The Denver Broncos are heading into the new league year armed to the teeth with cash and cap space. As it stands now, the Broncos are projected to have around $62 million in cap space.
That's a big dollar figure and it's before the Broncos make their decision to cut QB Joe Flacco, which at this point seems matter-of-course, and decline the team option on OG Ronald Leary's contract. Cutting Flacco would free up another $10.05M on the cap and declining Leary's option would open up another $8.5M.
That means, with just two easy roster decisions, the Broncos could enter the new league year approaching $80M in cap space, which would posture them with the fourth-most money to spend in free agency, behind only Miami ($89.3M), Indianapolis ($86.1M) and Buffalo ($82.1M).
When you think back to that whirlwind 2014 offseason in which GM John Elway had just $30M in cap space, but still came away with T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and Emmanuel Sanders, you realize just how much hay the Broncos could make this year with $80M. This team is poised to be a real player, if it wants to be, in the free-agent market.
The fly in the ointment is the exodus of homegrown free agents the Broncos are facing, with multiple starters poised to enter unrestricted open waters. The Broncos have some big decisions to make with regard to their own free agents.
Today, however, I'm breaking down succinctly all the different rumors and buzz on the Broncos' free-agent plans that have come to light since the offseason began. You'll be able to find every morsel the rumor mill has cranked out on your team in one place. Let's get started with what we've heard about the hometown boys.
Justin Simmons, S
This topic doesn't require us to mine the vein of speculation because Elway himself has said that he intends fully to do whatever it takes to keep Simmons in Denver for at least 2020, even if that means using the franchise tag to guarantee it. There's a chance the two sides could agree to a new deal before the March 10 deadline but in all likelihood, the Broncos will tag Simmons to buy themselves time to negotiate a long-term deal throughout the summer.
All four players the Broncos have franchise-tagged during the Elway front-office era have later in the same year signed a multi-year extension.
Derek Wolfe, DL
Wolfe has said that he's not trying to "break the bank" as a free agent but wants what is "fair". Well, what is "fair" is going to be determined by his market value, which I expect to start at $10M per year.
"I’m not trying to be top of the market and I’m not trying to be bottom of the market either," Wolfe said back in January.
Although the rumor mill on the Wolfe front has offered slim pickings, what we do know is that 1., Wolfe is a true-blue Elway guy and 2., he took to Vic Fangio's scheme like a duck to water.
I'd bet dollars to donuts the Broncos will make Wolfe a serious offer but he's going to want to see what the open market has in store. There's a good chance he'll find a longer-termed contract out there (more years) but if the Broncos can keep their guaranteed-dollars-per-year offer close to what Wolfe finds on the open market, I like the odds of him accepting a short-term, two- or three-year deal worth somewhere around $30-35M to stay in Denver.
Shelby Harris, DL
Harris' name has very much been a part of the NFL rumor mill. Spotrac has set his market value at $11.7M per year on the open market and just this past week, we learned from Benjamin Allbright that the Colts have "legitimate interest" in Harris.
Harris has stated that his free-agent decision will be very much "about the money", and considering what Spotrac projects as his open-market value, it's unlikely he finds upwards of $12M per year from the Broncos. Similarly to the Malik Jackson situation in 2016, the Broncos are poised to live with letting a key D-line cog depart, even though the team has money, because the team's value on the player doesn't match up with the outside NFL.
Think back to what happened in late 2015, early 2016. The Broncos made their decision, extending Wolfe and letting Jackson go. I'd expect a similar result in 2020.
The two things Harris has going for him that could toss my theory on its ear is the fact that he's managed to stay healthy as a Bronco, never missing a game, and his 'clutch gene'. Harris is a tad too inconsistent as a run defender and pass rusher for my liking but he has a penchant for making a key play in critical situations that determine the outcome of a game. It's hard to put a value on the 'clutch gene'.
Chris Harris, Jr., CB
Harris has stated since the season ended that he'd like to remain in Denver, while also admitting how much he's looking forward to testing the market. Considering that he's about to hit his age-31 season, he might find a market more bearish for his services than he expected.
However, Harris has sterling resume and hasn't been injured since 2013. Some team will pony up. The rumor is that the Philadelphia Eagles plan to "go hard" for Harris in free agency.
If it's sixes, so to speak, Harris will likely choose to stay in Denver. But the Broncos aren't going to offer him top-of-the-market money. If a team like Philly does, Harris will take the money and run.
Harris' odds of returning are slim. But it's all contingent on what the market dictates. Elway showed a desire to keep Harris in Denver, offering him a three-year contract extension back in October that would have paid him $12M per season but the veteran cornerback declined.
Will Parks, DB
The rumor mill has been mum on Parks. However, we know the Broncos coaches think highly of him and his teammates love him.
The Broncos will let Parks test the market and likely look to re-sign him to a team-friendly deal maybe double the veteran minimum if the outside interest in him is cold. Parks doesn't excel at anything in particular but he's serviceable in multiple areas. That versatility and heart does have value to a coach like Fangio.
There's a good chance Parks stays in Denver.
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Byron Jones, CB | Dallas Cowboys
Cecil Lammey of 104.3 The Fan reported earlier this week that the Broncos are likely to make Jones their top free-agent priority of the offseason. Jones has also been pushed as a likely target by Woody Paige and others.
The Cowboys are dealing with Dak Prescott's contract and Amari Cooper's, which means the neglected Jones is bound to hit the market. If the Broncos indeed want to sign Jones, they'll have to pay for the privilege, starting somewhere around the $14M/year mark.
Chris Jones, DL | Kansas City Chiefs
Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the top defensive free agent of 2020, Jones is about to get paid. Over The Cap projects Jones' value at around $18M/year. That would be a lot of lettuce to peel off for a 5-tech defensive lineman but Jones' play in the postseason proved that he's worth the premium.
The Broncos could afford to push hard for Jones, while the Chiefs are among the league's most cap-strapped teams, with just $13.6M in cap space heading into the new league year, and Patrick Mahomes needing to get paid. A creative cap wizard might be able to find a way to fit Jones under Kansas City's cap in all likelihood but if that were to happen, odds are, it already would have.
Jones will hit the market. He's been tied to Denver in the most speculative sense by many pundits, the most high-profile of which is Woody Paige. In a perfect world, signing a player like Jones would be great.
But the Broncos are already paying Von Miller quarterback money and it won't be long before Bradley Chubb's future will have to be decided. Still, I could see this front office rolling the dice on Jones, and going all-in while Drew Lock remains on a cost-controlled contract. If the Broncos truly want to strike while the iron's hot, now's the time to invest in high-impact players.
Brandon Scherff, OG | Washington Redskins
Scherff has been rumored to the Broncos by multiple sources. He's a great player when healthy. That's the issue, though — health. Scherff has finished the last two years on injured reserve.
And he'll come at a premium. Considering the Broncos just got burned by Ja'Wuan James, and the fact that the once prized free-agent signee Ronald Leary has missed at least four games in all three of the seasons he's been in Denver, there's a good chance Elway approaches free-agent O-linemen with the once-bitten, twice-shy mentality.
Woody Paige has floated Scherff as a potential target but there hasn't been anything recent in the rumor mill. The Broncos are going to have find a new right guard if Leary's option indeed isn't exercised and Scherff is an extremely attractive candidate.
Joe Schobert, LB | Cleveland Browns
The Broncos have a decision to make on Todd Davis' team option. Declining it would free up $5M on the cap. Even if Davis is kept, the Broncos are expected to be "intrigued" in Schobert, according to Benjamin Allbright.
Schobert would be an upgrade over Davis and a player Fangio could pencil in opposite of Alexander Johnson and feel good about him never having to leave the field. Schobert has sneaky coverage ability, and is a solid run defender, which makes him a true three-down 'backer and a likely Broncos' target.
Stefon Diggs, WR | Minnesota Vikings (Trade)
The Broncos have been rumored to have at least a passing interest in Diggs. In the sense that, as Benjamin Allbright recently said, the Broncos could call Minnesota to at least check on what the cost of acquiring Diggs via trade might be.
Our Bob Morris recently explored what it would cost to pry Diggs away from the Vikings. Diggs is a diva and he's disgruntled. However, the Broncos already have one of the top possession receivers in the league in Courtland Sutton, who, like Diggs, specializes in the jump-ball situation.
Acquiring Diggs would also come with a one-year rental that would count as $11.5M against in 2020. Suffice to say, him landing in Denver is slim. But never say never.
Paul Richardson, WR | Washington Redskins
The Redskins are cutting bait with Richardson, and according to Benjamin Allbright, the Broncos are likely to "sniff around" the former CU Buff. The Broncos are looking for a speed threat at wide receiver to complement Sutton and Richardson would fit the bill.
But it'll depend on what type of money Richardson is after. Again, the Broncos will have the cap space to make several outside signings, even after taking care of a few of their own free agents.
Darius Slay & A.J. Bouye, CBs (Trade)
9NEWS' Mike Klis advocated earlier this week for the Broncos to make a call to the Detroit Lions to check on the availability of Slay, and the Jacksonville Jaguars to check on Bouye.
Remember, Klis reported back in December that the Broncos had talked to the Lions about Slay ahead of the trade deadline but those conversations stalled. There's an interest there on the part of the Broncos.
It's hard to see the Lions giving up Slay for anything less than a second-round pick. Bouye, on the other hand, could come at a significantly lower cost.
Either one would represent an upgrade at cornerback for Denver. Slay, however, would be a next-level get for the Broncos. At this stage, ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported that the Lions have fielded calls from 'multiple teams' on Slay's availability. There's a solid chance the Broncos are one of them.
Situations to Monitor
Josh Norman, CB | Redskins: The Redskins are also parting ways with veteran Norman. Norman once longed to be a Bronco when he was coming out of college and idolized Champ Bailey. However, Norman is not the player he once was.
But if Fangio believes he could make Norman a reclamation project, and Norman was willing to accept a contract that recognizes he's no longer among the NFL's elite cornerbacks, I wouldn't be stunned to see the Broncos express interest in free agency.
We've seen Fangio make no-name cornerbacks into Pro Bowlers and we've also seen older corners who've lost a step find new life in a new football home, like Richard Sherman in San Francisco. Don't completely slam the door on the (albeit slim) possibility of Norman landing in Denver.
Akiem Hicks, DL | Bears: There are rumors that Chicago could cut Hicks because of the team's extreme lack of cap space. If that happens, you can guarantee the Broncos will be interested in Hicks.
Hicks was developed by Fangio and thrived in his scheme. Signing a player like Hicks, however, would cancel out the need to pursue a big name 5-tech like Chris Jones.
Prince Amukamara, CB | Bears: Like Hicks, Amukamara thrived under Fangio as a reclamation project of sorts. If the Bears move on due to cap constraints, Denver would make a lot of sense for Amukamara.
Calais Campbell, DL | Jaguars: Despite his Pro Bowl status, Campbell has been rumored to be a possible cap casualty in Jacksonville, as the Jags are actually over the cap right now by $3.4M. If he is cut, the Broncos would figure to be players as Campbell came 'this close' to signing with Denver in 2017 as a free agent.