ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the span of just a week, the makeup of the Broncos' roster has changed in dramatic fashion.
A week ago, Denver had holes at cornerback and defensive end and a potential opening at edge rusher. Following a series of moves made by new General Manager George Paton, though, Denver's roster is now in far better shape.
In the first wave of free agency, Paton re-signed defensive end Shelby Harris and safety Justin Simmons, picked up outside linebacker Von Miller's team option and added cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller and running back Mike Boone.
In the process, Paton stuck to the philosophy he outlined before free agency started.
"You never want to go crazy in free agency," Paton said in early March. "You don't want to build your team in free agency. You want to fill selective needs going into the draft. That has been my philosophy. You don't always want to be the first one out of the gate and throw all your money, but there is something you need, you'll take a shot. I just think you have to be selective and you have to look at every situation. If you can fill a need and help your team, you're going to go for it."
Instead of overspending early in free agency, Paton found strong value in Darby and Boone, and he later capitalized when Fuller was released by the Bears on Saturday. He also kept an All-Pro in Von Miller, retained Harris and re-signed Simmons, who is potentially the best safety in the game.
Following this series of moves, it's a good time to review of the Broncos' positions groups to evaluate where they stand and which moves could come next. Certainly, the Broncos' needs are different now than they were a week ago, and the team likely has more more flexibility with the ninth-overall pick in April's NFL Draft.
Still, it's clear the work is not done, particularly on the defensive side of the football.
"It's a work in progress," Paton said of the defense ahead of adding Fuller. "We're not there yet. We have the rest of free agency. We have the draft to add good, young players that fit our culture and fit the scheme. We have a ways to go. I'm really happy with the additions we have, but we have time and we're working the phones. [When] we go back, I'll be on the phone. It's a long process and I think by the time we get to the season, we'll feel good about this defense."
What moves could be next? Let's take a look.
[Note: All projected starters and possible additions are the opinion of the author.]
Current projected starter: Drew Lock
Despite rampant speculation, the Broncos have yet to add to their quarterback room. Many of the top prospects on the free-agent market have joined teams, but Paton emphasized that the team will continue to monitor its options to add competition at the position.
"We're monitoring it," Paton said Thursday. "We've evaluated all the quarterbacks. We like Drew Lock. We have a plan in place and there's free agency, there's the draft, there's trades, there's a lot of ways to acquire a quarterback. Fortunately, we have a quarterback here, and we have a nice quarterback room. We do want to bring in competition. We are not going to force it. We are monitoring the market right now."
Paton did confirm that he will continue to attend pro days to evaluate quarterback prospects in the draft and said it "is in play" for the Broncos to use the ninth-overall pick on a quarterback.
Reserve quarterbacks Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel also remain on Denver's roster.
Current projected starter: Melvin Gordon III
The Broncos shook up their running back room during the first week of free agency, as they parted ways with former Pro Bowler Phillip Lindsay and signed former Viking Mike Boone.
Boone profiles as a special teams star with intriguing talent as a running back. He didn't see much action in Minnesota behind Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook, but he posted a 100-yard game in one of his two career starts. In his opening press conference, he also spoke about the value he could add in pass protection and as a pass catcher.
"He was playing behind Dalvin Cook, so he didn't have a lot of opportunity, but when he did have the opportunity, he really produced," Paton said. "I think he's going to help our room. He's going to add some special teams to the offensive side of the ball, which we lack. I'm really excited to have Mike Boone here."
It seems possible that the Broncos could still add another running back in the draft. Royce Freeman, LeVante Bellamy, Jeremy Cox and Damarea Crockett also remain under contract.
Current projected starters: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick
Denver's only move at arguably its deepest position group was internally focused. The Broncos placed a second-round tender on Tim Patrick, which will hopefully keep the team's 2020 receiving touchdown leader in Denver for another season. If another team presents an offer to Patrick, the Broncos will have the chance to match the contract or receive a second-round pick as compensation.
Courtland Sutton should return from his ACL injury to join Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, DaeSean Hamilton, Tyrie Cleveland and the rest of a talented wide receiving corps.
The Broncos also tendered exclusive rights free agent Diontae Spencer, who has been a spark in the team's return game over the past two seasons.
Barring something drastic, it seems the Broncos should be set at this position group.
Current projected starter: Noah Fant
The Broncos' tight end group remains largely unchanged. Fant, Nick Vannett and Albert Okwuegbunam profile as the team's top options.
The team may choose to add another player via free agency or the draft, as Jake Butt and Troy Fumagalli became unrestricted free agents when the new league year began.
Austin Fort also remains under contract for Denver.
Current projected starters: Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Lloyd Cushenberry III, Graham Glasgow, Ja'Wuan James
Denver has yet to make a significant move along the offensive line, but the unit could improve in 2021 as 2019 free-agent signing Ja'Wuan James returns from the Reserve/Opt-Out list. James has played just three games — and just over 60 snaps — for the Broncos in the two years since he has signed, but he has plenty of talent and appears ready to return.
"He definitely is planning on coming back and being part of the team moving forward," Head Coach Vic Fangio said in early March. "He's down south right now training. I'm expecting him back here in mid-to-late March for him to start training here with us and using our facilities. If OTAs come about, partaking in those. We're counting [on] and anticipating him being a part of our team next year."
If James mans the right tackle position, Denver's offensive line should be as good on paper as it has been in years. The team re-signed Garett Bolles last fall after he took a major step forward, Dalton Risner and Lloyd Cushenberry III continue to show promise as young players and Graham Glasgow played well in his first season in Denver.
The team tendered exclusive rights free agent Calvin Anderson, which should give the Broncos some depth at tackle after Elijah Wilkinson and Demar Dotson both became unrestricted free agents. If Denver adds to the offensive line in the draft, it may be at the tackle position to add depth.
Denver should have strong depth along the interior of its line, as sixth-round pick Netane Muti showed promise in limited action in 2020. Austin Schlottmann and Patrick Morris are also players along the inside of the line with NFL experience who remain under contract.
Current projected starters: Shelby Harris, Mike Purcell, Dre'Mont Jones
Paton solved one of the Broncos' biggest needs when he re-signed Harris to a new three-year deal. After releasing Jurrell Casey, the Broncos had a hole at one of their defensive end positions — and without Harris, they would've needed to add another free agent or a draft pick to fill the role.
With Harris back in the fold, the team's starting lineup appears set. Dre'Mont Jones should be poised to take an even bigger jump after posting 6.5 sacks in his second season. The Broncos also have strong reserves in DeShawn Williams and 2020 third-round pick McTelvin Agim.
If Denver adds another player at this position later in free agency or in the draft, it will likely be to bolster depth. DeMarcus Walker and Sylvester Williams became unrestricted free agents at the beginning of the new league year and are no longer under contract.
Current projected starters: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb
Paton ensured the Broncos would not have a pressing need at outside linebacker when he picked up Miller's option early last week. The move almost certainly ensures that Miller will be with the team in 2021, and Paton said the decision was made independently of the developing free-agent market for edge rushers.
"What he's brought since he's been here," Paton said when asked his expectations for Miller. "He can rush the passer. The tape I've watched, he still had the juice before he got injured. Pass rushers are a premium and he's special. He's a special pass rusher. You look at some of the great pass rushers of all time, they're rushing the passer well into their 30s. Von has been working and I think he is going to have a Pro Bowl-type season."
Miller will play opposite Chubb, who just posted his first Pro Bowl campaign as he returned from a torn ACL that he suffered in 2019. With any luck, the Broncos could see their first full season for the duo under Vic Fangio. In 2018, the year before Fangio arrived, Miller and Chubb posted a combined 26.5 sacks, which ranked near the top of the league.
The Broncos will also feature a quality player in Malik Reed, who led the team in sacks in 2020. Any battles at the position will likely be for the fourth spot. Derrek Tuszka, a 2020 seventh-round pick, remains under contract, while Jeremiah Attaochu and Anthony Chickillo became unrestricted free agents.
It's certainly possible the Broncos could add an edge rusher early in the draft, as Miller's current contract expires after the 2021 season. The team is also eligible to extend Miller at any time.
Current projected starters: Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell
Both of the Broncos' 2020 starters could be back next year, as Jewell remains under contract and the Broncos placed a second-round tender on Johnson.
Denver could also see a contribution from 2020 fifth-round pick Justin Strnad, who profiled as a nickel linebacker that could help the Broncos in coverage in their sub-package defense. He showed promise early in training camp before suffering a season-ending wrist injury.
The Broncos may need to add some depth pieces later in free agency or in the draft, as Austin Calitro and special teams standout Joe Jones are both no longer under contract. Josh Watson remains under contract, as does Natrez Patrick.
It's also possible that the Broncos' moves at cornerback will allow the team to be more aggressive at the position in the draft. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons is widely considered the best player at his position, and he could be an option for Denver with the ninth-overall pick.
Current projected starters: Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan
Denver made the most noise at the cornerback position, where Paton started the week by agreeing to terms with Darby on a three-year deal.
"Comparing him to the other corners in free agency, we thought he had the best pure coverage skills of any corner," Paton said of Darby. "Talking with the coaches, he really fits what Vic wants. He can play man, he can play zone, he can match up, he can press and he can really run. Since Ronald's been in the league, he's third in the NFL in pass deflections, so he gets his hands on a lot of balls. Doing our background on players who aren't here and from other teams, we do a lot of background, and everything that came back from Ronald is he's a 'glue guy' and he brings the juice. He's a hard worker and he's going to fit the culture that we have with the Denver Broncos."
The former second-round pick will join former All-Pro Kyle Fuller as new additions at cornerback. Fuller previously played for Fangio for several seasons in Chicago, and he posted a career-high seven interceptions as he earned All-Pro honors under Fangio in 2018.
Those two deals will likely give Denver flexibility with the ninth-overall pick, which experts previously believed the team would use to draft a cornerback. Perhaps Fuller's one-year deal will still lead the Broncos to select a cornerback, but they may now be able to target a different position with the ninth-pick or have the flexibility to trade back.
Callahan remains in the secondary as a dynamic player, and he may now be able to play solely in the slot, where he excelled in Chicago. The Broncos' roster also features 2020 additions Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey, in addition to Duke Dawson Jr., Nate Hairston and Parnell Motley. Kevin Toliver II and De'Vante Bausby became unrestricted free agents when the new league year began.
Current projected starters: Justin Simmons, TBD
The Broncos' biggest remaining need may be at the safety position, where Denver has an opening after the team did not exercise Kareem Jackson's team option last week. Paton said adding another safety would be a priority, but he noted the team had a "long time" to figure out a solution. He also did not rule out Jackson for a possible return to the team.
"There's free agency, there's a lot of safeties on the market, including Kareem, and then we have the draft," Paton said. "There's also the trade market. The good thing is we don't play a game for a while. We have a lot of time."
Many experts believe TCU's Trevon Moehrig is the best safety prospect in the draft and he has been mocked in the late first round in recent weeks.
Paton won't have to worry about the free safety spot for several years, as he signed Simmons to a new four-year deal. Paton previously said getting a deal done with the All-Pro was a top priority for the organization, and finalizing the contract allows the Broncos to no longer worry about losing Simmons in the future.
Denver also retained depth at the position by tendering exclusive rights free agent Trey Marshall. The three-year veteran started two games in place of Jackson in 2019, so it's possible he could start along Simmons. It may be more likely, though, that Paton adds a starter via the draft or free agency. Former sixth-round pick Will Parks became an unrestricted free agent.
[Note: The author projected 12 defensive starters to account for the team's base and nickel packages.]