ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — No matter which of the Broncos' general manager candidates assumes the role in the coming days or weeks, there are some key pieces of the roster in place.
Players like Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Bryce Callahan, Noah Fant and Garett Bolles remain under contract, and they will likely be valuable contributors in the years that follow.
But there will also be decisions to make about the future of the Broncos' roster that will shape the team for the coming season, and many of those choices will need to be made in the weeks to come after they're hired.
As the Broncos continue the early stages of their search for a general manager, here's a look at the biggest questions that lay ahead:
WHAT WILL THE BRONCOS' PLAN BE AT QUARTERBACK?
John Elway and Vic Fangio have maintained that Drew Lock has shown signs of progress and can still be a high-performing quarterback at this level, but it's possible a new GM's perspective could change the Broncos' outlook on the second-year quarterback.
The new general manager could take a few different paths at the quarterback position. If the GM believes in Lock's skill set and ability to become more consistent, Denver could stick with a young player who showed improvement over the final weeks of the season. With an offseason of film study, more reps and his second season in Pat Shurmur's offense, Lock could presumably take a step forward in his second full season as a starter.
There's also the chance, though, that the team's new GM could have a different vision for the position. The new general manager could choose to acquire a starter via a trade or free agency, add a high-level backup to increase the competition in the position group or use the ninth-overall pick to pursue one of the draft's top options.
Some of the Broncos' other decisions — particularly the one involving Von Miller — may resolve themselves sooner, but it's hard to argue that any decision will have more of an impact on the 2021 Broncos than the team's path forward at quarterback.
WILL DENVER PICK UP VON MILLER'S TEAM OPTION?
Before the new league year begins, the Broncos must decide whether to the exercise Miller's team option for the second consecutive season. According to Spotrac.com, Miller's salary would be $18 million in 2021, which would rank third in the NFL among edge rushers next season. With an estimated $175 million salary cap for next season — a decrease of more than 10 percent from 2020 — the Broncos must decide whether Miller still fits in the team's plans.
After five consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks, Miller's output dipped to eight sacks in 2019 and he missed the entire 2020 season after suffering an ankle injury ahead of Week 1. Fangio said last week he believes Miller can "get back to that same point" that he was at before 2020, when he was poised for a bounce-back season. Fangio followed up this week by saying he hopes Miller returns in 2021, but he acknowledged those decisions will largely be made at the direction of the team's new GM.
Of course, picking up Miller's option is not the only option available to the Broncos. Denver could negotiate an extension with Miller that would keep the Broncos' all-time sack leader and future Hall of Famer with the team beyond 2021 while defraying a bit of the salary cap burden.
WHAT IS JUSTIN SIMMONS' FUTURE?
After playing on the franchise tag in 2020, the Broncos' All-Pro safety could head toward free agency again. Denver is again eligible to negotiate with Simmons on an extension now that the regular season has ended, and the next key date is Feb. 23, when the franchise tag designation period begins. If the Broncos place the franchise tag on Simmons between Feb. 23 and March 9, it does not mean Simmons has to play the year on the franchise tag. It simply gives the Broncos until July 15 to solely negotiate with Simmons' representation. If the Broncos choose not to use the franchise tag and are unable to reach a deal by March 17, Simmons would hit the open market.
Should Denver choose to place the franchise tag on Simmons, the newly named Pro Bowler would need to decide whether to sign the franchise tender and ultimately whether to play on the tag for a second season. He was non-committal when asked about that possibility during his end-of-season press conference.
The Broncos have been consistent in expressing their hopes that Simmons will return in 2021, but as with Miller, Fangio said the Broncos' decision will rest with the general manager.
As a mainstay of the Broncos' secondary — Simmons has not missed a snap in three years — the team's decision could have wide-ranging ramifications on the defense.
WHICH FREE AGENTS WILL REMAIN WITH THE BRONCOS?
Simmons isn't the only Broncos player of note that will be a free agent when the new league year begins. Defensive end Shelby Harris and right tackle Elijah Wilkinson are among the biggest names who will be unrestricted free agents, and 2017 draft picks DeMarcus Walker and Jake Butt will also hit the market. Harris re-signed with the Broncos on a one-year deal ahead of the 2020 season, and Denver must decide whether to extend him again or to reshape their defensive line around young draft picks like Dre'Mont Jones. Mike Purcell recently signed an extension, and Jurrell Casey — who could also be a player to watch this offseason — remains under contract, which could impact the Broncos' decision. Harris said recently he would like to remain in Denver, but he understands the business-like nature of the NFL.
Restricted free agency may be more interesting for Denver. Wide receiver Tim Patrick, linebacker Alexander Johnson and running back Phillip Lindsay were key starters in 2020 and must be tendered to remain in Denver. The Broncos can tender each player at a late-, second- or first-round level, and the corresponding salary rises as the tender level increases. Another team can still extend an offer sheet to a tendered restricted free agent, but if the Broncos chose not to match an offer to a player with a first- or second-round tender, Denver would receive a pick in the corresponding round as compensation. It's worth noting, the Broncos could also give a multi-year extension to any of the RFAs.
Patrick's six receiving touchdowns led the team and Johnson was the team's tackle leader, which could make both players strong candidates to be tendered. Both Elijah Wilkinson and Mike Purcell were tendered at a second-round level in 2020, which could provide a blueprint for how Denver approaches Patrick's and Johnson's potential tenders. Lindsay's case may be more interesting. He struggled with injuries in 2020, and after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, he finished with 502 rushing yards and one touchdown. Depending on the Broncos' decision related to Melvin Gordon III, a second-round tender may be a steep price for Denver.
HOW DO THE BRONCOS HANDLE PLAYERS FACING DISCIPLINE?
Two of the Broncos' biggest free-agent additions of the 2020 offseason may not be available to begin 2021. Cornerback A.J. Bouye still has a two-game suspension to serve for a PED violation, while Gordon may face a multi-game suspension for a DUI citation he received this fall.
Both players were contributors in 2020, though to varying degrees. Bouye struggled with injuries before missing the final four games of the season due to suspension and appeared in just seven games in 2020. Gordon, meanwhile, appeared in 15 games and nearly reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the season. His 10 total touchdowns led all Broncos, and he posted a pair of 100-yard games.
Denver may have to decide, though, whether they can head into the 2021 season knowing that the two players will miss the early part of the year. Bouye has not spoken to reporters since his suspension, but Gordon said he's hopeful that he can return to Denver for a second season.
"My job is to go out there and run that ball, so that's what I'm going to do," Gordon said. "As far as the contract and all that stuff, I let my agent handle all that — the [reported contract guarantee] void and all that stuff. Hopefully I did enough for them to want to keep me here. I do feel like they have something special here growing and I definitely want to be a part of it. … So, we'll see, hopefully it works out, and hopefully they like me enough to kind of put all that stuff to the side. I guess in a couple months or so we'll see what's up."