The Denver Broncos will close out the regular season at home against the Oakland Raiders and, from there, thoughts will turn to the offseason.
The Broncos weren't a playoff contender this year, but there were steps taken in that direction. Drew Lock has given Broncos fans hope that they have a young quarterback the team can build around.
The 2018 and 2019 draft classes feature players that have contributed to some degree and give the Broncos additional pieces to build around. And while not everything went as hoped with earlier draft classes, there are a few players who have proven themselves worthy of extensions, as long as the price is right.
I've talked a lot about what might be expected from extensions that current Broncos players would receive and what the free agent market might look like — and I'll continue to do so in the coming weeks. But it does beg a couple of questions:
1. Who is the one Broncos free agent that the team should go 'all-in' when it comes to an extension?
2. Among pending free agents from other teams, which player is worth going 'all-in' to bring to Mile High?
I posed this question to everyone at Mile High Huddle and compiled all the responses, then included my own. Broncos fans should feel free to add their own comments about who they think takes priority for an extension or who from another team is worthy of pursuit.
Let's find out what Mile High Huddle staff had to say about this.
Carl Dumler: Justin Simmons is the clear and obvious choice of being the highest priority to get locked up long-term here in Denver. He is playing like a top-5 safety (even if the Pro Bowl voting disagrees) and seems to be only trending up more with each start.
There are three reasons outside of his play on the field that I think this signing is of greatest importance even if it means paying him as the top safety in the league. The first is the fact that he has yet to miss a snap because of injury. Players have been dropping left and right, but the one constant has been Simmons not missing a snap.
The second is the fact that he has been a huge part of the local community shown by him receiving the nomination from the team for Walter Payton Man of the Year. The final reason would be what it shows others in the locker room of the team not being stingy in paying top-tier players in the NFL.
As for free agents from other teams, there are so many names that could be put here that make complete sense as to why they should be a priority for the Broncos. The name I keep coming back to is Byron Jones of the Cowboys. Not many in the league can bounce back and forth between safety and cornerback and play both at the highest of levels in the league yet that is what Jones brings to the table.
Yes, the Broncos do not need him to play safety with Kareem Jackson and (fingers crossed) Simmons having that responsibility. The reason I like the fact that Jones can play both is the versatility of how the Broncos could line up him all over the field. He can play against the bigger tight ends if needed yet has the athleticism to keep up with the quick-footed receivers throughout the league.
On top of that, he has been a great tackling cornerback. As I think has been talked about ad nauseam, Fangio requires his secondary to be great tacklers. There would be no worry of a drop-off in that department with losing Chris Harris, Jr. and moving on to Jones.
Because Jones has safety instincts in a cornerback body, he would be a great fit in his ability to force turnovers and be a big-play type defender under Vic Fangio. Jones will cost a pretty penny for sure, but if there is a time for the Broncos to be aggressive and even be willing to overpay a bit it is now.
Lock has three years of very cost-controlled contract, leaving this free agency period one of the most crucial in recent history for the Broncos. Most contracts in the NFL are two to three years in length (even if they say five years) so the Broncos should be able to bring in some top-flight talent like that of Jones.
Thomas Hall: Simmons is the No. 1 free-agent priority to retain. He is a potential All-Pro and will solidify the back end of the defense for another five to seven years. Maybe even longer. There are others on the defense that could be re-signed, but most of them are not difference makers like Simmons.
If the Broncos wanted to go all-in on any player to hit free agency, it should be Arik Armstead. I thought about Brandon Scherff, but the defense desperately needs another playmaker on the line. The Broncos can and should address both lines in the draft, but it typically takes longer for a defensive lineman to be an effective contributor, so Armstead gets the nod.
He has finally put it all together and is having a tremendous season. He is only 26 years old and is just hitting his prime. Couple that with the fact that the Broncos entire defensive line could sign elsewhere and defensive line is a high priority.
Chad Jensen: Simmons takes priority for me. The fellas ahead of me have elucidated why Simmons must remain the top target for the Broncos to get re-signed, so I won't retread the same rationale but I will mention this; the team fostered arguably the best safety duo in the league this year and would be remiss to break them up.
As for my outside free agent, I'm going all out to sign Kansas City's Chris Jones. He's a 10-15-sack interior rusher and havoc-causer year in and year out. If I'm GM John Elway, the question isn't 'what would I be willing to pay?' but rather, 'what wouldn't I be willing to pay to secure Jones' services?'
Trevor Judge: Simmons is the obvious choice here. He checks all of the boxes and I expect he’ll be playing in Denver again in 2020, either via a new long-term contract or the franchise tag.
Outside of Simmons, I’m going to go with Connor McGovern. The offensive line as an entire unit has been less than impressive this season, but McGovern has proven to be a capable center. He also gives the team versatility to move to guard if they choose to bring in another center via free agency or the draft. He also is unlikely to break the bank.
For outside free agents, the Broncos have a handful of major needs: offensive line, cornerback, and defensive line are the most important to me. The offensive line market is fairly thin, with just a handful of upgrades available (Scherff, Anthony Castonzo, Jack Conklin) that all have concerns with either cost, age, or injury. If Denver prioritizes McGovern, I don’t see any more free-agent dollars going to this group.
I have some optimism with the youth on the defensive line and hopefully, Denver is able to retain Shelby Harris as part of this group. So all of that said, cornerback is what I’d be targeting if I were Elway. And the top prize is Byron Jones.
At 27, he’s coming into his prime and would immediately step into the boundary corner role Denver has been missing since trading away Aqib Talib. Jones won’t come cheap (upwards of $15M/yr) but he’s worth the price. Another bonus is he has had a clean bill of health since 2015. He would fit nicely next to Bryce Callahan next season.
Zack Kelberman: Simmons is far and away the Broncos' top priority, taking immediate precedence over Chris Harris, Jr. and Wolfe, among others. The should-be Pro Bowler has enjoyed a breakout year under Vic Fangio, finally realizing his massive potential. And working in tandem with stud free-agent pickup Kareem Jackson gives Denver arguably the best safety duo in the NFL.
The Broncos finally have a new "No-Fly Zone" and should do whatever it takes to keep it together. Simmons, if he doesn't get a long-term deal, is a prime candidate for the franchise tag. Whatever. It. Takes.
Chris Jones is my top out-of-house free-agent target as Wolfe likely walks and the Broncos don't appear too high on DeMarcus Walker. An equally dominant pass-rusher and run-stuffer, Jones would be a must-add to Fangio's defense, especially if Shelby Harris isn't retained. The Chiefs star probably wouldn't bolt to a division rival, one that hasn't sniffed the playoffs in a half-decade. But, hey, money talks — and the Broncos will have a ton of it in 2020.
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Nick Kendell: The obvious highest priority for the Broncos to retain this offseason is Simmons. Given he is the easy answer, I'll go with Derek Wolfe. Unfortunately, Wolfe ended this season on IR after injuring his elbow in the Broncos Week 13 victory over the Chargers. Before that, Wolfe was on pace to have one of his best statistical campaigns since his rookie season, accumulating seven sacks, six quarterback hits, nine hurries, and eight tackles for loss.
As Wolfe indicated before the season started, he felt like he was "made" for this defensive system, and did he look like it in the 12 games he played this season. At 29 years old, Wolfe is definitely more of an elder statesman for the Broncos, but this team can't be made up of only players on their rookie contract.
Wolfe brings energy, tenacity, and passion to the field and to the locker room. A favorite of Defensive Line Coach Bill Kollar, having someone who wants to be here and cares so deeply about this team really does matter and goes beyond the Xs and Os of any game.
Given Wolfe's bouts with injury, his overtures in how he wants to remain in Denver, and how he played this season, it stands within reason that the Broncos could retain Wolfe for a 'relative' bargain, compared to what a generic player with his exact specs would receive on the open market. Unlike Shelby Harris, who by all indications is going to hit the market and look to get paid (as he should), the team is more likely to get a much more team-friendly contract from Wolfe for equitable output (before Wolfe's injury, he was playing as good as anyone on the defensive front).
Given the World of Suck that the Broncos have been in, retaining someone like Wolfe who cares so much and wants to be a Bronco matters, especially if this season's play is any indication of what he still has left to offer.
As for outside free agents, it's not often that good to great offensive linemen hit the open market in the NFL. Given that there are many more starting offensive linemen spots across the league than offensive linemen of starting caliber, teams typically will do anything and everything to keep good offensive linemen from hitting the market. The ones that end up on the market, either trending down or with durability concerns, tend to get overpaid.
Given the Broncos' recent return on their free-agent offensive linemen in Donald Stephenson, Menelik Watson, Ronald Leary (who has been okay), and Ja'Wuan James, signing free agent O-linemen definitely feels similar to a game of Russian roulette.
With all that said, there is a chance a very high caliber offensive lineman becomes available this offseason in Washington's Brandon Scherff. The former Iowa standout and No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Having played for the trash heap of incompetence that is the Washington Redskins, there are rumors that Scherff wants out. There is a chance that Washington tags him, but that is an expensive proposition for a guard especially if he does indeed want a change of scenery.
The Broncos are likely to have a spot at right guard this upcoming offseason. With Leary's option likely declined, freeing up $8.5 million, the Broncos options to replace him in Austin Schlottmann and Elijah Wilkinson have been bad this year. Scherff is scheme versatile, with the strength to play gap-blocking but the athleticism to play zone, and brings a tenacity and demeanor the Broncos trying to become a more physical team with a dominating run game will crave.
Some will point towards Mike Munchak as a reason to not pay for a premium interior offensive lineman but just look at his best lines in Pittsburgh to negate that point. While already having the absolute butt-kicker and extremely underrated right guard in David DeCastro, the Steelers also went out and paid to obtain Maurkice Pouncey.
Furthermore, with the Broncos likely going with Lock next offseason, the team will have some money to spend with how little he is paid compared to other quarterbacks. Using those savings to surround Lock with the best offensive talent possible not only gives the Broncos the best chance to turn things around, but also gives Lock a chance to grow as he leans on better surrounding talent during his formative years in the NFL.
Scherff doesn't fix the Broncos issues at tackle, but his combination of tenacity, athleticism, schematic versatility, and overall skill would have a synergistic effect on the entire offensive line.
Bob Morris: It goes without saying that Simmons is the highest priority to retain. I would expect the Broncos to use the franchise tag on him, if they don't sign him to an extension first. They will have the cap space to keep Simmons around, so I don't see him hitting the open market. A deal won't get done overnight, but I'm confident it will get done.
If I was to look at a player other than Simmons who should be a priority to retain, I would go with Wolfe as well. As Nick pointed out, Wolfe has had his most productive season in the NFL in Fangio's scheme.
He's also a player who wants to be a Bronco and is sticking by that mindset even with the team's struggles as of late. A player like that is invaluable to have in the locker room. He should be the next guy the Broncos plan to keep, at least for a couple more years.
Looking elsewhere, I would have mentioned Anthony Castonzo, but I know he'll be getting the franchise tag from the Colts. Chris Jones is another I considered, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Chiefs put the franchise tag on him and find ways to create cap space to extend him. It's true they have to be thinking about extending Patrick Mahomes, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Chiefs wait on that until 2021, knowing they'll have the fifth-year option.
I considered Scherff, but because the free-agent pool for offensive linemen isn't loaded with talent, I'm concerned about paying too much for a talented player, even if Scherff is arguably top-5 at his position. Besides, let's not forget that when Munchak coached with the Steelers, the interior offensive linemen he coached were players the Steelers drafted. The Broncos are already following that philosophy with Dalton Risner, so it won't surprise me if they stay that course and draft a guard on day two this year for Munchak to develop.
That brings me to cornerback, the position I keep pointing out will be loaded with talent. Byron Jones may be the best cornerback about to become a free agent and there are several positives to signing him. First, he should hit the market because it appears the Dallas Cowboys will be putting the franchise tag on Dak Prescott, then the transition tag on Amari Cooper (teams will be able to use both this offseason). That means Jones hits the open market.
Second, Jones offers versatility in that he can play cornerback or safety, thus allowing multiple options for Fangio to utilize him. Third, because there is a lot of talent who could hit free agency at cornerback, you aren't as likely to see as many teams focus on him — there will be other corners that teams will target and, thus, the bidding shouldn't get that high. Jones wouldn't come cheap, mind you, but he shouldn't go too far above market price.
In my eyes, the arrows really point to Jones as the player from another team the Broncos should go 'all-in' for free agency. A secondary with Jones, Jackson, Simmons, a healthy Callahan, and at least one other player who develops (and there's still hope Issac Yiadom will get there) could mean the return of the No Fly Zone.
Lance Sanderson: I think I can speak for almost all of Broncos country by saying that Simmons is without a doubt the biggest priority for the Broncos to retain following the 2019 season. His play under Fangio's tutelage has risen to elite levels, and as a truly humble man of God would become one of the team's biggest leaders, if he isn't already. Also, his work off the field has him nominated as the team's finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. What's not to love?
As far as an outside free agent coming in, my eyes are firmly set on either of Chris Jones from Kansas City or Brandon Scherff from Washington. The game is truly won in the trenches, and both of these players are amongst the best at their respective positions.
Both will likely cost top dollar, but the benefits of having elite interior play on either side of the football far outweigh the risks of big money. If I have to choose one, Jones would be it due to Scherff's recent injury history and the added benefit of weakening an AFC West rival.
Erick Trickel: Simmons is the only unrestricted free agent that is really worth bringing back. He's playing at a high level and worth a big contract. No other pending free agent on the Broncos is playing well enough to justify what they're looking for contractually.
Truth is, Simmons is a big reason that the Broncos defense has had the success that they have had this year. It wasn't the best of starts but it quickly turned around for the young safety.
As for who to bring in from another team, I'm going with either Chris Jones of the Chiefs or Brandon Scherff from Washington. Going after each player has their reasons for it and against it.
With Jones, Denver can probably get cheaper is Calais Campbell gets cut as expected from the Jaguars. Jones is a great interior disruptor and would be tremendous in the Broncos' scheme, but if Campbell does get cut that's where Elway will probably go for a defensive lineman for multiple reasons.
So of the two, I'm going Scherff. He has some medical history that is concerning, so you know Elway is going to be all over that.
Scherff is a great player, especially in the scheme the Broncos run. Health is the only big concern, but also signing Scherff or any unrestricted free agent is going to cut into projected compensatory picks for 2021.
Follow MHH on Twitter @MileHighHuddle.