The hiring of George Paton as the Denver Broncos' new general manager has set off a wave of speculation about what it means for the future of the team — and what it means for the future of certain players.
Paton will have some important decisions to make and none will be easy. But to get an idea about what is most likely to guide his thinking in 2021, it's important to understand where things actually stand with the Broncos at this point.
When a new GM is hired, there are three ways to look at how a team will approach things.
Rebuild: Whether it's a clear rebuild like the Miami Dolphins did, or a 'soft' rebuild like the Broncos have arguably done (even if they haven't said so outright), it always means a new coaching staff. Because Vic Fangio and company are here for 2021, the Broncos aren't 'rebuilding' at this time.
Keep building for the long term: This is what happens when you have a playoff contender already built and the previous GM voluntarily steps aside. In such a case, the new GM knows he'll be working alongside the current coaching staff for the next few seasons. That's certainly not where the Broncos are at.
Build for the short term, but with an eye on the long: This is where the Broncos currently stand. Fangio, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell are here for 2021, but there are no guarantees after the season. If the Broncos don't make the playoffs next season, Paton is almost certain to look for a new head coach and coordinators.
Given that it's the third situation that applies to the Broncos, what does it mean for Paton's 2021 offseason approach?
In short, any long-term commitments the Broncos make toward players, need to be for those who are in the primes of their careers and are the types of players any coaching staff would welcome.
With free-agent signings, top guys are worth the contracts that tie you to a player for two or three seasons, but lower-tier or scheme-specific players need to be on deals that only require a one-year commitment.
With draft picks, your first- and second-round choices need to be players who can contribute right away and be the types who just about any coaching staff would want to have. In the third round or later, you can look for players who are tied to schemes and such.
Think of free agents this way: Justin Simmons is a guy a lot of teams and coaches would want to have, but DeMarcus Walker may be more about scheme-fit. Thus, Simmons is a priority to extend, while Walker is not.
As for players the Broncos have drafted in recent years, the likes of Bradley Chubb, Noah Fant, Courtland Sutton, and Jerry Jeudy are players most teams would love to have. However, recent picks such as Isaac Yiadom, Michael Ojemudia, and Josey Jewell are more about schemes or specific roles.
Paton's emphasis in free agency and the NFL draft should thus be about finding players who will still be with the team even if Fangio and company don't stick around after 2021.
Prioritizing Personnel Targets in FA & Draft
Now, if a player who fits Fangio's or Shurmur's scheme is available in free agency at a low cost with no more than a one-year commitment, you can sign the player. The same holds true with a draft prospect in the third round or later.
However, draft prospects who are considered 'projects' are not in consideration in the first two rounds because there's no guarantee Fangio and the others will be here in 2021 — which means, if they'e replaced, the new coaching staff may not want those 'projects' and, thus, you just wasted a draft pick.
Similarly, if you commit to a free agent who is a favorite among current coaches, or is a scheme fit, for more than a year, and then you change coaches, you can be stuck with a player who doesn't fit what the new staff wants.
Don't Hamstring the Coaches
The other thing to keep in mind is that, while there's no guarantee Fangio and his coordinators will be with the Broncos after 2021, you want to ensure these coaches have every opportunity to succeed in 2021.
Therefore, you need to be careful about cutting players left and right, just so you can get lots of cap space because there's no guarantee you will find appropriate replacements in free agency or the draft.
And if you make your roster worse than it currently is, that doesn't help Fangio and company. You want them to be in a position to succeed, not set them up so that's it's even more difficult.
The Tough Calls
In some cases, you won't have a choice but to cut a player. Von Miller's current legal situation could force the Broncos' hand, for example. An easier decision comes with A.J. Bouye, who never played well when he took the field.
But for a player like Kareem Jackson, if you don't have his replacement readily available, cutting him may not help as much as you think. Jackson wasn't great in 2020, but he wasn't bad, either, and showed good play at times, so he's worth keeping.
With Jackson, the real story is you don't commit to him past 2021. He's entering the final year of his deal and should be treated thusly: "We will bring you back this year, but there are no promises after that."
Consider the Compensatory Formula
Paton may also want to consider which players should be back for 2021, but will see their deals expire after 2021, and could factor into future compensatory picks. If his hand is forced, he will have to cut a player, but he shouldn't do it for the sake of doing it.
In such cases, Paton gets nothing in return. But if he keeps the player, he might be able to trade him later in 2021 for a draft pick, or the player could net a comp pick in free agency in 2022.
Don't Fall for the Hype
I'll talk more about specifics in another article, but Broncos fans need to understand that Paton isn't going to go 'all in' in every situation (despite saying he plans to be a part of "every deal" — particularly because he doesn't yet know if Fangio and his coordinators will be here past 2021.
Paton has talked about being "aggressive but not reckless," which is another way of saying "aggressive with a purpose." In other words, you need to have a good reason for making the move, and not just be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive.
Extending Simmons is being "aggressive with a purpose" because he's the type of player most coaching staffs want to have. But using an early pick on a quarterback who is considered a 'project' is being 'reckless' because if you change coaches after 2021, the next staff may not want him.
In the days to come, I'll talk more about specific players, mostly looking at free agents, but with a few thoughts about the draft.
Of course, no one perfectly knows Paton's mind on every issue I touched on above. But keeping in mind the short and long term will give Fangio a chance to succeed in 2021, while still keeping the Broncos in a good position should Paton make a coaching change after 2021.