to rebuild than reload.

But even if the Broncos have a winning record, there's a good chance that several free agents will be allowed to depart, which could give the team the potential to add some compensatory draft picks for 2023.

Keep in mind, not every player will enter unrestricted free agency. Quite a few players will be either exclusive rights free agents or eligible for futures contracts, which are one-year, cheap contracts with no guaranteed money, meaning they are most likely being retained.

Then there are the restricted free agents, who will be given one-year tenders that give the player a raise, but are still inexpensive compared to the money many veterans will receive on the open market. Malik Reed and Calvin Anderson are two examples of players eligible for restricted free agency in 2022.

Today, I will only focus on the unrestricted free agents, because these are the only players in which there may be a real question as to whether or not they will stay.

Let's look at the free agents with the best likelihood of returning.

Good Chance to Stay

Courtland Sutton | WR: After missing most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL, Sutton is looking to prove he is worthy of an extension. If he plays at a high level, he's almost assured to be retained, regardless of the Broncos' overall record.

Sutton and his agent will no doubt keep an eye on the rest of the receiver market, which is likely to have a lot of top names hitting free agency. However, it's not likely anybody is going to top DeAndre Hopkins' $27.25M average-per-year in his extension — teams are likely to view that APY as an anomaly.

A better comparison may be Amari Cooper, who got $60M in guarantees from Dallas, $40M which was fully guaranteed, in a contract he signed back in 2020 with an APY of $20M. It won't surprise me if plenty of the receivers who could hit free agency seek to exceed the APY and guarantees Cooper received — and that might include Sutton.

Depends On Their Play

Teddy Bridgewater | QB: While the Broncos will pay Bridgewater just $4.25M this season, if he has a strong year, they won't be able to get him that cheap in 2021.

While Bridgewater won't re-set the market, he's likely to get more than the three-year, $63M deal he signed with the Panthers last year, that gave him $33M in guaranteed money.

If Bridgewater plays well, the Broncos might be able to keep him at, say, a three-year deal for $75M that is a "two years then we'll see" type of deal, in which he gets some guarantees going into 2023. The Broncos could even add some incentives to the deal.

However, that won't happen if Bridgewater struggles or the Broncos have a losing record. If the former, he's gone. If the latter, his best hope to return is a one-year contract with a salary of no more than $10M.

Von Miller | OLB: The Broncos' 2011 first-round pick is coming off a significant injury and is out to prove he still has what it takes to be one of the better pass rushers in the NFL.

Should he prove himself, he's not going to get to the top of the market again, because of his age. The comparison may be J.J. Watt, who was set to make about $16M before being cut by the Texans, then got $20M fully guaranteed on a two-year deal from the Cardinals.

A quality season from Miller probably puts him in line for a three-year deal for $45M that keeps him through 2023 but allows the Broncos to release him in 2024. However, that's all contingent on his play this season — if Miller's play declines, this will be his last season with the Broncos.

Depends on Fangio Staying

Kyle Fuller | CB: After being released by the Bears last March, Fuller quickly signed with the Broncos on a one-year, $9M deal. He no doubt took the deal because of the chance to play for Fangio again.

It goes without saying that Fuller's future with the Broncos is tied to Fangio. If the head coach is fired after the season, Fuller will be allowed to leave. If Fangio stays, there's a chance Fuller could, too.

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Given Fuller's age, he shouldn't be jumping to the top of the market, though he could get a slight raise. The three-year, $30M deal with $19.5M fully guaranteed that Ronald Darby received would be the comparison.

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Likely Testing the Market First

Josey Jewell | ILB: The 2018 fourth-round pick improved last season, but he plays a position in which salaries for the top players are rising. Who knows how that's going to impact others who aren't elite? But it could see teams willing to pay more money.

If Jewell has another quality season, it makes more sense to let him test the market, similar to what the Broncos did with Todd Davis a couple of years ago. That way, the Broncos are more likely to get Jewell at a better price.

Bobby Massie | RT: The Broncos added Massie on a one-year deal and he has claimed the starting right tackle job. Given his age, Massie isn't a priority to extend after the 2021 season.

However, Massie is a player that the Broncos can always consider bringing back after free agency settles down. Massie is not likely to land a big contract in 2022, so a one-year, low-cost deal isn't out of the question.

Not Likely to Return

Alexander Johnson | ILB: Though a popular player, Johnson will be 30 years old and he falls into the category of "good but not great." He won't re-set the market, but he could push for $13M APY, and that's a bit pricey.

Tim Patrick | WR: Whether or not you think he is starting material, Patrick will likely want a chance to start elsewhere in 2022. He's not going to get paid big money, but he could fetch a sum that's more than you want to pay for a depth player.

Bryce Callahan | CB: While Fuller could be back if Fangio stays, I'm not as convinced about Callahan. Although he avoided significant injury last season and played well, the Broncos aren't going to keep all their veteran cornerbacks, and I suspect Callahan is the one who the Broncos will definitely allow to leave.

Melvin Gordon | RB: The Broncos may want a less expensive veteran to pair with Javonte Williams next season, so Gordon isn't likely to be retained, even if he puts together a quality season in 2021.

Kareem Jackson | S: Though he may have been brought back after the Broncos declined his option last spring, all signs point to him being allowed to move on after this season.

Duke Dawson | DB: The fourth-year defensive back opens the season on the physically unable to perform list and it remains to be seen if he'll play this year. But if he is able to play, it will likely be his last with the team.

Other players: OT Cameron Fleming, TE Eric Saubert, and DB Mike Ford are all here just for this season to fill out the depth chart.

What it Means for Free Agency

If the Broncos win at least 10 games, and especially if they make the playoffs, a scenario in which Sutton, Bridgewater, and Miller are retained isn't out of the question, with possibly Fuller, Jewell, and Massie coming back, too.

This still means that multiple players will depart, which could put the Broncos in line for compensatory picks. Paton could choose to put the money toward retaining certain free agents, then sit out the market, which increases the likelihood of comp picks for 2023.

If the Broncos have a losing season and Paton decides to rebuild, Sutton is the only player likely to stay, with Bridgewater a long shot to come back and the rest allowed to leave. That could still result in comp picks, especially if Paton decides to focus on street free agents.

Any comp picks added for 2023 would give the Broncos more draft capital and could allow them to move up the board in 2023, if they believe that is the time to draft a quarterback.

In short, Paton has the chance to accumulate draft capital in 2023, regardless of his approach to the team next season. While it remains to be seen what the Broncos do in 2021, they are in a position to possibly increase their draft capital for 2023 which could set them up well for the future, regardless of what happens this season.

Follow Bob on Twitter @BobMorrisSports.

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