DENVER — There is evidence suggesting George Paton does a better job than just about anyone when it comes to evaluating the 300-plus draftable prospects each year at the NFL Combine.
The subsequent NFL Draft is where Paton has excelled in his two years as the Broncos’ general manager. Free agency? The process has been there if the results have not.
But in the draft, Broncos’ cornerback Pat Surtain II, taken in the first round in 2021, is already a first-team All Pro. When healthy, running back Javonte Williams, right guard Quinn Meinerz and edge rusher Baron Browning developed into starters while safety Caden Sterns and outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper became nice subs and special teamers. All had various bouts with injuries last season but they all have played enough to show they were wise picks in their respective rounds.
Then came Paton’s fateful meeting with Seattle general manager John Schneider at Loughmiller’s Pub & Eatery during the NFL Combine last year in downtown Indianapolis. Paton surrendered his strength by trading away two first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks in exchange for addressing the franchise’s desperate need for a quarterback in Russell Wilson.
Without those top two picks last year, Paton didn’t select a player until No. 64 overall, the last slot in the second round. Edge rusher Nick Bonitto was taken knowing he would need a year to develop, which turned out to be the case, but his pass-rushing upside was too good to pass up at such a late juncture.
The Broncos did get an impact tight end in third round, at least when Greg Dulcich was healthy. Fourth-round cornerback Damarri Mathis was a nice find after he rebounded from an inauspicious starting debut and sixth-round defensive lineman Matt Henningsen made some all-rookie teams. Watch out for fourth-round defensive lineman Eyioma Uwazurike and fifth-round safety Delarrin Turner-Yell in year two and don’t give up yet on returner Montrell Washington.
When Wilson slumped under first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett, the Broncos’ reaction was to blame the coach and conclude the jury is still out on Wilson. Not only was Hackett fired, but the Broncos gave away another first-round pick earlier this month to make sure they got their head coach right in Sean Payton, who is a proven winner.
And so another NFL Combine is upon us. It starts Tuesday but Payton and Paton and key assistants will arrive Monday. Loughmiller’s, the unofficial watering hole of NFL scouts and assistant coaches during the Combine, is still around. Paton and Schneider cut their teeth as scouts long before they rose to the height of football front offices so Loughmiller’s was a natural choice for their meeting a year ago.
For now, it appears Schneider owes Paton a beer. But it’s not over yet. Wilson gets to play the next year or three under Sean Payton. Judge the trade after the 2025 season.
Paton doesn’t pick until early in the third round of the this year’s NFL Draft, when he is scheduled to go back-to-back with the No. 68 and 69 overall selections. He took Bonitto and Dulcich at No. 64 and 80 last year so a case can be made he’s in slightly better shape this year.
Meanwhile, free agency opens one week after the NFL Combine concludes on March 6. There will be agents shopping their free-agent clients at the Combine. Handicapped by their two big holes in the first two rounds of the draft, Payton and Paton must hit on free agency if they are to improve the Broncos’ roster.
And roster improvement is required -- the Broncos did not finish 5-12 last season and will not be burdened with a seven-year losing street as they walk the hallways of the Indianapolis Convention Center next week, because of ineffective coaching alone.
Along a parallel decision track, the Broncos must also make decisions on whom among their own 25 free agents – 17 unrestricted, 4 restricted and 4 exclusive rights – they must try to retain. Or let go. A look at the Broncos’ free agents:
Unrestricted free agents (17):
DL Dre’Mont Jones
The Broncos will meet with Jones’ representative (and former Broncos safety) Kyle McCarthy at the Combine, as they will reps of all their free agents. The Broncos want Jones back. He is a good player with a gift of rushing the quarterback from an interior position. But will the Broncos want Jones back if his market calls for a $20 million a year contract?
The two sides have negotiated but a deal is not imminent. There is time as free agency is still two weeks away and deadlines do have a way of narrowing bargaining tables.
The Broncos also have the option of placing a franchise tag of Jones by March 7, but that may not be the way the bet with his tag salary calling for either $19.73 million as a defensive end or $18.94 million as a defensive tackle.
The Combine figures to generate talk of a strong market for Jones.
ILB Alex Singleton
It’s time for this tackling machine to receive what he deserves. He has led his team in tackles each of the past three years – with the Eagles in 2020-21 and the Broncos last year, when he recorded a remarkable 167 tackles. Singleton has averaged 140 tackles over the past three years even though he’s never played more than 68 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Combine figures to generate plenty of buzz on Singleton.
Safety Kareem Jackson
The ageless one, Jackson, who will turn 35 in April, finished his 13th NFL season in 2022 by playing in all 17 games and posting a career-best 94 tackles. The market hasn’t been there for him the previous two years as he took pay cuts from $10 million to $5 million in 2021 and to $2 million last year. But play on he does and play on he will.
Jackson may not have to take a pay cut to return this year. Payton likes to have veteran leaders on defense. And defensive coordinator Vance Joseph coach a younger Jackson in Houston.
LG Dalton Risner
Even if the Colts’ Quenton Nelson is considered an outlier, the next 10 highest-paid guards make between $10 million and $17 million a year. A four-year starting left guard for his hometown Broncos, Risner would like to make it 10 years here. But all signs point to Risner hitting the open market.
“Very excited,’’ Risner said earlier this month as he walked the Super Bowl Honors Red Carpet ceremony. “I’m so proud of the four years that (wife) Whitney and I put together there in Denver. Getting to meet so many great people. People who befriended me for life. People that I admire. No matter what happens to me there’s going to be no hard feelings on my end. I’m excited to see where my future lies.’’
RB Latavius Murray
Didn’t join the Broncos until mid-October last year but by season’s end he was the veteran glue to the locker room. Rescued the Broncos’ anemic offense with 130- and 103-yard rushing games in late-season wins against Arizona and the Chargers. Still a strong, powerful runner who could be a nice No. 2 back complement to Javonte Williams if that’s what Sean Payton is looking for.
Murray deserves a short-term contract but whether he gets one or not at 33 years old could depend on whether the Broncos want to first see what’s available in the middle rounds of the draft.
Murray didn’t sign last year until week 2 of the regular season with the Saints but he might have a second- or third-wave free-agent market this year. He played two years for Payton in New Orleans so Murray could help bridge the transition to a new offense.
DT DeShawn Williams
One of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s favorites during their time together in Cincinnati and 2018 training camp in Denver, Williams is a late-bloomer who posted a career-best 4.5 sacks last season from the interior position.
Deserves a bump from the $1.165 million he made last year. If the Broncos are unable to secure Dre’Mont Jones, bringing back Williams may be essential.
TE Eric Tomlinson
One of only two offensive players who played in all 17 Broncos games last year, Tomlinson was as advertised as a 6-foot-6, 263-pound blocking tight end who was also a better receiver than expected, catching touchdown passes in late-season wins against Arizona and the Chargers. About to turn 31 and played for $1.45 million last year.
FB/TE Andrew Beck
Was smart to take a $1.25 million deal last year in lieu of a what would have been a $2.43 million non-tendered salary as a restricted free agent. Battled through a hamstring issue that caused him to miss four games last year but he’s had a nice four-year run as lead blocking fullback and H-back.
OT Calvin Anderson
Started 7 games at both left and right tackle. Should have mixed with Cam Fleming to start more at either left or right tackle but for some reason coaches Nathaniel Hackett and Butch Barry didn’t take to Anderson’s athleticism, smarts and relatively fresh legs. George Paton likes Anderson so there’s a chance he returns but a 27-year-old tackle who can play both tackles will draw interest from other teams.
OT Cam Fleming
One of the Broncos’ most pleasant surprises last season, Fleming didn’t re-sign with the Broncos until the start of OTAs in late-May last year, but wound up starting 15 games – 9 at right tackle and six at left. And he graded out well on both sides. Will turn 31 just prior to the 2023 season but after serving as a backup/swing tackle for seven of his first 9 seasons, Fleming has bloomed into a legitimate starter.
TE Eric Saubert
The other offensive player who played in all 17 Broncos games last season, Saubert is an ideal No. 3 tight end – a decent blocker in the run game, a decent receiver (15 catches with a game-winning touchdown reception against Houston), a solid special teams player and a mature pro. Didn’t re-sign with the Broncos until after the draft last year and he may have to be patient again.
RB Mike Boone
A nice change-of-pace back when he was healthy – he’s averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his five seasons. But he was often injured in his two seasons with the Broncos, playing in 17 games and missing 17 games.
RB Marlon Mack
A 1,091-yard rusher for the Colts in 2019, Mack showed during a 66-yard catch-and-cut touchdown off a screen pass against the eventual Super Bowl-champion Chiefs last December that he’s made it back from a 2020 Achilles injury. But teams are always looking for young legs at running back and Mack, who is about to turn 27, may have to wait until after the draft.
CB Darius Phillips
Signed with the Broncos after final cuts for the 53-man roster last September, Phillips was to provide cornerback depth and special teams contributions but he was hampered most of the season with a hamstring injury.
OT Billy Turner
His surgically repaired knee took longer to come around than hoped. Did start 7 games at right tackle but with Hackett gone, Turner is not expected back.
OL Tom Compton
A lost season as the 6-6, 315-pound offensive lineman needed surgery to repair a herniated disc soon after turning 33 last spring. There’s always a chance one of his former offensive line coaches picks him up but he’s not expected back with the Broncos.
ILB Dakota Allen
A late-season acquisition, he popped a hamstring soon after arriving. Not expected back.
Restricted free agents (4)
QB Brett Rypien
It’s too bad Rypien never had back-to-back starts through his first four years here. I still think he’s got Jeff Garcia qualities to him but he’ll need the right coach to believe in him. The lowest, right-of-first-refusal tender is $2.627 million, which is getting up there. Perhaps a slightly lower, one-year deal can be worked out. But given Russell Wilson’s off year in 2022, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Broncos brought in a more seasoned veteran like a Jameis Winston (if he’s cut in lieu of a $5.8 million option guarantee on March 17), Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield or Teddy Bridgewater to push Wilson.
During his time with the Saints, Payton has backed up Drew Brees with the likes of Mark Brunell, Chase Daniel, Luke McCown, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston and Trevor Siemian, as well as the multi-purpose Taysom Hill.
Safety P.J. Locke
A regular special teams contributor the past three years while getting a few more snaps at safety last year. Would likely have to negotiate a reduced rate from the $2.637 million low tender to return.
CB Essang Bassey
Was on his way to becoming a top nickelback until he tore his ACL late in his rookie 2020 season. Battled back to play in 14 games last year but not expected to be tendered.
LS Jacob Bobenmoyer
Almost all long snappers make between $1.1 million and $1.4 million so even the lowest RFA tender ($2.637 million) doesn’t apply to this position.
Exclusive rights free agents (4)
ILB Jonas Griffith
Started eight games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Picking up his $940,00 minimum salary tender is a no-brainer.
OL Quinn Bailey
After spending most of his first four seasons on the Broncos’ practice squad, Bailey made his NFL starting debut at left guard in the season finale against the Chargers. Bailey can play four offensive line positions so picking up his $940,000 tender makes sense.
OLB Jonathan Kongbo
About to turn 27, Kongbo has bounced between the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and NFL practice squads before he played in 3 games for the Broncos last season. His minimum salary calls or $870,000 in 2023.
P Corliss Waitman
In his first full season, the left-footed Waitman led the NFL with 96 punts – a reflection of the Broncos’ offense ranking No. 32 in scoring. He ranked 20th in the NFL with a 46.6-yard gross average and 14th with a 41.5-yard net. He is to draw a $940,000 salary this year.
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