The Denver Broncos are at the end of an era. With team legend John Elway taking a backseat from his previous general manager duties, the onus now falls on the newly hired George Paton to redirect what had become a marooned ship and set course to more promising shores in the future.
In his first year on the job in Dove Valley, Paton already faces a slew of difficult decisions. Will Paton work out a long-term deal with star safety Justin Simmons or will Denver place the franchise tag on him for a second straight year? What will the team do in regards to Von Miller’s massive salary cap hit for 2021 after coming off of a serious ankle injury that cost Miller the entire 2020 campaign?
Can Denver work out something to keep the free-agent Shelby Harris in town? What about the quarterback position? Paton has to answer those questions and more before we get an idea of what the 2021 iteration of the Broncos will look like.
Sure, the Broncos currently have the fourth most cap room in the entire NFL at just under $48 million, but that money dries up quickly when accounting for Simmons’ potential franchise tag, the number of restricted free agents the Broncos have, paying for a backup quarterback to compete with Drew Lock, and of course, paying for the 2021 rookie class.
The Broncos are in a tough spot given their struggles over the last half-decade, but Paton has flexibility many other teams won’t be afforded this offseason. The question then becomes what exactly will Paton do with said flexibility.
Insider Mike Klis broke down what he believed to be Paton’s plan for the Broncos leading up to the 2021 season in a recent conversation.
“For sure [Paton's] going to get a cornerback," Klis told Mackey. "I’m not sure if he will get the top-end cornerback or not but they need two, at least two. I think one will come in the draft, high in either the first or second round. I think one will come in free agency. They have been chasing an inside linebacker with some speed. There’s not a whole lot of those type of prospects in this year’s draft. Then I think you try to fill in a little bit with your offensive line. You are always looking to do something there as Ja'Wuan James, cross your fingers, he will be the right tackle this year.”
The Broncos undoubtedly need help at cornerback, so it makes complete sense that Paton would double-dip at the position this offseason. While Bryce Callahan was extremely impressive last year, his injury history, as well as his impending free agency in 2022, don’t indicate he is a long-term solution for the Broncos at cornerback.
While Michael Ojemudia showed promise in his rookie season, he was a mid-to-late third-rounder with his fair share of struggles. The Broncos simply cannot go into next season and contend in the high-flying AFC West without reinforcements at cornerback.
Luckily for Denver, it does appear as if the 2021 free agency class is replete with cornerback options like William Jackson III, Shaquil Griffin, Xavier Rhodes, Patrick Peterson, and Chidobe Awuzie. Expect Paton to court a few of these names when free agency opens in two weeks.
The Broncos also will look to take advantage of a talented 2021 cornerback class in the draft. While headlined by the likes of Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley and Alabama's Patrick Surtain II, there are a number of cornerbacks that will be worthy of picks the first two days of the draft Denver may consider. In the AFC West, if your defense doesn't have depth at cornerback, it is going to struggle.
Klis mentioned that Denver has been on the lookout for better speed and athleticism at the off-ball linebacker position. While no doubt the likes of Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell are serviceable as was shown last season, neither are true sideline-to-sideline speed demons like the Super Bowl-Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers duo of Lavonte David and Devin White.
Linebacker might be perhaps a bit of a luxury position given the uncertain futures of Miller and Harris on the defensive front, concerns at right tackle, the cornerback holes, and the unknown of quarterback, but a shot in the arm of athleticism at the second level is something this defense really could utilize.
Finally, but definitely not least, the right tackle position. Surrounded by vague tweets, health concerns, and questions, fair or not, about James’ commitment to the Broncos and the game of football in general, Denver once again has concerns at right tackle. James’ contract makes it almost impossible for Denver to pay big money for a right tackle in free agency, but a bargain-bin signing should be in the cards.
If Denver does trade down from pick No. 9 to the mid-to-late first round, a tackle such as Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw, Oklahoma State's Teven Jenkins, or Michigan's Jaylen Mayfield could easily be the best player on the board when the Broncos are on the clock. An investment in the offensive line is never a bad play.
Without mentioning the impending quarterback battle that (likely) squares the incumbent Lock versus a veteran addition such as Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, Alex Smith, Tyrod Taylor, or Mitchell Trubisky, the Broncos are going to look much different by the time the 2021 offseason dust settles. What will Paton do with his afforded cap space?
How much will the lack of ownership limit the money the organization can put in escrow and pay players? That remains to be seen.
Splashy moves or not, the first offseason of the Broncos under Paton is set up to be one of many monumental decisions, the ramifications of which will likely be felt by this team for years to come.
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