With a new head coach in place, the conversation around the Broncos has largely turned to the quarterback position.
As free agency and the draft approach, fans are left with the same question: Who will be under center for the 2022 season?
As the Broncos look to snap a six-year playoff drought, though, the quarterback position is far from the only spot that General Manager George Paton will look to address.
In a recent conversation with DenverBroncos.com, Paton discussed the status of several key position groups.
Editor's notes: Paton was asked specifically about the positions listed below. The absence of a position means that Paton was not asked about that spot. For Paton's thoughts on the quarterback position, click here. All contract statuses are via Sportac.com.
Wide receiver is perhaps the most solidified position on the roster, and the Broncos won't have much reason to stress about the position this spring after signing Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to contract extensions during the season. If the Broncos had failed to extend either player before the end of the season, it's possible Sutton or Patrick may not have returned to Denver. Instead, the core players remain a part of the wide receiving corps.
And as the Broncos look to address other needs, the finalized deals give Denver flexibility with which to operate.
"I think it's great," Paton said. "I mean, that's one of the reasons we locked them up. We knew they were … two of our better young, talented players. The reason you lock them up early is because if they get to the open market, you're going to have to probably pay more than you would want. So they're more expensive once they get to the market, and we wanted to lock them up. It helps not only with our cap but gives us flexibility to go attack other positions."
Paton said extending those players early also makes it easier to shape a plan of attack for free agency.
"Once you get to free agency, all bets are off," Paton said. "There could be a bidding war. You just don't know. I felt a lot more comfortable getting those guys done, and now we can focus on the next positions of need and attack them."
With Sutton and Patrick set to return alongside Jerry Jeudy, Paton said he still believes in the potential of the players in Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett's system.
"I'm still really high on all the receivers," Paton said. "They didn't perform as well as they wanted, and I know that, I've talked to them, but we need to be better around them as well. We need to block better, we need to get better quarterback play. We need to be better as a whole, and we'll get the best out of them. But they're really young, they're really talented. … I still think there's a huge upside with all three of those receivers. You know, doing this coaching search, you learn a lot about your team because each candidate goes through your team. And one of the attractive parts of our team was our weapons. [Head-coaching candidates] talked about our receivers, our backs, talented tight ends. So, I mean, I do think we have some talent there, especially at receiver. We need to get the best out of them. I know Nathaniel and his staff will."
The Broncos also return a strong tight end group, but Paton and Co. will soon have decisions to make. Noah Fant is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract, and Denver must decide by early May whether to exercise his fifth-year option.
Paton deferred last year's fifth-year option decision on Bradley Chubb until after the 2021 NFL Draft, which means the decision on Fant may not be clear for several more months. After the new coaching staff learns more about the roster, Paton said the Broncos' staff would "meet on it, and then we can come to these decisions as we go."
Regardless of the decision on Fant's option, Paton said he believes the former first-round pick can still make a strong impact.
"Kind of like the receivers, he probably wasn't as productive as he would have liked," Paton said of Fant's 2021 season. "I thought he came on strong in the pass game. Noah's very talented. I know he loves football. Again, he's very attractive to a lot of [the head-coaching] candidates. He needs to work in the run game, and he knows that. All of our tight ends need to block better. I know they've shown flashes of doing so, but we just need to be more consistent. He knows it. I like the way he works. I mean, he can really run and catch, and he's a weapon in the pass game. If he can just bump up the run game a little bit to be an all-around tight end, then he'll get to where he wants to go."
The Broncos will face one of the key decisions of the offseason at right tackle, as Bobby Massie is slated to become a free agent after spending the 2021 season with the Broncos.
While Paton said the team could re-sign Massie, he also acknowledged there appear to be prospects at the position with potential in this year's draft. As the Broncos look for a solution, Paton said he hopes to find a long-term answer.
"I think it's going be a pretty strong tackle draft. There's some good ones here. We need to fill that void. Bobby did a nice job, but we need to solidify that position for the next five, six years or however long it is. I hope to do so this offseason. Maybe we bring Bobby back — he did some really good things. Calvin Anderson did some good things. Fleming did some good things. So some way or another, we're going to fill that void at tackle."
Anderson and Fleming are slated to be restricted and unrestricted free agents, respectively.
The center of the Broncos' defense may see the most turnover this offseason. Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson and Kenny Young are all slated to become unrestricted free agents, while Jonas Griffith is an exclusive rights free agent.
Baron Browning stepped into a starting role as a rookie in 2021, but the Broncos will need to either re-sign one of their current linebackers — or look to free agency or the draft.
"So we have Josey Jewell and A.J. Johnson [who] are free agents, so we'll look at them," Paton said. "I like both of them. The coaches have to watch them. But obviously we missed them when they were out. I know Josey was kind of the glue, and A.J. is a real physical presence in the run game. I mean, we lost those guys pretty early. … Josey in Week 2 and A.J. against the Raiders, I believe. … So, losing those guys as early as we did, the only benefit is some of the younger guys got to play. The Baron Brownings, who showed flashes of being a really good player. Jonas Griffith — I mean, this guy came out of nowhere. He's all over the field. He can really run. Both those kids can really run. They're athletic, they can cover. Obviously they have some things to work on. So we're excited about them.
"I do think it's a pretty good draft class. There's some guys here I really like. So it's kind of in flux, because we could potentially sign Josey back, A.J. back and then you have some younger guys in the mix with Browning and Jonas and some of the other guys that we have."
The Broncos also have decisions to make at the edge rushing position as they move into the offseason.
Bradley Chubb is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and Paton said he respected Chubb's effort despite a season that was shortened by an ankle injury. Malik Reed, meanwhile, is slated to be a restricted free agent, and Stephen Weatherly is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
"I really applaud Bradley for fighting through the injuries," Paton said. "He had two surgeries on the foot. So was he at his best? No, but this guy battles. He's a competitor. He brings a physical element to his game. I don't think he quite had the legs until later in the year, but just the way he fought and worked, it wasn't easy. It was a tough year for him but I thought he finished strong. I expect great things from him.
"Malik is just a steady Eddie. He's tough, he's physical. And then 'Coop', I liked what he brought to the table. Jonathon Cooper — physical, he can run, had some pass rush to him, and he's only going to get better. Weatherly did some good things.
"But we're going to add. You can't have enough rushers. We need to get a mismatch-type rusher to really help our back end, but I do like how the group, especially after Von [Miller] left, how they stepped up and did some good things."
Paton said he would wait to make a decision on a restricted free-agent tender on Reed until the coaches evaluated the roster, but he said he wanted Reed to return.
"You don't want to do anything until the coaches [have a chance to evaluate]," Paton said. "Do they fit our scheme? I think the scheme is going to be similar, but you never know. I mean, there's not a better teammate, not a harder worker, someone with better intangibles than Malik. I know we want Malik back."
After Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III found success as a duo in 2021, the Broncos must decide which route they want to pursue at the position. Gordon is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and Paton said the team will evaluate their options.
"I think Javonte's a big-time back," Paton said. "I think Melvin had a heck of a year. When those two guys are going, they're hard to stop. Obviously, both had some fumbles and we need to clean that up, but in terms of physical runners, I thought they were two of the better runners — combos — in the league. Both are good in protection, both can catch the ball. So I just like the way both of them go about their work. They work hard, they love ball. Melvin's infectious. I love the smile. Javonte, he's pretty quiet, but I just love the way those guys work. I think they're really talented. And sure, again, the coaches need to evaluate it, but I like Melvin a lot."