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Ask Aric: Where A.J. Bouye, Jurrell Casey would've ranked among the NFL's top free agents

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Free agency slowed down this week, but the questions did not.

In this edition of "Ask Aric," we take a hypothetical look at where A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey would rank among the league's best free agents, plot out the offensive line, explain why Noah Fant is the team's clear starter and take a look at the team's existing wide receiver depth.

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If Bouye and Casey were free agents, where do you think they would fit in some of the Top 100 lists? – Wesley H.

I like this one, Wesley.

The Broncos added cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey by trading a fourth- and seventh-round pick, respectively. But what if they'd signed them on the open market? I'll make my determination about where they would've ranked by using NFL.com’s list of Top 101 free agents.

At cornerback, Byron Jones came in at No. 9, Chris Harris Jr. at No. 25, and James Bradberry is at No. 38. The Broncos considered both Jones and Bradberry before trading for Bouye, and Harris was obviously on the roster for the last nine seasons. At 28 years old, Bouye is younger than Harris and is more proven than Bradberry. He's also a big, versatile player that has a knack for the ball. Let's slot Bouye just above Harris at No. 24.

In regards to Casey, we're comparing him to Chris Jones (No. 2), D.J. Reader (No. 29) and Javon Hargrave (No. 31). Jones is dominant and might have been the best available defender in football. Casey probably isn't at that level at this point in his career. While Reader and Hargrave are both several years younger than Casey, neither of the younger players has made a Pro Bowl. If Casey had slipped in the last few seasons, I would be tempted to rank him behind these players. But Casey has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, and he was dominant against the Ravens in the playoffs just a few months ago. For the next two or three seasons — which is what Casey has left on his deal — I'm going with the proven commodity. We're putting him all the way up at No. 26, ahead of Jameis Winston and Dante Fowler Jr.

Add in Justin Simmons (No. 7) — whom the Broncos used the franchise tag on — Melvin Gordon (No. 35) and Graham Glasgow (No. 44), and Denver assembled a group that includes five top-50 players.

Aric, we all loved watching Von Miller beat up on Cam Newton during the Super Bowl. But we have not seen that really since. With Chubb coming back, does the team have what it needs for the defense? – Eric B.

In fairness, Miller has been plenty dominant since Super Bowl 50. He earned a first-team All-Pro nod in 2016, and he's made the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons. He has posted three double-digit sack seasons, and his 46 sacks since 2016 rank fifth in the league. And with a healthy Bradley Chubb in 2018, Miller recorded 14.5 sacks, which was the second-highest total of his career. Assuming Chubb comes back and Jurrell Casey makes the expected impact in the middle of the defense, I think we'll see a big bounce-back season from Miller in 2020. The Broncos will have to prove they're capable of holding up against the league's best offenses in the back end, but the pass rush shouldn't be a problem. Remember last year, when the Broncos didn't record a sack until Week 4? I don't think that's going to be an issue this season.

What is the plan for the O-line? James at RT and Risner at LG are the only positions I might think are "set". Where does Wilkinson line up, or is he a super-sub? Is Glasgow going to play C or RG? Any inclination about moving Bolles to guard? I guess I am wondering about the mentality of the coaching staff. Is it to line the best 5 players and move them around to fit? Or position battles for some specific spots, and whoever wins, starts? – Jose B.

On the offensive line, in particular, coaches like to talk about finding the best combination and unit, rather than just picking the best individuals at each position. You're right about Dalton Risner and Ja'Wuan James being pretty solidified at left guard and right tackle, respectively. It also sounds like Glasgow is going to play right guard.

I think Glasgow taking that spot precludes Elijah Wilkinson from starting, but you're right that he's a super-sub. He held his own at right tackle and can also play guard. I expect the Broncos will find a center in the draft to man that spot, and I think Garett Bolles will line up at left tackle for the fourth consecutive season. Keep in mind: The Broncos were pleased with how Bolles played down the stretch. Some of that could have to do with Drew Lock and how he made things easier on the offensive line with his mobility and not holding the ball too long. He was sacked just five times in five games.

The only thing that could change the Broncos' plans would be if they don't find themselves in position to draft a capable center. That would likely move Glasgow to center and Wilkinson to guard. If a top-tier tackle falls to the Broncos at No. 15, that could also change things at left tackle.

Hi Aric - The Raiders have historically drafted the fastest guy available. Has that changed with Gruden being there? I'm trying to figure out why anyone thinks the fastest receiver (Ruggs) would fall to us. – Scott D.

We know Jon Gruden isn't afraid to make a splashy move. That means when the Raiders are on the clock at No. 12, they could easily select Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs. And as Mel Kiper Jr. said last week, that could make things tough on the Broncos. It's possible Jeudy, Ruggs and CeeDee Lamb could all be off the board by the time Denver picks at No. 15. But the Raiders have other big needs, and it's quite possible they select a cornerback with their first pick. If that's the case, it's likely a top receiver falls to Denver.

With Noah Fant being our first pick in last season's draft and later progressing as the year went forward, do you think he has earned the starting role at the TE position or do you think it is still up in the air for the other TEs? – Grayson S.

Fant should be the unquestioned starter heading into 2020. He led all rookie tight ends in nearly every statistical category, and he also set several franchise marks. Fant also improved as the season progressed, as he posted both of his 100-yard games in the second half of the season. Plus, he was available. He appeared in all 16 games as a rookie. Fant previously identified himself as the team's best option — he started seven of the final eight games — but that should only become clearer as he heads into his second year. I wouldn't be surprised if Fant takes the biggest step forward of any of the Broncos' skill players this season. The Broncos clearly expect Nick Vannett to play a role — especially in the run game — but Fant has been the player Denver hoped they were getting when they selected him in the first round last year.

Will any of our receivers step up and shine like Courtland did this past year? I mean Hamilton, Winfree and Patrick. – William B.

Here's the truth: Even if the Broncos use the 15th-overall pick on a receiver, and even if they take another receiver later on, they'll need help from their veterans. It tends to take rookie receivers time to adjust to the speed and demands of the NFL game. Look at Courtland Sutton, who earned a Pro Bowl nod in his second year. He struggled plenty as a rookie, particularly down the stretch when he was forced to be the team's No. 1 option. This year's top receivers would definitely make an impact at some point, but it's not a stretch to say it may take half a season or more.

As such, Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton will need to step up. Patrick showed flashes in 2019 as he caught four passes for 77 yards against Minnesota and five passes for 48 yards against Detroit. I think Hamilton could be the X-factor, though. He showed new life after Drew Lock took over the offense. After 11 games with 15 receiving yards or fewer, Hamilton recorded 11 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown over the final two games. He made several key catches after struggling with drops earlier in the year, and he clearly had Lock's trust. If he can continue to perform, that will be extremely helpful to the Broncos as they get any new receivers up to speed.

Juwann Winfree, a 2019 sixth-round pick, will need to make big strides if he wants to be featured in the team's offense this season. He did not record a target in 2019 and recorded 14 offensive snaps.

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