KUSA – In each of their two previous years, the Broncos had signed their priority restricted free agents to contract extensions before the season’s start.

The team set out last July with hopes Matt Paradis would make it three in a row.

Like inside linebacker Brandon Marshall in 2016 and kicker Brandon McManus in 2017, the Broncos in 2018 had placed a second-round tender on Paradis, who had not missed a snap while mostly playing at a high level the previous three seasons, even if he was never a Pro Bowl selection.

According to multiple sources, the Broncos and Paradis opened negotiations just before the start of training camp in late-July. The Broncos asked for Paradis’ agent to go first. Setting their sights on becoming the league’s highest-paid center, which at the time was Tampa Bay’s Ryan Jensen (who hails from Fort Morgan) at $10.5 million per year, Paradis and his agent opened with an aggressive proposoal that was north of $13 million. The plan was to eventually settle for something around $11 million – which would have eclipsed Jensen for No. 1.

The Broncos countered with a $9 million a year offer, which would have placed Paradis in a tie for fifth among NFL centers.

For whatever reason, there was no more negotiation or compromise.

Play out the season and Paradis no doubt would have become the highest-paid center. Mitch Morse, who was considered a tick below Paradis on most scouting reports, agreed to a four-year deal Monday with Buffalo for an average of $11.125 million a year. He’s the league’s new highest-paid center.

The Broncos’ offer may have been a low compared to the ever-escalating free-market value, but in return they were offering a full year’s security against injury. What price security against injury in the game of football?

Unfortunately for Paradis, in game 9 against Houston last November he suffered a fractured fibula near the ankle that ended his season. Surgery inserted a plate and screws to repair the break and though he says he’s way ahead of schedule and will be full go for the start of training camp, the Broncos were leery.

History reminded them of how former offensive linemen J.D. Walton and Chris Kuper – who is now the Broncos’ assistant offensive line coach – were never the same after their ankle injuries. And the previous year, Paradis had surgeries on both hips, although he never missed a snap because of it.

The Broncos wanted Paradis back in 2019. He was a tremendous leader, in many ways the glue in a locker room where the defensive players were often griping about the Broncos' ineffective offense. 

But the injury was such the Broncos only wanted him back on a one-year contract. Paradis instead reached agreement Tuesday on a three-year, $27 million deal with the Carolina Panthers (there are also two voidable years after 2021 that are window dressing for possible compensatory pick purposes).

That Paradis got the same $9 million-a-year average the Broncos initially offered last August left both sides feeling justified. For the Broncos, it proves their offer in August was more than fair in return for security against injury. For Paradis and his agent, getting a deal worth $9 million a year coming off a busted ankle proves $9 million a year when he was healthy wasn’t their market.

Paradis is no longer a Bronco. A day after reaching agreements on big contracts with right tackle Ja’Wuan James and cornerback/safety Kareem Jackson, the Broncos lost Paradis, offensive guard-tackle Billy Turner and cornerback Bradley Roby through the same free-agent stream.

And so it goes in the business of the NFL.

The Broncos did try to sign Turner – they promised to up their previous offer before the free-agent negotiating period opened at 10 a.m. Monday. But a few hours later, Turner had a $7 million-a-year deal with the Green Bay Packers pretty much in place. The Broncos were told Turner was going in a different direction.

The Broncos plunged forward and signed James with a four-year, $51 contract that made him the league’s highest-paid right tackle. It’s unlikely the Broncos would have had enough spending budget to sign both Turner and James.

After all that, here is the Broncos’ offensive line if they had to line up today:

Garett Bolles, left tackle; Ron Leary, left guard; Connor McGovern, who started the final seven games in Paradis’ place last year, center; Elijah Wilkinson, right guard with competition from Sam Jones, the former Highlands Ranch star who was a 6th-round rookie last year; and Ja’Wuan James, right tackle.

Mike Munchak is their new offensive line coach. There are still good blockers at comparatively budge prices to be had in free agent. And the NFL Draft is six weeks away.

Maybe, the Broncos’ offensive line will be much improved this year. All that is known for certain is that it’ll be different.