ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If George Paton is the Broncos’ general manager candidate to beat, then Dave Ziegler may be the sleeper to watch.
Ziegler is a former Broncos’ scouting executive who has spent the past eight seasons with the New England Patriots. The Broncos’ GM search committee -- comprised of chief executive officer and president Joe Ellis, outgoing GM John Elway, head coach Vic Fangio and chief communications officer Patrick Smyth – are intrigued by Ziegler’s intelligent and work ethic. Oh, and by his eight seasons of working under Bill Belichick in New England.
The Zoom interview with Ziegler on Saturday lasted more 3 hours – about 20 minutes longer than the skull sessions with Paton and Champ Kelly on Friday. Which may mean absolutely nothing, but at the least Ziegler kept their attention.
The Broncos then interviewed Saints’ assistant GM/pro scouting director Terry Fontenot for 3-plus hours. With the Ziegler and Fontenot interviews going so long, the Broncos' GM committee moved their fifth and final first-round interview -- their own college scouting director Brian Stark -- from Saturday evening to Sunday morning.
It is unknown whether the Broncos will expand their GM search after completing round one of their Zoom interviews, or choose one or two finalists from their five-man candidate group to bring in for a second, in-person interview Monday or Tuesday.
Paton, a 14-year assistant general manager to Rick Spielman with the Minnesota Vikings, is easily the most experienced at the highest level of football personnel. He has been considered the top one or two GM candidates the past three or four years – only to either finish second for some jobs or withdraw from consideration for a couple others.
He figures to get, and take, a top job this year as he is also considered a top GM candidate for the Detroit Lions, where Spielman’s brother, Chris, is leading their GM search.
Kelly, a Broncos’ scout and assistant scouting director for eight seasons, is now the Bears’ assistant director of player personnel, which means he helps oversee both the college and pro departments. Kelly has also interviewed for Carolina’s GM position; Fontenot has interviewed with the Lions and Falcons.
Ziegler is getting his first GM chance, and it’s with the Broncos. He broke into the NFL with the Broncos in 2010 and stayed through 2012, when he moved on to New England. He must have made a strong impression with Ellis and Elway during his brief time here as Ziegler – and not former Broncos’ personnel executives Rick Smith, Adam Peters and John Spytek – was brought in for the first round of interviews.
According to sources, the Broncos centered their GM interviews around four topics: The candidates’ background, the candidates' overall philosophy on building a consistent winner, what the candidate thinks of the Broncos’ roster, and his leadership structure.
Yes, quarterback Drew Lock came up in every interview, as every position did. Besides figuring out whether Lock is the Broncos' starting quarterback in 2021 or the organization needs to at least try and bring in serious competition, the Broncos most glaring offseason issue is their defense.
“It definitely is something we have to take a good look at and make a decision after all the guys that got injured and how they’re doing,’’ Fangio told 9News last week. “Very early in the season we lost our entire starting defensive line and Von. And then we lost all of our cover guys from a starting point. It made it rough at times. Just getting those guys back and see where they’re at will be a start. That will be our first draft, or first free agency, however you want to look at it. And then, yeah, we do need to add to our defense, no question about it.”
Many of the Broncos’ top defensive starters have A. huge salaries due in 2021, B. well over 30 years of age, C. coming off season-ending injuries, or D. all of the above.
D. is the most common answer.
Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is 31, is due to make a non-guaranteed $12.28 million, and missed the final 13 games with a torn biceps injury.
Cornerback A.J. Bouye will be 30, is due to make a non-guaranteed $11.91 million in 2021, and missed nine games this season because of a shoulder injury and suspension. He must sit out the first two games of 2021 to finish his suspension.
Another cornerback, Bryce Callahan, will play half of next season at 29, the other half at 30h. He as an affordable $7.38 million salary and was a terrific cover corner in 10 games last season, but once again his foot injury forced him to miss the final five games of the season.
Von Miller, Denver’s best-ever defensive player, will soon turn 32. He is scheduled to make a non-guaranteed $18 million (he has a $7 million option due on the first day of the league year that would become guaranteed if exercised) in the final year of his contract. He missed the entire season with an ankle injury and had just 8.0 sacks in 2018. Elway and Fangio want him back, but the Broncos no doubt want him at less than $18 million.
Safety Kareem Jackson has stayed healthy and played well but he will soon turn 33 and is due to make a non-guaranteed $10 million in 2021. With the Broncos’ other safety, Justin Simmons, in line to make at least $13.73 million next year on a second franchise tag if not more through a multiyear deal, it may be difficult to pay nearly $25 million to two safeties, especially if the salary cap is reduced from $198.5 million to roughly $175 million because of lost revenues from the COVID shutdown.
The Broncos also need to add speed to their inside linebacker group – Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell are similar players in that they are run stoppers who struggle to cover tight ends in a tight end-dominant AFC West Division – and find a defensive line run stopper besides Mike Purcell.
Shelby Harris, one of several defensive linemen who is better in rushing the passer than stopping the run, is a free agent.
Besides all these issues for 2021, the Denver defense declined drastically in 2020, falling from No. 10 in scoring defense at 19.8 points per game in 2019, to No. 25 with 27.9 points allowed in 2020.
The new GM, whoever he is, has work to do.