For Broncos fans wanting to see pass-rusher Shaq Barrett, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson or cornerback Patrick Peterson in the fold hours after the free-agent market opens Wednesday at 2 p.m., don’t hold your breath.
“You never want to go crazy in free agency; you don’t want to build your team in free agency,” Broncos general manager George Paton told reporters on March 4.
Not even when the team has a five-year playoff drought and nearly $32 million in salary-cap space? Evidently.
Paton was hired two months ago to re-boot the Broncos’ roster and at least this year, it may have him steering his figurative orange-and-blue shopping cart away from the premium aisle. This is a roster that needs depth; they aren’t one player away from overtaking Kansas City in the AFC West.
The Broncos have money to spend and the expectation is they will, but they are more likely to go the quantity route, such as adding 4-6 players for the price of two big-money free agents.
“You want to fill selective needs going into the draft; that has been my philosophy,” Paton said. “You don’t always want to be the first one out of the gate and (spend) all your money, but if there is something you need, you’ll take a shot.
“If you can fill a need and help your team, you’re going to go for it.”
The Broncos should smartly go for it at four areas of their depth chart. A look:
The problem: The Broncos’ defense simply didn’t make enough big plays. Their 16 takeaways were 29th in the league and they failed to generate a turnover in seven games.
The solution: Spend the biggest chunk of allocated free-agent money on a cornerback … but not one older than 30.
“There are some good players available at corner in free agency and obviously, there are some in the draft,” coach Vic Fangio said. “We hope to at some point, whether in free agency or in the draft, add a player to that position for us because we need to.”
How about free agency and the draft?
Washington’s Ronald Darby, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Michael Davis, Dallas’ Chidobe Awuzie and Pittsburgh’s Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton all make sense if they reach the market.
Darby, 27, has eight interceptions in 73 games (72 starts). … Davis, 26, started the last two years for the Chargers and had five interceptions. … Awuzie, 25, was a regular starter in 2018-19 (two interceptions in 31 games), but was limited to eight games last year (hamstring/COVID-19 positive test). … Sutton, 26, has been a career backup for Pittsburgh (eight starts in four years), but played 548 snaps in ’20. … Hilton, 27, has seven interceptions in 59 games (20 starts) and is a terrific blitzer from the slot.
If the Broncos sign one of the aforementioned corners, they can enter ramped-up draft preparation knowing they aren’t desperate to take a cornerback at ninth overall.
Two cornerbacks — a free agent and the first-round pick — would help Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell kick-start the secondary that has Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey under contract, but Callahan (foot) and Bassey (ACL) are returning from injuries.
The problem: The Broncos’ 32 turnovers last year were the most in the NFL. Combined with the lack of takeaways, their minus-16 turnover differential was worst in the league.
The solution: Address quarterback help.
“We’re always looking to bring in players at all positions that can raise the level of competition and quarterback is no different in that regard,” Fangio said. “Until Drew proves to be the next great quarterback like the ones the Denver franchise has been used to in years past or the ones certain teams around the league have (currently) … we’re going to always try and bring in competition.”
It appears the emphasis internally is on creating urgency for Lock while simultaneously expressing faith in his potential instead of giving up on him.
Among those with at least 14 passing attempts per game, Lock’s 75.4 rating was 32nd out of 35 quarterbacks. Lock was better than only Washington’s Dwayne Haskins (73.0, waived in-season), Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz (72.8, traded to Indianapolis) and the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold (72.7 and his future is undetermined). Under that standard, Lock should feel fortunate he’s still in the mix.
Unless a trade for Houston’s Deshaun Watson develops out of thin air, the Broncos need to move forward with a veteran backup such as Dallas’ Andy Dalton, Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky, the Chargers’ Tyrod Taylor or Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The problem: Starting inside linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson combined for no interceptions and two forced fumbles last year. According to Pro Football Reference, opponents posted a 93.4 passer rating against Jewell and an 88.7 rating against Johnson.
The solution: Tell second-year player Justin Strnad he is the Broncos’ new sub-package coverage linebacker and/or sign an every-down veteran.
Last year, Johnson led the Broncos with 124 tackles in 1,063 snaps and Jewell was second with 111 stops in 1,011 snaps. Both players missed four tackles apiece. Johnson is a restricted free agent.
Finding his version of Roquan Smith has been a moving target for Fangio since he was hired by the Broncos. Minnesota’s Eric Wilson held opponents to a 74.3 passer rating and Paton is familiar with him. Tennessee’s Jayon Brown was great in coverage in 2018-19 (67.1 and 77.7, respectively), but gave up five touchdowns and a 115.3 rating last year.
If Wilson and Brown look to get the same kind of money as Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano ($11 million average), that should be too pricey for the Broncos. It leaves Strnad and a draft pick.
Rebuilding defensive line
The problem: The Broncos have nose tackle Mike Purcell and defensive end Dre’Mont Jones under contract to start in Week 1. After that is uncertainty.
The solution: Re-signing defensive end Shelby Harris before he hits the market (or even after he does) would solve a big issue and give Fangio a base-down starting unit of Harris, Purcell and Jones. Not bad.
If Harris departs, the Broncos’ best course should mirror cornerback — sign a free agent and then use a high draft pick.
Chicago’s Roy Robertson-Harris played two years for Fangio and at 6-foot-5 and 292 pounds, fits as a defensive end. Robertson-Harris, 27, has 75 tackles and 7 1/2 sacks in 52 games (13 starts).
After Robertson-Harris, potential candidates include Buffalo’s Quinton Jefferson (age 28), who was on the Broncos’ radar last March and cut by the Bills last week.
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