ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway, in a symbolic and altruistic gesture, cleaned out his office Friday morning.
As he had inhabited the office that overlooks the Broncos’ practice fields for the past 10 years, there was considerable packing to do, no matter that he had always kept the place immaculate. He gave away some of the memorabilia that had been settling on shelves and kept some others, and threw his desk contents into a couple of boxes.
Elway moved into Pat Bowlen’s conference room that was just down the hall. He then caught a flight out of town for some decompression and relaxation.
Less than 24 hours later, George Paton moved into what is now Elway’s former office. It happens just like that in the NFL.
“They told me I could have kept the office and I said, ‘No, I wanted George to have it,' ’’ Elway said Saturday in a phone interview with 9News. “I’ve got a good setup in Pat’s (conference) room. But George should have that office. It’s the GM office, so that’s why it should be his.”
After a decade-long run that was unprecedentedly successful in the first half and disappointing in the second, Elway resigned as the Broncos’ general manager nearly two weeks ago while keeping his role as president of football operations. The first task with his grandiose title was to find his replacement as GM.
When he began the search process, Elway told the media and the five GM candidates that he would not interfere. The new GM would have full authority on free agency, the draft, manipulating the salary cap thresholds and the 53-man roster building process. Elway would still oversee the football department and serve as a consultant as bigger issues arose. Otherwise, he was stepping away from the day-to-day grind.
Paton, a longtime GM assistant for the Minnesota Vikings, was Elway’s choice. By surrendering his home away from home to the new guy, Elway backed his words with packing boxes. The GM transition is now official. Paton, not Elway, has five major areas to address:
The incumbent, Drew Lock, is young, talented, promising and the league’s 32nd-ranked quarterback. Capitalizing on Lock’s full year of development by sticking with him to reap the reward of a better quarterback for one more season makes sense. But it’s also understandable if Paton decides that in an AFC West Division that has Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr as opposing quarterbacks, the Broncos need to upgrade the most important position in football.
There has been talk that such frontline quarterbacks as Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, even Deshaun Watson might become available for trade. But no one should be surprised if come the start of the 2021 league year on March 17, all of them stay put. The No. 9 overall draft selection, and the chance for a new GM to pick his own franchise quarterback, would also have to come up for consideration.
At a minimum, Paton is expected to give Lock considerably more competition.
A strong working relationship between the head coach and GM must develop fairly quickly. Together, Paton and Fangio, Fangio and Paton, must agree on how to rebuild a Broncos roster that finished 5-11 last season.
Although Paton and Fangio are side-by-side in the organizational power structure with each reporting to Elway, this arrangement may only exist for a year. Paton begins 2021 with a brand-spanking new six-year deal, while Fangio has two years left on his contract.
Fangio helped pick Paton to be his working partner, but there is more pressure on the returning coach to win in 2021 than on the new GM.
Tweak the personnel department
One of Paton’s first tasks from his new office will be to evaluate the people he inherits. The only known front-office opening is the director of player personnel position vacated by Matt Russell’s retirement. Elway and Russell left behind some very good personnel executives and scouts, including regional scout Rob Paton, George’s nephew.
Picking his right-hand man will be George Paton’s first important hire.
Von and Simmons
Pass rusher Von Miller missed the entire 2020 season because of an ankle injury, will turn 32 in March, and is on the books for a nonguaranteed $18 million in salary and bonuses for 2021. As great as Miller has been for the Broncos, he has reached an unenviable crossroads point in his career. The Broncos are expected to try to work out a reduced contract to bring him back.
Whether Miller agrees to such a reduction is another matter.
Justin Simmons is a safety who appears to be in his prime. He played on an $11.441 million franchise tag salary this season, after turning down a multiyear offer that averaged about $13 million a year. With the team salary cap expected to drop from $198.5 million to about $175 million following the COVID-caused revenue hits, will Simmons adjust his asking price a tad?
His five interceptions in 2020 lend evidence that he is arguably the league’s best ball-hawking safety. After he was a second-team All Pro in 2019, he didn’t receive such distinction this season as he was bypassed by safeties who were more impactful in defending the run.
Receiving a second franchise tag, this time with a $13.73 million salary, is not out of the question. It could also provide a much easier starting point to a multiyear deal.
Rebuild the defense
Miller is just one of several defensive players who are coming off season-ending injuries, on the wrong side of 30, and scheduled to draw huge, if non-guaranteed, payouts in 2021.
Miller, defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and cornerback A.J. Bouye are all vulnerable as cap casualties this offseason. Oft-injured cornerback Bryce Callahan, who is scheduled to make a nonguaranteed $7.4 million in 2021, and hard-hitting safety Kareem Jackson, who turns 33 in April and has a nonguaranteed $10 million remaining, could be vulnerable to restructured deals.
The team’s biggest void is at cornerback – if Paton doesn’t go quarterback with his No. 9 overall pick, he almost certainly would have to go corner – but Fangio is also still looking for an inside linebacker who has the foot speed to keep up in the tight end strong AFC West. The two best tight ends in the league are Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and the Raiders’ Darren Waller, each of whom tore up the Denver defense this season.
The offense trended slightly upwards in 2020 but the Denver D went the wrong way, falling from No. 10 in scoring to No. 25. Quarterback and defense are Paton’s primary roster concerns in his first year of working from the prime office space at UCHealth Training Center.
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