ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos as we know them are five weeks away from dramatic change.
Some of the Broncos most familiar names will leave. Some of the NFL’s well-known players will become Broncos.
The anticipation of free agency has me jumpy.
The cottage industry turned industrial revolution that is the NFL mock draft offers John Elway, who is entering his 10th season as the Broncos’ general manager, suggestions on which rookies to select.
Why not partake in a football personnel exercise that is NFL free agency?
This promises to be the Broncos most enthralling offseason since 2014 (has it really been six years?) when Elway, armed with quarterback Peyton Manning, was able to lure DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders from free agency. All four became Pro Bowlers.
Come March 18, when free agency opens for 2020, the Pat Bowlen Trust will not only provide Elway with an estimated $60 million in cash spending power, he should get another $28 million from the presumed departures -- via trade or release -- of quarterback Joe Flacco and right guard Ron Leary.
(Flacco’s $13.6 million dead money cap hit, by the way, would become a salary-cap wash. The $13.6 million in cap savings he gave the team by restructuring his deal in 2019 took up the bulk of the team’s $14.9 million in salary-cap carryover to 2020.)
The first $12 million or so will go to safety Justin Simmons, who will receive the franchise tag if a multiyear contract agreement is not reached by March 10. And a couple extra million should be set aside to reward third-year running back Phillip Lindsay after he started his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
My personal free-agent strategy for the Broncos is to not throw all their dough at three big-named players like they did last year with Ja’Wuan James, Kareem Jackson and Callahan.
The bigger the contract, the bigger the target. James and Callahan gave nothing last year in return for their combined $23.5 million in 2019 payout.
Lesson learned and so in 2020, better to use that $60 million to $80 million on six to eight proven veterans. The mutual fund approach.
Here’s what I would do in free agency if I was given the Broncos money to spend:
Trade for either Darius Slay or A.J. Bouye
At cornerback, let’s review what the Broncos have and have not. Chris Harris Jr. is an excellent slot defensive back -- the NFL’s best at one time and he’s still very good inside because of his toughness, instincts and ball skills. He can still play outside corner in the base, too, but he’s not a No. 1 outside cover guy.
I think he gets a lucrative contract in free agency, but not with the Broncos.
Then there’s Bryce Callahan. Let’s say he plays in 2020. He’s a slot corner who Fangio and Ed Donatell believe can become a solid outside defender. We’ll have to take their word for it.
Slay is terrific, at least he was in week 16 of the 2019 season when he held Broncos’ No. 1 receiver Courtland Sutton to 41 yards.
At the trading deadline last October, the Broncos first offered Harris Jr., who turns 31 in June, a two-year, $25 million contract. The biggest problem from Harris’ point of view was only the first year (the upcoming 2020 season) and $12.5 million was guaranteed.
When Harris declined, the Broncos shopped him and found one team interested – the Detroit Lions, who were willing to move Slay’s contract so long as they got a decent return. The problem was besides the Harris-Slay swap, the Lions also wanted a high-round draft pick, as 9NEWS reported in December. No deal.
Slay, 29, has one year and $10.47 million left on his contract. Considering his contract situation, the Broncos may be able to get Slay for one of their three, third-round draft picks.
Same with Jacksonville’s tall corner A.J. Bouye, who turns 29 in August and has two years at roughly $13.5 million each left on his deal.
To those who think Slay and Bouye are worth more than a third-round draft pick – not with those pricey, short-life contracts they’re not.
The top free-agent cornerback by far will be Dallas’ Byron Jones, who should pass Xavien Howard’s $15.05 million annual average as the league’s highest-paid cornerback. I don’t propose the Broncos go there financially.
Former CU Buff Jimmy Smith is the next-best cover cornerback but the Raven has been injury-prone in recent seasons and he turns 32 in July.
There are zone-type corners who would fit Fangio’s coverage system like James Bradberry and a bunch of quality slot defensive backs like Darqueze Dennard, Kendall Fuller, Brian Poole and Mackensie Alexander.
Sign De’Vondre Campbell, ILB, Falcons or Cory Littleton, ILB, Rams
I love Packers’ inside linebacker Blake Martinez, but you wouldn’t want to pay him $10 million-plus a year when you have Todd Davis for $5 million.
Davis, the Broncos’ veteran inside linebacker, led the team in tackles three of the past four years, but could possibly be on the roster bubble.
Like Brandon Marshall the previous year, a $5 million salary, which is what Davis is owed in the final year of his contract, makes all veterans vulnerable.
Davis has a relatively inexpensive $500,000 team option guarantee that is due on March 18 and I would expect the Broncos to exercise it. I wouldn’t be surprised though if the team still looks around for a coverage-type inside partner to go along with thumper Alexander Johnson.
The AFC West has become Tight End Central. The Broncos got a nice rookie season from Noah Fant. Now they need an inside linebacker who can battle the likes of Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, the Raiders’ Darren Waller and the Chargers’ Hunter Henry should be a priority.
In a strong free-agent class of inside linebackers, Littleton and Campbell are better in coverage than Martinez and Cleveland’s Joe Schobert.
The Bears’ and former Bronco Danny Trevathan, who turns 30 next month, could make sense as a second- or third-wave free-agent pickup. He played well when healthy with the Bears but he only avoided game-missing injury one season in his four years in Chicago.
Fangio was his defensive coordinator for three years.
Sign Robby Anderson, WR, Jets
With my own two eyes, I saw Anderson sprint past Bradley Roby like he was standing still in a 2018 game at the Meadowlands.
Elway’s eyes saw the same thing. Anderson only had three catches that day against the Broncos, but one was for a 76-yard touchdown and another for a 35-yard score.
He is tall, lean and fast, a perfect complement to Sutton, who needs a speed guy on the other side to become a consistent 6- to 10-catch-a-game receiver.
Anderson played at Temple for coach Matt Rhule so the Carolina Panthers could also have interest.
Signing a speed receiver like Anderson would ruin a gazillion mock drafts for the Broncos, including the one published a couple weeks ago by 9News’ own Mystery Mockster.
But receivers, no matter where they’re drafted, struggle as rookies. There are exceptions, sure, but they usually need a year or two to polish their route running and master the technique of breaking free from press coverage off the line of scrimmage.
Re-sign either Shelby Harris or Derek Wolfe, and add one other interior defensive lineman, either Jarran Reed, Seahawks; Andrew Billings, Bengals; D.J. Reader, Texans; Quinton Jefferson, Seahawks; Maliek Collins, Cowboys; or Michael Brockers, Rams
The preferred choices along the defensive front would be the Chiefs’ Chris Jones or the 49ers’ Arik Armstead.
But because Fangio has a long history of turning decent interior defensive linemen into very good ones, there’s no sense issuing record-setting contracts at this position.
Especially with the free market flooded with quality interior defensive linemen. Along with quarterback, defensive line is the deepest free-agent position. Billings, Reader, Jefferson and Collins are in their mid-20s so they could be pricey while Brockers could come at decent value even if he is a former first-round draft pick and will play at 29.
Reed had 10.5 sacks from the inside in 2018 for the Seahawks but fell off drastically last season that began with a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct issue.
Choosing between Shelby Harris and fellow Broncos free-agent defensive lineman Derek Wolfe is difficult. Through 12 games last year, Wolfe was the better player as he registered a career-best 7.0 sacks. But Harris is 18 months younger and has been more durable the past three seasons, playing all 48 games, nine more than Wolfe.
Sign a veteran backup QB, either Marcus Mariota, Tennessee or Case Keenum, Washington
The common characteristic of these two quarterbacks is they’re good athletes who can move around. It’s also a characteristic Flacco lacks, which is why I believe that while the veteran still can throw well from the pocket, the Broncos will seek a more mobile veteran to back up first-year starter Drew Lock.
The Broncos sent Mariota to the Tennessee bench during a week 6 shutout last season. As he reinvents himself as a No. 2 who can provide an in-game spark, Mariota could be a perfect fit for the Broncos. And as a former starter who may not be mentally ready to settle for a backup role, Mariota may look at the Broncos and the relatively inexperienced Lock as a desirable place for him.
Keenum also makes sense. The Broncos’ 16-game starter in 2018, Keenum would be familiar with his Denver surroundings and the offense coordinated by Pat Shurmur, who led him through his magical 2017 season in Minnesota.
Re-sign center Connor McGovern. Sign B.J. Finney, center-guard, Steelers
Not to suggest the Broncos’ offensive line is unsettled entering the offseason, but only two of the five starting spots are solidified and one of them is Ja’Wuan James at right tackle.
The other is Dalton Risner at left guard. McGovern is a free agent and as he has the indomitable Tom Condon as his representative, he will get a handsome new contract.
The free-agent market is loaded with right tackles and aging left tackles. For now, let Elijah Wilkinson compete with three-year starter Garett Bolles at left tackle. Finney has been a game-day interior backup during his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, where Mike Munchak, the Broncos’ current offensive line coach, was his direct boss for three seasons.
Otherwise, if the Broncos can hit at so many other positions in free agency, they can use the draft to add depth at left tackle, center and right guard.
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