ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When a team is coming off a 5-12 season, there are needs.
When that same team is also coming off six consecutive losing seasons and seven straight years without a playoff appearance – the NFL’s second-longest postseason drought – the talent needs compound into consideration for a systemic overhaul.
And when that team is coming off a prolonged slump and doesn’t have a draft pick until the third round, it better address its needs through free agency.
The Denver Broncos are the team of which we speak. NFL free agency period begins at 10 a.m. MDT Monday with teams able to reach contract agreements with unrestricted free agents.
The Broncos, with all their needs, are expected to immediately focus on their offensive line. Right tackle has been a need for going on 11 years. Left guard will be a need if four-year starter Dalton Risner departs via free agency and another team as expected.
Then there’s the Dre’Mont Jones factor. If the Broncos are unable to re-sign their best interior pass rusher, then defensive line becomes a priority. If Jones returns, the Broncos will prioritize other positions of need.
After releasing three players Friday, the Broncos will carry $33.1 million in cap space – 7th most in the league – into free agency. So there will be spending power.
Our annual list of 9 free agent candidates the Broncos may pursue is good for about two hits a year. Last year’s list included edge Randy Gregory and inside linebacker Josey Jewell, while tight end Will Dissly and safety Justin Reid got away.
For the start of the 2023 league season, here are 9 free agents who may be somewhere on the Broncos’ wish list:
1. Kaleb McGary, RT, Falcons, 6-6, 306, 28
The best run-blocking right tackle in the NFL, McGary figures to be Sean Payton’s Ryan Ramczyk-like road grader on the edge. A four-year starting right tackle for Atlanta after he was its first-round pick out of Washington in 2019. McGary only missed three games in four seasons. A four-year starting right tackle at Washington, also.
2. Ben Powers, LG, Ravens, 6-4, 310, 26
A fourth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma in 2019, Powers was inactive through almost his entire rookie season, started the final seven games of his second season at right guard, then became a full-time starting left guard the past two seasons.
The only true left guard from the elite set of free-agent guards – Isaac Seamalo and Nate Davis played right guard last season – and the Broncos need will be left guard if Risner signs with another team.
3. Isaac Seumalo, LG-RG, Eagles, 6-4, 303, 29
A third-round pick out of Oregon State in 2016, Seumalo is about to get his third contract. A backup his first two seasons, Seumalo became the Eagles starting left guard from 2018-2021. After suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury in game 3 of the 2021 season, Seumalo returned to play right guard in all 20 Eagles games, counting the postseason in 2022. Coming off a three-year contract that paid him an average of $5.3 million a year. Seumalo was a starting center at Oregon State so his three-position interior versatility adds to his value.
4. Mike McGlinchey, RT, 49ers, 6-8, 310, 28
A first-round pick, No. 9 overall. in the 2018 draft after five years at Notre Dame, McGlinchey was the starting right tackle for Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers from the jump. Missed the second half of the 2021 season with a torn quad but played in all 20 games, counting the postseason, in 2022. Reuniting with Mike McDaniel and Butch Barry in Miami would also make sense.
5. Larry Ogunjobi, DT, Steelers, 6-4, 305, 29
A possible replacement for Dre’Mont Jones if Jones signs elsewhere, Ogunjobi has bounced around since playing out his rookie contract with the Browns. A third-round pick in the 2017 draft, Ogunjobi has been a five-year starter with Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. After a 7.0 sack season in 2021 with the Bengals, Ogunjobi signed a one-year, $8 million contract with Pittsburgh.
The Broncos have many needs so replacing Jones with a solid, but more affordable alternative may be part of the Payton and Paton roster strategy.
6. Greg Gaines, DT, Rams, 6-1, 312, 27
A fourth-round pick out of Washington in the 2019 draft, Gaines became a starter the past two years, including the Rams’ 2021 Super Bowl-winning season with Marcus Dixon as his defensive line coach. Dixon is in his second season as the Broncos’ D-line coach.
Gaines is strong against the run, but also came on as an interior pass rusher with 8.5 combined sacks in 2021-22.
7. Zach Allen, DT, Cardinals, 6-4, 281, 25
Another defensive tackle who could come into play if the Broncos can’t re-sign Jones. A third-round pick out of Boston College in 2019, Allen played his first four NFL seasons for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who now holds the same position with the Broncos. A 2 ½-year starter, Allen posted 9.5 sacks the past two seasons from the interior position while becoming stronger against the run each year. He may get PAID, though, like between $12 million and $15 million a year.
8. Riley Dixon, Rams, 29; Thomas Morstead, Dolphins, 37, punters
There’s a new set of Broncos’ special teams bosses in Michael Westhoff and Ben Kotwica and they may not favor lefty booting Corliss Waitman the way last year’s coordinator Dwayne Stukes did. Waitman has a big leg with big-time potential but he was inconsistent with his placements last season.
Dixon was the Broncos’ seventh-round draft pick in 2016 who had two decent years in Denver before he was traded to the New York Giants, where he had four good years. Punted for the Rams last year when he had a career-best 48.4-yard gross average.
Morstead was Payton’s punter in New Orleans for 12 seasons. Known for his strong leg, Morstead still averaged 46.4 yards per punt in the Miami humidity last season while placing a career-most 28 punts inside the 20 against just 2 touchbacks.
9. Jameis Winston, QB, Saints, 6-4, 231, 29
Saints have offered Winston a pay cut in lieu of his $12.8 million salary that was to have a $5.8 million guarantee option triggered by Friday. If he declines, Winston would be released to the open market where Sean Payton may have interest in bringing him in as a backup to Russell Wilson.
In Payton’s lone season as Saints’ head coach without Drew Brees as his quarterback, Winston was his starting quarterback in 2021.
And it was going well. Always talented but turnover prone, Winston was 5-2 with 14 touchdown passes against just 3 interceptions for a career-best 102.8 passer rating until he suffered a season-ending torn ACL while getting illegally horse-collared by Tampa Bay’s Devin White.
Winston returned to start the first three games with New Orleans last season but he didn’t play nearly as well with Payton on a one-year sabbatical. Fractures in his back contributed to Winston not playing again last season, although he was dressed as an emergency backup quarterback to Andy Dalton for the final 12 games.
*Javon Hargrave, DT, Eagles, 6-2, 305, 30
Going on his third contract and he should get paid handsomely again after he produced his career year in 2022 with 11.0 sacks -- 4th in the league among interior pass rushers. Just finished a three-year contract at $13 million per year with the Eagles.
A third-round pick of the Steelers in 2016, he started four years for Pittsburgh before moving on to Philadelphia. Hargrave and Zach Allen would be the top two defensive tackles if the Broncos can't re-sign Dre'Mont Jones.
*Kareem Hunt, RB, Browns; David Montgomery, RB, Bears
These backs have been linked to the Broncos via Fantasy guru Matthew Berry because first-year running backs coach Lou Ayeni previously coached the 216-pound Hunt at Toledo and the 224-pound Montgomery at Iowa State. Running backs coaches aren’t known for having much sway on a team’s free-agent pursuits, especially first-year running backs hired out of college. But Payton and general manager George Paton are promoting collaboration so perhaps Ayeni like other Broncos’ position coaches will have some influence.
Acquiring a running back for $5 million-plus-a-year through the initial free agent period, however, usually doesn’t make sense because there are always fresh legs in the middle rounds of the draft who can be just as productive at a cheaper salary. True, the middle-round rookie can’t pass protect like a vet. But he can be just as effective as a ball carrier.
Take Melvin Gordon. The Broncos gave him a two-year, $16 million contract in 2020 and in return he gave them back-to-back, 900-yard seasons. Which is fine except last season fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgeier rushed for 1,035 yards and fourth-round rookie Dameon Pierce rushed for 939 yards.
And the Chiefs won the Super Bowl with great contribution from seventh-round rookie Isaiah Pacheco, who counting the postseason rushed for 1,027 yards.
In 2021, sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell rushed for 963 yards and in 2020 undrafted rookie James Robinson carried for 1,070 yards.
The Broncos have two early picks in the third round and early selections in the fourth and fifth rounds. That’s where they should get their Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt or David Montgomery.
Hunt especially tailed off the past two seasons. It always makes more sense to get your running backs in the draft during the offseason. In-season, if injuries deplete the position, then yes, a Latavius Murray pickup is the way to go. And re-signing Murray as a co-No. 2 back also makes sense, especially with the uncertainty of No. 1 back Javonte Williams’ recovery from an ACL injury.
But that extra back the Broncos need? The best way to make history from a draft that doesn’t have a pick in rounds 1 and 2 is to nab a future star running back somewhere in rounds 3-5.
*Nate Davis, RG, Titans 6-3, 316, 26
A third-round pick in the 2019 draft, Davis was a four-year starting right guard for Mike Vrabel’s Titans. Always a good run blocker, Davis improved his pass blocking significantly in 2022. A right guard all the way, signing Davis would mean moving Quinn Meinerz to left guard – where The Belly played in college and for two games as a Broncos’ rookie in 2021.
*Jawaan Taylor, RT, Jaguars, 6-5, 312, 25
A second-round draft pick out of Florida in 2019, Taylor was a four-year starting right tackles for Jacksonville. Considered one of the best right tackle pass protectors in the NFL, but also not much of a run blocker. Taylor may wind up with a mega-deal to re-sign with Jacksonville.
*Jakobi Meyers, Allen Lazard, JuJu Smith-Schuster, DJ Chark, WRs
Somebody has to get down there for the deep-ball throwing Wilson. Given KJ Hamler’s injury history and Courtland Sutton announcing on Twitter his desire to be “wanted and appreciated,” the Broncos do need at least one more receiver, preferably one with deep-ball juice.
*Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings, 6-2, 200, 33
Released Friday in lieu of his non-guaranteed $13.42 million salary. Still productive as he had 70 catches albeit for a relatively modest 716 yards last season. Turns 33 in training camp. Even if George Paton helped discover Thielen by signing him from a rookie tryout camp in 2013, and even if the Broncos could use a moxie receiver like Thielen, his price would have to be considerably reduced.
*Marcus Davenport, edge, Saints, 6-6, 265, 26
A 2018 first-round draft pick of Sean Payton’s Saints, Davenport is a 4-3 defensive end through and through so he’s not an ideal fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Joseph’s scheme. But talent is talent and the Broncos need one more edge rusher to go along with Randy Gregory – who was also a 4-3 defensive end when the Broncos signed him last year -- Baron Browning, Nik Bonitto, Jacob Martin and Jonathon Cooper.
*Drue Tranquill, ILB, Chargers, 6-2, 234, 28
Not only had 146 tackles last year but also 5.0 sacks for linebackers coach Michael Wilhoite, who is now holding the same position with the Broncos. If the Broncos can’t re-sign Alex Singleton, Tranquill could come into play.
*Tanner Vallejo, ILB, Cardinals. 6-1, 230, 28
A quality backup linebacker and special teamer who played four years for Vance Joseph in Arizona.
*Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Dolphins, 6-2, 215, 30
Went 5-0 in place of the injured Drew Brees for the Sean Payton-Saints in 2019, Bridgewater also had it going for the Broncos in 2021, starting 3-0 with a 116.4 passer rating. But he wasn’t the same after suffering a concussion in game 4 against Baltimore and he’s been hampered by injuries ever since. Still only 30 years old.
*Andy Dalton, Sam Darnold, Taylor Heinicke, Case Keenum, QBs
It would be a surprise if Payton didn’t have a veteran backup quarterback to turn to if the starter Wilson tweaked a hamstring or struggled as he did in several games last season. Dalton and Darnold both played well last season and will likely look for No. 2 QB positions with a clearer path to the starter spot than what the Broncos present. Heinicke and Keenum are straight backups with plenty of starter experience.
*Rob Gronkowski, TE, free agent, 6-6, 265, 34
We don’t yet know Sean Payton well enough to know whether he was fully joking when he posted his social media recruitment of the celebrity tight end last month by using a Magic Marker to revise a long-sleeve Broncos T-shirt to “Groncos.” Payton wasn’t serious, right? What we do know is the orange tie meant something so to date a Payton Prank can’t be dismissed.
Gronkowski has unretired once before. Following his one-year sabbatical and separation from New England in 2019 he returned to play two seasons for his favorite quarterback Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, where he earned his fourth Super Bowl ring in 2020.
Gronk just spent the past year hanging out with Payton on Sundays in the Fox NFL studios in Los Angeles. He is 714 yards and 8 touchdowns shy of the 10,000 and 100 career milestones, respectively – which Payton pointed out during a comedy skid on Super Bowl Sunday. Ha, ha! (Wait. Was he serious?)
The 714 and 8 numbers are easily attainable by the Gronk in his prime. The Broncos may not get that player after his second year off but he figures to still be pretty good.
And the Broncos are in the market for a solid tight end to pair with Greg Dulcich, who flashed elite receiving skills when he was healthy as a rookie last season. If Payton’s Gronk pursuit is not a lark, closing a deal may not happen until after the free-agent signing wave is concluded. Gronk’s first unretirement occurred closer to the draft in late-April 2020.
*Irv Smith, TE, Vikings, 6-2, 240, 25
If Payton was pulling our legs on the Gronk comeback, the Broncos would still need another solid, two-way tight end to pair with Dulcich. George Paton was part of Vikings’ 2019 draft team that took Smith in the second round. Nice player when healthy but he’s been limited by injuries the previous three seasons.
(Note: This story has been updated to add Hargrave as a defensive tackle candidate if Dre'Mont Jones signs with another team.)
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