ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Step one to improving on the Broncos’ 7-9 record for the 2020 season is to properly evaluate the team’s own players who are eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Given a do-over, think the Broncos would have offered a one-year, $5 million deal to outbid Tampa Bay and keep Shaq Barrett?
Here are the Broncos’ free agents listed in order of who the team would most like to sign back:
1. Justin Simmons, safety
In the John Elway era, the Broncos have assigned franchise tags to Matt Prater, Ryan Clady, Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller. All sat out the offseason but wound up agreeing to multiyear contract extensions before the start of the training camp.
Simmons is the first tag candidate since Miller in 2016. The franchise tag salary for safeties as projected by overthecap.com is $12.735 million in 2020. A second-year tag increases 20 percent, which would put Simmons at $15.28 million in 2021.
Using the franchise tag as the starting point of negotiations, Simmons would be in line for multiyear contract that would guarantee him $28.017 million in his first two years. That’s a nice bump from the $2.04 million he made in 2019.
2. Shelby Harris, defensive tackle
He will be a unique case-market study. At 28 (29 in August) Harris will hit free agency for the first time a little older than most players do, yet he’s also two years younger than defensive teammate Chris Harris Jr. and a year younger than Derek Wolfe.
Shelby Harris is also a late bloomer who didn’t become a starter until this season. He responded with 6.0 sacks (tied for fifth among defensive tackles) and an NFL defensive linemen-most 9 pass deflections. And he has been durable, playing in all 48 possible games during his three seasons in Denver.
But is his market $7 million or $9 million or $11 million per year?
3. Chris Harris Jr., cornerback
The Broncos want Chris Harris back in part because they have needs at his position. They’ll need a No. 1-type cornerback if Chris Harris does return; two No. 3-types if he doesn’t.
A potential problem is Chris Harris figures to seek more than the Broncos are willing to offer. The Broncos offered him a two-year, $25 million extension at midseason, but only one year and $12.5 million was guaranteed.
He’s come a long ways since Elway’s first training camp of 2011. For kicks, I dug up some old research from my Denver Post days:
Broncos 2011 undrafted rookies
Player, Pos. .… Signing bonus
- Adam Grant, OT ……... $12,000
- Adam Weber, QB ……. $10,000
- Mario Fannin, RB …….. $10,000
- Mark Dell, WR ………... $10,000
- Jamel Hamler, WR ….... $10,000
- Colby Whitlock, DT …..... $7,000
- Curtis Porter, OL …....…. $5,000
- D’Andre Goodwin, WR ... $3,500
- Marshall Williams, WR ... $3,500
- Brandon Bing, CB ..…..... $3,000
- Derek Domino, LB ……... $3,000
- James Rogers, CB …….. $3,000
- Deron Mayo, LB …….…. $2,000
- Chris Harris, CB …...…. $2,000
- Ronnell Brown, DT ….… $1,000
- A.J. Jones, LB ……………… $0
- Austin Sylvester, FB .…….… $0
Chris Harris has since collected $50.26 million in his nine seasons with the Broncos. And he’s headed for more. He may or may not get two fully guaranteed years at $14 million per from free agency, but if so, it may not come from the Broncos.
4. Derek Wolfe, defensive tackle
Like Shelby Harris, Wolfe flourished in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defensive system that often is really a four-man front – two down defensive linemen and two outside linebackers.
Wolfe had a career-best 7.0 sacks in just 12 games this season before missing the final four games with a dislocated elbow.
“I was happy to see Shelby and Derek had the years that they had because there’s this stereotype that in a 3-4 the defensive linemen don’t do as well,’’ Fangio said at his end-of-season press conference Monday. “That’s been proven wrong by those two guys, it was proven wrong by Akiem Hicks in Chicago and many other people through the years. Certain guys fit better than others for everybody’s defense, particularly in the defensive line.’’
Wolfe just finished up a four-year extension that paid him $9.175 million per season. He turns 30 next month. Wolfe wants to stay in Denver and the Broncos would like to sign him back. Like Chris Harris, the question may be whether Wolfe gets a guaranteed second year.
5. Connor McGovern, center
A fifth-round selection in the 2016 draft, McGovern was one of Elway’s best late-round picks. A 2 ½-year starter at both right guard and center, McGovern wants to return. But the season ended without the Broncos talking with his agent Tom Condon about a new deal.
As we learned with Matt Paradis last year, there’s not much separation between how centers are paid. The league’s 14th-highest-paid center averages $8.5 million a year, the 10th-highest makes $9.4 million and the 5th-highest gets $10.85 million.
Somewhere in there figures to be the Condon’s asking price for McGovern.
While that may be a little more than the Broncos want to pay, the team is not expected to pick up the $8.15 salary option on right guard Ron Leary so it would be difficult to replace two interior linemen and while still trying to upgrade the offensive tackle position.
The decision on McGovern could depend on whether the Broncos' evaluators believe Austin Schlottmann or Patrick Morris are ready to become full-time starters.
6. Will Parks, safety/cornerback
He has become increasingly invaluable because of all the tools in his belt – nickelback, safety, special teams. But he may have graduated to becoming a full-time starter.
The Broncos no doubt would like Parks back in his super-sub role, but they figure to fill their slot defensive back position with a true corner and Kareem Jackson and Simmons will return as starting safeties.
Parks, like Barrett in 2019, may have to move on for a chance to start.
Other free agents the Broncos would likely want back: Jeremiah Attaochu, outside linebacker; Casey Kreiter, long snapper.
Other Broncos free agents who are long shots to return: Adam Gotsis, defensive end; Devontae Booker, running back; Theo Riddick, running back; Corey Nelson, inside linebacker.
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