Broncos offseason to be busy after looking up at NFL’s best again

Out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, tied for the longest streak in more than four decades.

A third double-digit loss season in four years, something that hasn’t happened around these parts since the late 1960s.

And potentially only the third last-place AFC West finish in 21 years.

So what happened to the Broncos this year? Why are they 5-10 entering Sunday’s finale against Las Vegas at an empty Mile High? Why are they essentially in NFL’s No-Man’s Land — unwilling to tear it down and unable to compete with the league’s elite?

“We had an inordinate amount of injuries, which I think hurt our progress some,” coach Vic Fangio said. “We turned it over too much (32 times), which hurt our progress. We didn’t get takeaways (only 12), which hurt our progress.”

But …

“I think, individually, there’s been a lot of progress,” Fangio said. “We’ve gotten a lot of young players a lot of playing time that they’re going to grow from and learn from and I think that’s where the progress has been made.”

Entering Week 17, according to Sport Radar, the Broncos’ 5,902 snaps by first- and second-year players leads the NFL, nearly 1,000 more than Cincinnati (4,955). Against the Raiders, the Broncos could start as many as four rookies and five second-year players, equal parts by design and necessity.

The Broncos’ hope is that individual growth/acquired knowledge while absorbing body blows from some of the NFL’s best (eight games against the 14 teams currently in playoff position — 1-7 record), translates into 2021 team success.

Are the Broncos equipped to make a jump of 4-5 wins to challenge for the playoffs next year? Here is a position-by-position look:


PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Drew Lock24D2-19$1,912,042
Brett Rypien25CFA-19$850,000
Jeff Driskel28UFA-20$3,250,000

Analysis: Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wasn’t subtle in his criticism of Lock throughout December, but his tune changed 180 degrees Thursday as he pointed out Lock’s youth (17 career starts) and potential. The inference is the Broncos are entering the offseason with Lock as their projected 2021 No. 1. … Lock’s 15 interceptions are tied for the NFL lead and he’s tied for 24th in touchdowns (14). … Lock has 53 explosive passes (at least 16-yard gain); his 18 turnovers have led to 55 points by the opponent. … Adding a more-experienced No. 2 is critical. Driskel didn’t pan out and the Broncos can create $1.75 million in space by cutting him.

Running back

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Melvin Gordon28UFA-20$9,000,000
Phillip Lindsay27CFA-18Restricted FA
Royce Freeman25D3-18$1,219,255
LeVante Bellamy24CFA-20$780,000

Also: Jeremy Cox (FB) and Damarea Crockett.

Analysis: So much for that plan of Nos. 1-1A tailbacks with Gordon/Lindsay or Lindsay/Gordon. … Lindsay’s season never got out of the blocks (one 100-yard game) because of injuries and ineffectiveness. … Do the Broncos want Lindsay back? Does he want to be back? One of the top offseason subplots — we think Lindsay has played his last game in Denver. … Gordon is knocking on 1,000 yards (needs 107), has played 576 snaps, has eight of the Broncos’ 12 rushing touchdowns and caught 28 passes. … Maybe Bellamy can be to 2021 what the Broncos wanted Lindsay to be this past year, capable of rushing, catching and protecting.

Tight end

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Noah Fant23D1-19$3,433,834
Nick Vannett28UFA-20$3,575,000
Albert Okwuegbunam23D4-20$967,261
Troy Fumagalli26FA-20Restricted free agent
Andrew Beck25W-19$850,000
Jake Butt26D5-17Free agent
Austin Fort26CFA-19$781,168

Also: Jordan Leggett.

Analysis: Fant has 12 explosive catches among his 58 receptions and has played 660 snaps. … Vannett (330 snaps) started slowly and was a healthy scratch in Week 3, but found a role during the season’s second half as the in-line blocker/protector. … Okwuegbunam should generate excitement — and maybe take targets away from Fant — if he returns to top form from a torn ACL. … The Broncos should enter the offseason confident this position doesn’t need to be addressed.


PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Courtland Sutton25D2-18$2,176,978
Jerry Jeudy22D1-20$3,452,945
Tim Patrick27FA-17Restricted FA
KJ Hamler22D2-20$1,622,076
DaeSean Hamilton26D4-18$1,090,660
Diontae Spencer29W-19ERFA
Tyrie Cleveland23D7-20$798,873

Also: Kendall Hinton, Trinity Benson and Fred Brown.

Analysis: The Broncos should feel comfortable with Sutton, Jeudy, Patrick and Hamler as their top four entering camp. … Sutton was going to be a 100-catch candidate before his Week 2 torn ACL. … Jeudy has 47 catches and two touchdowns, but also 10 drops and he’ll be the biggest beneficiary from Sutton’s return. … Patrick (team-high six TD catches) deserves a second-round tender (projected $3.442 million). … Hamler won’t get as many touches as Jeudy, but could have a bigger impact next year.

Offensive line

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Garett Bolles (LT)29D1-17$5,000,000
Graham Glasgow (RG)29UFA-20$12,000,000
Dalton Risner (LG)26D2-19$1,947,895
Lloyd Cushenberry (C)23D3-20$1,058,180
Ja’Wuan James (RT)29UFA-19$13,000,000
Elijah Wilkinson (RT)26CFA-17Free agent
Calvin Anderson (LT)25FA-19ERFA
Demar Dotson (RT)35UFA-20Free agent
Netane Muti (G)22D6-20$831,448
Austin Schlottmann (G/C)25CFA-18ERFA
Patrick Morris (C)26W-19ERFA

Also: Darrin Paulo (OT), Quinn Bailey (OT) and Jon Halapio (G/C).

Analysis: The Broncos should enter the offseason knowing they have four starters locked in — Bolles, Risner, Cushenberry and Glasgow. … Bolles’ four-year contract kicks in and he’s had his best season (1/2 sack allowed, four penalties), Risner has played better in the second half (one pass protection disruption allowed), Cushenberry has played all 995 snaps (one penalty) and Glasgow (744 snaps) fought an early-season ankle injury and mid-season COVID-19 positive test. … The Broncos are essentially stuck with James, who opted out of 2020. They should re-sign Wilkinson to be a swing tackle. … The depth is solid with Anderson (backup LT) and Muti (backup G).

Defensive line

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Shelby Harris (DE)30FA-17Free agent
Dre’Mont Jones (DE)24D3-19$1,142,400
Mike Purcell (NT)30FA-19$3,687,500
Jurrell Casey (DE)31T-20$11,874,750
McTelvin Agim (NT)23D3-20$1,030,396
DeMarcus Walker (DE)26D2-17Free agent
DeShawn Williams (DL)28FA-20$850,000
Sylvester Williams (DL)32FA-20Free agent
Kyle Peko (DL)28FA-19$990,000

Also: Darius Kilgo (DL) and Deyon Sizer (DT).

Analysis: It could be (should be?) an offseason of change up front. … Harris is a free agent and this being his only kick at the high-money can, could simply sign with the highest bidder. … Walker hasn’t panned out and needs a fresh start. … The Broncos can create $11,874,750 in cap space by cutting Casey, who was limited to three games because of a triceps injury. … Purcell will be returning from a foot injury and backed up by Agim. … Jones has played 503 snaps and has 11 pass rush disruptions in the last six games.

Outside linebacker

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Von Miller32D1-11$22,125,000
Bradley Chubb25D1-18$8,847,213
Jeremiah Attaochu28FA-19Free agent
Malik Reed25CFA-19$855,000
Anthony Chickillo28FA-20Free agent
Derrek Tuszka25D7-20$780,000

Analysis: The Broncos can create $13.875 million in cap space by cutting Miller, who missed all of 2020 (ankle), but don’t count on that. Would they consider extending his contract to lower his cap number and ensure he’ll be a one-franchise player? Perhaps. … If Miller returns, the Broncos should still be in the draft market for an edge rusher to join him, Chubb, Reed and challenge Tuszka for the fourth spot in the rotation. … Reed and Chubb lead the team with 7 1/2 sacks.

Inside linebacker

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Josey Jewell26D4-18$1,098,496
Alexander Johnson29CFA-18Restricted FA
Austin Calitro27T-20Restricted FA
Joe Jones27FA-17Free agent
Justin Strnad25D5-20$839,444
Josh Watson25CFA-19ERFA

Analysis: Johnson leads the Broncos with 117 tackles, but does Fangio still envision him as an every-down player? Johnson’s coverage ability leaves much to be desired. In 1,004 snaps, he has 14 1/2 run “stuffs” and nine missed tackles. … Strnad was penciled in as a sub-package coverage linebacker until his training camp wrist injury. … Jewell emerged as a solid player with 102 tackles (12 run “stuffs”) and only four missed tackles in 922 snaps. … Fangio’s search for a version of Roquan Smith, whom he had in Chicago, will continue.


PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Bryce Callahan29UFA-19$8,333,334
A.J. Bouye30T-20$13,375,000
Michael Ojemudia23D3-20$1,079,863
Essang Bassey23CFA-20$786,666
Nate Hairston27FA-20$990,000
Parnell Motley23FA-20$780,000
Duke Dawson25T-19$1,127,028
Kevin Toliver25FA-20Restricted FA

Analysis: Eight cornerbacks played at least 54 snaps this year. … The biggest offseason need is cornerback — a no-doubt, shut-down player who allows Fangio to deploy Callahan inside/outside. … Broncos corners this year have combined for three interceptions and 24 pass break-ups. Not good enough. … Releasing Bouye, who will start 2021 on suspension, will create $13.375 million in cap space. A no brainer. … Ojemudia’s 14 tackles lead the team and his five penalties are tied for first. … Bassey has solidified the nickel spot until his torn ACL at Kansas City.


PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Justin Simmons27D3-16Free agent
Kareem Jackson33UFA-19$12,882,353
Trey Marshall25CFA-18ERFA
Alijah Holder25CFA-19$780,000
P.J. Locke24FA-19$780,000
Will Parks (S/CB)27FA-20Free agent

Also: Chris Cooper.

Analysis: Simmons has played all 1,019 snaps, is third with 93 tackles and first with four interceptions. The assumption is he’ll remain with the Broncos via a long-term deal or a second consecutive franchise tag, which would be around $12.8 million (120% of this year’s tag). … The Broncos aren’t in a cap crunch so they can keep Jackson at his scheduled number; he has 87 tackles in 1,015 snaps. … If Fangio and Co., don’t think Holder or Marshall is a dependable third safety, add it to the list of draft needs, particularly when the Broncos play dime (six defensive backs).

Special teams

PlayerAgeHow acquired2021 cap hit
Brandon McManus (K)30FA-14$4,500,000
Sam Martin (P)31UFA-20$2,783,333
Jacob Bobenmoyer (LS)24FA-20$780,000

Also: Taylor Russolino (K).

Analysis: McManus signed a contract extension in September and followed by making 25-of-28 field goals and 22-of-25 point-after attempts in 14 games. … Martin was a solid signing in free agency, able to land punts inside the 15-yard line and directional kick when needed. Overall, he has a 41.7-yard average. … Spencer has return averages of 18.9 (kickoffs) and 15.8 (punts) yards. … The coverage units, which have allowed multiple big plays, need to be addressed.

(Notes: Ages as of Sept. 1, 2021. UFA — unrestricted free agent. RFA — restricted free agent. ERFA — exclusive rights free agent.)


Key free agents

Unrestricted: S Justin Simmons, DE Shelby Harris and RT Elijah Wilkinson.

Restricted: RB Phillip Lindsay, WR Tim Patrick and ILB Alexander Johnson.

Positional needs

1. Cornerback. Only three of the Broncos’ eight interceptions were by cornerbacks. They need to draft one in the first round to join Bryce Callahan, Essang Bassey and Michael Ojemudia.

2. Defensive end. If Shelby Harris, Jurrell Casey and DeMarcus Walker aren’t brought back, the Broncos need to add two ends.

3. Backup quarterback. If the Broncos are committed to Drew Lock being the starter entering camp, adding an experienced No. 2 to provide guidance/push Lock is a priority.

4. Cover inside linebacker. This spot could go to Justin Strnad (out of all of this year), but if Vic Fangio wants an every-down option, a second-round pick should be used for this position.

5. Running back. If the Broncos part with Phillip Lindsay, they should use a Day 3 draft pick (rounds 4-7) on a back, particularly because Melvin Gordon is facing a three-game suspension.

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