NFL News & Analysis

Denver Broncos 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons (31) in the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The Denver Broncos offseason will come down to which direction they choose to go at the quarterback position, as Drew Lock has shown very little through the first 18 starts in his NFL career. Luckily, the Broncos have cap space and a top-10 draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to work with, meaning that Denver could take several different paths if they plan on adding competition at the position.

Defensively, several of the Broncos' headliners enter the offseason with their 2021 roster spot in question. Von Miller, the face of the franchise, could become a cap casualty following a 2020 injury and potential off-the-field concerns, while safety Justin Simmons will be looking for a long-term deal after playing last season on the franchise tag.

It all sets up for an interesting next few months for the Broncos as they look to compete in a crowded AFC West.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $31,137, 021 (7th highest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 9, 40, 71, 105, 136, 167, 201, 203, 218

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Melvin Gordon 32 / 70 $9.0 million
WR Courtland Sutton N/A $2.9 million
WR Jerry Jeudy 85 / 127 $3.5 million
WR K.J. Hamler 121 / 127 $1.6 million
TE Noah Fant 15 / 71 $3.4 million
LT Garett Bolles 3 / 38 $5.0 million
LG Dalton Risner 25 / 39 $1.9 million
C Lloyd Cushenberry III 37 / 37 $1.1 million
RG Graham Glasgow 13 / 40 $11.9 million
RT ?

Much of Denver’s offensive starting lineup is set, which makes them an appealing potential destination for veteran quarterbacks such as Deshaun Watson or one of the free agents on the market this offseason. A talented receiving corps will return Sutton, and there is little reason that Tim Patrick won’t be back in Denver as a restricted free agent after breaking out for a career year in 2020. 

Those receiving options need a quarterback to get them the ball next season, something Drew Lock struggled to do consistently. If he does return as the starting quarterback, the Broncos will need significant strides in his development to contend in the AFC. 

The other position up in the air as things stand right now is the right tackle spot. Denver hoped Ja’Wuan James would solidify that position when they signed him to a free agent deal before the 2019 season, but he has played just 63 total snaps on offense over the last two years. There is talk that the Broncos could choose to release James this offseason, even though the move would come with a hefty dead-cap hit. Due to that uncertainty, I left the starting right tackle spot blank for now.   

Is it too early to give up on Drew Lock?

It’s understandable why a segment of Broncos fans or the Broncos themselves would be hesitant to pull the plug on Lock after his first two seasons in the NFL. After all, he has only played just over one season of games with the delayed starting opportunity in his rookie year and time missed due to injury in 2020. 

There are two counterarguments to that point, though. First, Lock wasn’t a premium draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft — he was a second-round selection, which means that his range of outcomes will be lower than that of a first-round quarterback prospect out of the gate.

More importantly, Lock has done little that should give Denver confidence he will develop into a high-level starter, given his play early in his NFL career. His 62.1 PFF grade since 2019 ranks 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks, ahead of only Sam Darnold and Kyle Allen. His accuracy, in particular, has been a concern. 

Opt-outs and injuries to key players such as Sutton and James lessened the strong supporting cast Lock was supposed to have in 2020, but it wasn’t on par with the disastrous situations we’ve seen for Sam Darnold in New York.

The Broncos have legitimate talent on their roster. It feels like a waste to spend another season evaluating Lock on a team that has a chance to contend with even average quarterback play. 

Does trading for Deshaun Watson make the Broncos Super Bowl contenders?

PFF’s Sam Monson recently answered this question with a yes in article form, and I tend to agree with him. At the very least, that aggressive move at quarterback would give legitimate competition to the Kansas City Chiefs at the top of the AFC West. 

PFF’s NFL Power Ratings assign a “spread points above replacement” value to each team’s starting quarterback for betting purposes. Watson finished the season worth eight points above a replacement-level quarterback, lower than only Aaron Rodgers (9.5) and Patrick Mahomes (9.5). For context, Drew Lock was worth 0.5 spread points above a replacement-level quarterback, tied for last in the league with Mike Glennon and Taylor Heinicke. In that context, it doesn’t take a genius to see the kind of impact that a jump from bottom-of-the-league to elite quarterback play would have on Denver’s offense.    

Make no mistake about it, Watson’s 2020 season was elite. Not only would he be an upgrade at quarterback for the Broncos, but Denver would serve as an offensive upgrade around Watson compared to his supporting cast in Houston. There’s a reason why Denver is now the betting favorite to land Watson in a trade. The connection makes a lot of sense. 

Should the Broncos be concerned with drops by Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler?

The common theme between Jeudy and Hamler was supposed to be their ability to create separation and provide big plays for Denver’s offense. Unfortunately, the link between the two ended up being their inability to catch the football.

Jeudy’s 12 drops on the season — including a disastrous five-drop performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16 — ranked second in the league behind only Diontae Johnson (14). Hamler also found himself among the top-10 wide receivers league-wide in drops (seven) despite seeing just 54 targets all year.    

The thing that Broncos fans need to keep in mind is that drops are overblown. Amari Cooper had major drop issues early in his NFL career, and he is coming off a 2020 season where he dropped just three of his 128 targets. Some players will have consistent drop issues throughout their careers, but it’s not sticky year to year for many guys. Even if you are looking at a guy who has legitimate drop issues, you’ll take the occasional drops if it means the player is offering game-breaking speed and consistently finds himself open. 

Jeudy and Hamler both fall into that category. Specifically, Jeudy is a guy who could take a big leap in 2021 with better quarterback play. Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard singled out Jeudy as one of his most difficult matchups last season on the Cris Collinsworth Podcast, and there were plenty of occasions where errant passes from Lock didn’t even allow Jeudy to come down with the football. 

The panic meter for the Broncos shouldn’t be anywhere near critical levels. 

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson, Jameis Winston, Trey Lance

Watson should be priority No. 1 for Denver if the possibility of a deal exists. There are few quarterbacks in the league worthy of three first-round picks, several Day 2 selections and promising young players. Watson is one of them. He is a 25-year-old quarterback who has improved in each of his first four NFL seasons and is coming off a year where he was the third-most-valuable quarterback in the league on a team that won four games. Find a way to get it done, Denver. 

If the Watson deal doesn’t materialize, then free agency and the draft will offer several options for the Broncos. Winston won’t be overly pricey after spending most of the 2020 season on the sideline, but he has five years of mid-tier quarterback play on his resume and brings a real high end to the table with his ability to push the ball downfield.

Lance seems like the most realistic option to be on the board at ninth overall if Denver doesn’t jump up in the draft, but Zach Wilson or Justin Fields would also qualify if they fall down the board for some reason. Regarding Lance, he has all the physical tools necessary to be an elite starting quarterback in the NFL. Even though he’s pegged as a developmental prospect — for good reason, given his lack of experience, accuracy concerns and run-heavy collegiate offense — he does offer a relatively high floor with his rushing ability.  

Tackle: Rick Wagner, Jackson Carman

Even with reports that James is no lock to be on Denver’s roster entering next season, it’s tough to see them choosing to release him. Even a post-June 1 cut would lead to the Broncos eating $13 million in dead salary cap, and there is a reason that Denver gave him the contract that they did two offseasons ago. James profiles as a quality starting option at right tackle. 

If they do look for another solution, Wagner is a cheaper option on the free agent market that makes some sense. He’s coming off an effective season as the Green Bay Packers starting right tackle, having earned a 78.2 PFF grade across 756 offensive snaps on the year. Wagner has graded at 70.0 or higher in six of his eight NFL seasons. 

Carman is a player Denver should be able to target on Day 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. The former five-star recruit is a natural athlete with size and has the potential to continue improving once he reaches the NFL. As the PFF Draft Guide points out, his best football came toward the end of the 2020 season.  

Projected 2021 defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Dre’Mont Jones 27 / 126 $1.1 million
DI Mike Purcell N/A $3.2 million
DI ?
EDGE Bradley Chubb 30 / 109 $8.8 million
LB ?
LB Josey Jewell 13 / 83 $2.4 million
CB ?
CB Michael Ojemudia 106 / 121 $1.1 million
CB Bryce Callahan 3 / 121 $8.1 million
S Kareem Jackson 6 / 94 $12.9 million
S ?

The Broncos defense will enter the 2021 offseason with real personnel questions. Still, Vic Fangio's presence gives some sense of assurance that it would take something drastic for Denver to be much worse than average on the defensive side of the ball. 

Along the defensive front, both Jurrell Casey and Von Miller are candidates to be either released or traded in the coming months. Those two moves would save the Broncos nearly $30 million against the 2021 salary cap, allowing them to be very aggressive in targeting their quarterback of the future and returning pieces of their young core, such as Justin Simmons. Simmons should be the priority of the offseason for Denver on defense after playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag. 

At linebacker, Alexander Johnson is a candidate to return as a restricted free agent, but Denver could also look to upgrade at the position. 

The area where the most uncertainty lies as things stand right now is at cornerback. Ojemudia wasn’t overly impressive in a starting role as a rookie in 2020, and the Broncos' depth behind him and Callahan is thin. They could stand to add a starting-caliber cornerback in free agency and take a cornerback early in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Why is it so important that the Broncos retain Justin Simmons?

Simply put, Simmons has become one of the best safeties in the NFL. Those players — particularly if they bring a versatile skill set to the table, as Simmons does — are some of the most valuable players a defense can have.

Since the start of the 2019 season, Simmons’ 90.5 PFF grade ranks first among all safeties in the league. He has done it with strong play both against the run and in the passing game, and his versatile role in Fangio’s defense across half-field and single-high coverages has brought out the best in the former third-round pick out of Boston College. 

Denver’s cornerback situation is far from solidified, so keeping Simmons and Kareem Jackson in place as the starting safety duo is paramount. Both were top-12-graded safeties in 2020. That kind of quality play at the safety position can help minimize the impact of shaky cornerback play, as we saw last season. 

Will the Broncos part ways with veterans like Jurrell Casey and Von Miller for salary-cap relief?

Neither of these decisions is a no-brainer on the part of Denver. Casey performed well in his limited action to start the year with the Broncos, producing a 74.4 PFF grade in three starts before a torn biceps ended his season. 

Of course, Miller missed the entirety of the 2020 season due to a dislocated tendon in his ankle, but he has been one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL over the past decade. The 2019 season was the first season in Miller’s career that didn’t earn at least a 90.0 PFF grade. And he was still very productive, producing a 79.3 overall grade on the season. 

The rationale for releasing players like Casey and Miller is age and salary relief. Casey will be 31 by the time next season begins, while Miller will be 32 — theoretically on the downsides of their career trajectories. Additionally, Casey’s release or trade would save Denver roughly $12 million against the 2021 cap, while a similar outcome for Miller would net $18 million. That’s a combined $30 million for two defensive players who are likely past their prime.  

What type of cornerback fits best in Vic Fangio’s defense?

It’s not easy to find cornerbacks with the ability to play man coverage at a high level. Athleticism becomes more of a necessity than an added bonus on man-heavy defenses with the assignments that cornerbacks are tasked with. It’s not a skill set that Vic Fangio prioritizes on his defenses, though. 

Fangio’s defenses will primarily employ zone coverage, and that zone coverage will be overwhelmingly off-zone coverage. Only the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Chargers have run fewer defensive snaps with a press coverage look over the last two seasons than Denver. We saw the Broncos target a player who primarily played off-zone coverage in Ojemudia last season out of Iowa. There’s a good chance that Fangio and company look for a similar skill set this offseason, whether that be in the draft or free agency.  

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Shelby Harris, Osa Odighizuwa

Harris has been an underappreciated part of the Broncos' defense for years now. Since 2017, Harris has turned in PFF grades above 75.0 on 350 or more defensive snaps each year. That could lead to him making more money this offseason as an unrestricted free agent than the Broncos are comfortable paying him. Denver would surely love to have him back at a reasonable price point, though. 

Odighizuwa is an interesting option in the draft if Denver does choose to add defensive line depth after Round 1. He earned run-defense and pass-rush grades north of 75.0 in each of the past two seasons for UCLA, and his player comp in the PFF Draft Guide is a “lighter Shelby Harris.” Though a bit undersized, Odighizuwa makes some sense on Denver’s defense with his length and explosiveness.  

Edge defender: Yannick Ngakoue, Joseph Ossai 

These targets really only make sense if the Broncos do part ways with Von Miller. In that scenario, Ngakoue could be a guy Denver targets to step in and provide high-level play as a pass rusher opposite Bradley Chubb. Ngakoue has recorded pass-rushing grades of at least 74.0 in each of the past four seasons. The biggest problem for any team looking to add the former Jaguar and Raven is that he will not offer much support against the run. 

Ossai recorded run-defense and pass-rushing grades north of 80.0 in his first full season as an edge defender for Texas this past season. He has the flexibility and bend to get around the edge consistently, and he has a high motor to match it. The biggest concern with Ossai is how his size and strength fares on the outside without elite explosiveness.

Linebacker: Alexander Johnson, Jamin Davis

Johnson took a definite step back in 2020 after a breakout 2019 campaign that saw him post an 88.5 overall grade, but the 29-year-old still provided solid play over the middle of the field for Denver alongside Josey Jewell. He’s a candidate to be brought back in 2021 as a restricted free agent this offseason. 

If Denver is looking to add a linebacker via the draft, Davis is a potential mid-round target that makes some sense in Denver’s zone-heavy defense. He is coming off an 87.5 run-defense grade this past season at Kentucky and has the type of build that many teams are looking for at the linebacker position.  

Cornerback: Caleb Farley, Chidobe Awuzie  

Farley to Denver is one of the more commonly mocked first-round selections, and it’s not difficult to see why. The 2020 opt-out has the size and athleticism that plays at the cornerback position in the NFL, and he allowed just a 26.8 passer rating on throws into his coverage the last time we saw him play. Some of the concerns about his limited experience in press-man coverage at Virginia Tech don’t really come into play in Fangio’s scheme.

Awuzie is coming off a down 2020 season that included missed time with injury, but he has multiple years of solid play in coverage on his resume prior to this past season. Awuzie earned a 75.0 coverage grade across the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons. That number only gets better when isolating for zone-coverage snaps. He profiles as a good fit on Denver’s defense who won’t cost top dollar at the position.     

Safety: Justin Simmons, Christian Uphoff

Once again, I expect the Broncos to retain Simmons. They certainly should.

If the two sides can’t come to terms on a long-term deal, Uphoff is an intriguing later-round safety prospect who could hold some interest for Denver. Coming out of Illinois State, Uphoff showed he could perform against better competition at the Senior Bowl, taking home the title of top safety on the National Team following the week of practice. He has the movement skills and versatile skill set to develop into a high-level starting safety in the NFL.

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