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2021 free agency preview: Will Denver retain Shelby Harris to bolster its defensive line?

When March 17 arrives and the new league year officially begins, teams across the league will be able to add an influx of talent to their roster.

As General Manager George Paton enters his first free-agency period, the Broncos could choose to add to their roster in several key areas. Over the coming days, we'll evaluate some of the top options who are poised to enter the open market.

We now move over to the defensive side of the ball to evaluate the top options on the defensive line.

WHO'S AVAILABLE?

NT Dalvin Tomlinson, DE Shelby Harris, DE Denico Autry, NT DaQuan Jones, NT Larry Ogunjobi, NT Ndamukong Suh, NT Sheldon Rankins, DE Derek Wolfe, DT Kawann Short, DE Roy Robertson-Harris, DE Deatrich Wise Jr.

There's some solid free-agent options at the nose tackle spot, beginning with the Giants' Dalvin Tomlinson. Tennessee's DaQuan Jones, Cleveland's Larry Ogunjobi and New Orleans' Sheldon Rankins are other potential pieces, but we'll move past the nose tackle spots given the Broncos' recent commitment to Mike Purcell.

There are fewer top-end options available for a player that would fit at defensive end in Denver's 3-4 scheme. While 4-3 defensive ends are considered edge rushers in the same vein as Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, a 3-4 defensive end will complement the outside linebackers' rush while also serving as an important piece against the run. Denver's own Shelby Harris is widely considered the top impending option on the market to fill this role after another productive season. Though he appeared in just 11 games due to COVID-related absences, he still posted 32 tackles, one forced fumble, four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks while knocking down seven passes. He has started all 27 of the games in which he's appeared over the last two years for Denver and has posted 8.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits during that time.

Veteran defensive lineman and current Colt Denico Autry could be a potential replacement for Harris if he leaves Denver during free agency. Autry posted 7.5 sacks in 2020 as he played defensive end after a couple of years as a defensive tackle in Indianapolis. He has recorded 20 sacks, 26 tackles for loss and 32 quarterback hits over the last three seasons.

Former Bronco Derek Wolfe (51 tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack, four quarterback hits in 2020) and New England's Deatrich Wise Jr. (2.5 sacks, 49 tackles, two tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits) could also be potential options that may be available in the second wave of free agency. Roy Robertson-Harris, who played for Vic Fangio for two years in Chicago, has flashed potential at times but may figure to be more of a depth addition.

UPDATE: The Bills announced Wednesday they have released veteran defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson. He is eligible to sign with a team ahead of the start of free agency.

WHAT MAKES SENSE FOR THE BRONCOS?

The Broncos likely need to make at least one substantial move along the defensive line after releasing defensive end Jurrell Casey. 

Dre'Mont Jones seems likely to fill one of the team's starting defensive end positions and can also stay on the field in sub-package formations. Purcell, meanwhile, signed a contract extension that seemingly would preclude the Broncos from signing a big-name nose tackle. Purcell is strong against the run and improved his pass-rush skills before suffering a season-ending injury against the Chiefs last season.

As Denver looks to solidify the other defensive end position, Harris is the highest-rated option according to many lists of the top free agents. Paton said in early March that re-signing Harris is one of the team's priorities in free agency, and Harris said near the end of the season that he hopes to remain in Denver. 

"We'd love to have Shelby back," Paton said. "He's a really good football player and a good person. I know Vic's spoken with him. I've spoken with him early. He's a guy we definitely want back."

If the Broncos can't retain Harris, they'll likely need to sign or draft a player to take his starting spot.

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