ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In Head Coach Vic Fangio's first season, the Broncos posted the league's 10th-best scoring defense. In Year 2, could the unit take another step forward?
The group already has a handful of talented players, as Von Miller enters his 10th season, Bradley Chubb returns from injury and Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons lead the secondary.
When free agency opens on March 18, though, the Broncos will have the opportunity to add more talent to their roster.
Here, then, is a look at a few of the top defensive players the Broncos could target next week:
[Note: This is not an all-encompassing list. Rather, the following players are among the top options at their positions and could fill needs for the Broncos. The list also does not contain current Broncos who are set to be free agents next week.]
CB BYRON JONES
The Broncos made waves in early March when reports broke that the team had agreed to trade a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for A.J. Bouye. Though the trade cannot become official until March 18, it could have implications when the open-tampering period for free agency begins on March 16. The Broncos already have Bryce Callahan under contract at cornerback, and they may look for a piece to complement Callahan and Bouye. That may mean the Broncos will pass on entering the market for Jones, who is viewed as the top free-agent option at cornerback. The Cowboys' cornerback is a one-time Pro Bowler, and he'll likely demand the largest contract of any corner this offseason. The Broncos could also choose to re-sign Chris Harris Jr. or target a player like Carolina's James Bradberry or Baltimore's Jimmy Smith. Several other players could fill the Broncos' need for a third cornerback, and the team could potentially wait until the second wave of free agency to choose one. If they do want an elite option, though, Jones could be that player.
LB CORY LITTLETON
If the Broncos want to make a defensive splash in free agency, linebacker could be a likely spot to do so. Littleton would enter the market as one of the league's best coverage linebackers, as he has recorded 22 pass breakups and five interceptions over the last two seasons. His ability to cover tight ends and running backs could prove to be game-changing for the Broncos, who have struggled at times against players like Kansas City's Travis Kelce. And while Littleton is projected to demand top dollar on the open market, the Broncos are projected to have plenty of cap space to make moves. Even if the Broncos allocate some of that money for a potential long-term deal with safety Justin Simmons, the team may still be able to bring Littleton to Denver. And though Littleton's run grade from Pro Football Focus is far from stellar, he may be a good complement to a player like Alexander Johnson, who made an impact in 2019. Littleton finished last season with 134 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two picks.
LB JOE SCHOBERT
If the Broncos are looking for an upgrade at linebacker without breaking the bank, Cleveland's Joe Schobert could be another option. Schobert, like Littleton, excels in coverage. He recorded four interceptions last season, and he played at a Pro Bowl level in 2017. The 26-year-old player has been available, as he's missed just three games since entering the league in 2016. The Broncos could also take a look at Green Bay's Blake Martinez, New England's Jamie Collins, Chicago's Nick Kwiatkoski or a handful of others.
DL D.J. READER
With Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe both poised to become unrestricted free agents, the Broncos may be prepared to overhaul their defensive line. John Elway said at the Combine the team was open to bringing both players back, depending on how the numbers worked out. If either the Broncos or the two players choose to go in a different direction, though, there could be plenty of options on the free-agent market. The Chiefs' Chris Jones would likely have been regarded as the best defensive player on the market, but Kansas City is reportedly poised to use the franchise tag to keep Jones with the Super Bowl LIV champs. Reader may be the next best option. The 2016 fifth-round pick made an impact in the run game last season with 52 tackles and six tackles for loss, and at 25 years old, he may have his best football ahead of him. Reader has also stayed available, as he has started 31 of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons. Regardless of whether the Broncos sign Reader, they could be in the market for a second player. Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Michael Pierce, Leonard Williams and Michael Brockers are a few other players who could seemingly be options. And, of course, the Broncos haven't ruled out bringing back either Wolfe or Harris.