7 Steps for Broncos to Maximize the Dawn of the Drew Lock Era
I've talked about what really goes into building around a quarterback and the mistakes other teams have made, regardless of the talent level of their quarterbacks. Money spent on a quarterback doesn't really play as big a part as people think, unless you are talking about paying too much for an average signal-caller.
We've seen the good and the bad from Denver Broncos' GM John Elway in his time in the front office. The majority of the bad years came when he had stopgaps at best at the QB position, and that's when mistakes become more evident.
The important thing, though, is to not lose sight of what the mistakes were and for Elway to do his best to avoid them in the future, while recognizing what he has done well and to continue doing those things.
Though the Broncos will enter the 2020 offseason with a lot of cap room and a lot of draft capital (12 picks), that doesn't mean the team should trip over themselves for an 'all-in' campaign in every aspect. There are some instances in which the Broncos can be aggressive, but if they get too aggressive, more harm could come than good.
The Broncos must also keep in mind that the CBA hasn't been extended yet, and until it is, there are rules they'll have to follow in 2020, which I have previously covered. But even if the CBA is extended before free agency begins, the Broncos need to be smart about how they build the team to maximize their rewards while minimizing risks.
So what should the Broncos, and thus Broncos fans, keep in mind? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Continue to Evaluate Lock & Plan Accordingly
This means that if Drew Lock proves to be an elite QB, the Broncos don't have to have as much elite talent on hand and can get by with average talent at a few positions. If Lock proves to be good but not elite, the Broncos can still build around him, but need more good than average talent and would benefit from an additional elite player.
But if Lock proves to be an average QB, the Broncos will need lots of quality players around him or otherwise ask themselves if they need to find another option. Most of all, Denver can't overpay for average production, whether at quarterback or elsewhere.
The rule of thumb is to remember that elite players are in short supply, so you shouldn't expect every player to be that way, but depending on your QB, you may need them more at premium positions than non-premium positions. The trick is to identify what positions those would be, based on your QB's skill level and how much elite players typically cost.
For example, an elite QB doesn't really need an elite wide receiver, so you can go with two good wideouts. However, you could have an elite tight end because tight ends don't command the money that wide receivers do. On defense, you probably want an elite pass rusher no matter the QB, but you can probably get by without an elite cornerback if your QB is elite.
On the other hand, an average QB really needs an elite WR and definitely needs a strong offensive line, in which case, you'd need one elite and three good linemen at the very least, plus an elite pass rusher and cornerback to anchor the defense.
Your actual approach will vary depending on the talent you have, but the idea is that the quality of the teammates needs to be tied to the QB's talent level. Elite QBs make good players look elite and average players look good, while average QBs can't do either. Therefore, you can go 'all in' on an elite QB, but you don't want to do that with an average QB.
2. Take Care of Your Own Whenever Possible
Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, Dalton Risner and Alexander Johnson are all players to keep an eye on for extensions down the road, because they are players the Broncos have drafted (except for Johnson, who signed as a college free agent) and developed. All these players are ones to monitor for a second contract.
Circumstances could change depending on how other players develop, but right now, those are the players who look like they can be the guys to join Lock as important pieces of the team in future seasons. Regardless of who proves worthy of an extension, though, devote the money to those you developed first, not to players from other teams.
While some players may be worth a second contract, they might not be worth a third contract; we are seeing this in play with the likes of Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris, Jr. who both completed their second contracts and who the Broncos may be willing to allow to test the market.
Wolfe is still a good player and will get a raise over his previous deal, but it shouldn't be too high — $10M or $11M APY is fine, but more than that is too much. Harris might be worth $13M APY, but if he wants to re-set the market, that's not what the Broncos want.
The same applies to players whose deals will expire in the future. Von Miller continues to play at a high level, but when his deal runs out after 2021, the Broncos might not be able to keep him. That's because younger players will need extensions and it's better to put the money there, rather than put it into sentimentality.
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3. Be Selective in Free Agency
At this time, I'd suggest that every Broncos fan pick one free agent from another team as the one to go 'all in' to pursue. For others, though, look for value rather than throwing money everywhere.
It's easy to look back on the quartet of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders and want to repeat that, but keep in mind that Ward and Sanders came on value deals, Talib took a team-friendly deal that made it easy for the Broncos to get out of early if need be, and Ware came at a reasonable cost, too. But situations with big names like that aren't going to happen all the time, so don't fixate too much on all the big names and put your focus on one in particular.
4. Use Restructures Sparingly
Elway has done a good job with contract restructures and not letting that impact the Broncos' ability to improve the team. He needs to continue that path when the time comes to extend players who are showing promise as the future of the franchise.
If it becomes clear he has to move on from a veteran when it comes time for a player on a rookie contract to get that second contract, he needs to move on from the veteran and not kick the can down the road.
5. If Low on Cap Space, Sit out Free Agency
Again, Elway has been consistent here, making sure cap space is first committed to players the Broncos drafted and developed. Get into too many restructures to squeeze in a big name in free agency and you could do more harm than good.
6. When Trading for Players, Buy Low
This is another area in which Elway has played his hand well. He's never given up anything more than a day three pick for a player from another team.
Not every trade has worked out, but he's been good at making sure he has at least one pick in each of the first three rounds when he enters the draft. And if the asking price for a player has been too high, Elway has smartly avoided pursuing those players.
7. Don't Trade up on Draft Day too Often
Again, Elway has done well here, even if the moves themselves didn't lead to a player who became part of the long term. It's fine to move up the board if you have a lot of picks, but make sure you aren't losing too much in the future, unless you are landing a player who will truly change the franchise. And in those cases, it's almost always a quarterback, and the Broncos already have their guy.
There are other things to consider, such as the mix of players on veteran contracts and on draft picks contracts (you should always have a mix of the two), the quality of coaching (not just the head coach, but coordinators and positional coaches) and how well you evaluate players (which means always asking yourself how you can do better and not rest on past accolades).
Building a team isn't an easy process, but don't resign yourself to the idea that you have to go cheap on the QB all the time. Proper evaluation of the QB's talent level, how much he's really worth, what help he needs and how much those players are worth, puts you on the best path to ensuring your team remains a playoff contender for years to come.