The Denver Broncos have some big-time free agents in house. Plenty can change in two months, but who will stay and who will go?
The Denver Broncos are approaching an absolutely critical offseason as John Elway, Vic Fangio, and the front office put together plans for how to build around quarterback Drew Lock.
Lock showed a lot of promise in the final five games of the 2019 season, and despite a small sample size, the Broncos would be making the wise choice to build around their young quarterback and surround him with the most talent possible.
Part of the process of identifying the best talent to surround Lock this offseason includes evaluating the team's own free agent players and weighing those players against the field of 2020 free agents.
The Broncos will have plenty of cap space to work with this offseason and a great deal of flexibility with players on option years and players who could be cap casualties.
We're going to focus in this post on players who are either on expiring contracts or who have team option years with the Broncos.
Which players are going to be kept, and which players will be let go to the open market?
Let's talk through it and play the role of John Elway for a bit.
Justin Simmons, safety (2020 age: 26)
Status: Unrestricted free agent
We'll start off with an easy one here.
Justin Simmons was easily John Elway's best draft pick from 2013-2017.
With all due respect to the impact other players in those years made to the Broncos, no player has become a star at their position quite like Justin Simmons.
Simmons blossomed under Vic Fangio this season, and as a third-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, he's proven to be much better than even his top 100 draft status.
The Broncos have made public their desire to keep Simmons, and Simmons has made public his desire to be with the Broncos.
The going rate for top safeties these days is north of $12-13 million. Simmons could easily average $13-14 million on a long-term deal with guys like Kevin Byard signing for five years, $70.5 million and Tyrann Mathieu signing for three years, $42 million.
If the going rate is $14 million, then so be it.
Simmons is an essential piece of this team moving forward. The Broncos must pay up.
Chris Harris Jr., Cornerback (2020 age: 31)
Status: Unrestricted free agent
Although Chris Harris Jr. has done pretty much everything in his power to make it known he would like to stay in Denver, I don't think I'm alone in feeling as though the former undrafted free agent gem out of Kansas has played his last snaps for the Broncos.
We'll find out.
The Broncos apparently made Harris an offer for $12 million per season including his 2019 salary, which was declined. Harris likely wants more than just a year guaranteed on what could be his final big-money deal as an NFL player.
With that said, the Broncos held onto Harris at the trade deadline for a reason. What reason could they have for not trading him? The Houston Texans were apparently willing to go as high as a third-round pick in a trade because that's what they gave up for Gareon Conley, but we don't know if they would have given the same to the Broncos or if the Broncos turned a third-round pick down.
If that's the case, I have to think the Broncos are seriously considering re-signing Harris.
The longtime Bronco is a fan favorite, no doubt, and he plays the game with confidence. Although he had a tough stretch near the end of the 2019 season, he is still capable of playing at a high level.
I think the Broncos are going to spend some money on a cornerback, but how high will they go for Harris? It feels like it's less than 50-50 that he returns to Denver at this point, but the market will decide his price.
Derek Wolfe, Defensive End (2020 age: 30)
Derek Wolfe has been exactly as advertised his entire career for the Denver Broncos.
When he came out of Cincinnati in 2012, everyone said this was one of the toughest, meanest dudes in the NFL Draft, and he's proven to be exactly that.
Although Wolfe has struggled with some bad injuries, he's also played through a lot and has been productive as a pass rusher and run defender. As a matter of fact, he set a career-high with seven sacks in his first year under head coach Vic Fangio, and he did that in just seven games.
Wolfe is only 30 years old this February. It feels like he's been in the NFL for 15 years but he's still got time left in his tank.
He has stated he wants to retire a Bronco, and while Wolfe wants to be paid what is fair, I think he will be willing to take a deal that is favorable to the Broncos and they'll get a deal done to keep a key piece of the defensive line in place.
Shelby Harris, Defensive End (2020 age: 29)
Shelby Harris, a former seventh-round pick of the Oakland Raiders out of Illinois State who has been cut by a number of NFL teams, is coming off of a stellar season and sealed the Broncos' victory in a number of games throughout his time with the Broncos.
That includes sealing the game with a blocked field goal, interception, and batted pass on a two-point conversion attempt.
Harris has been outstanding for Denver, but what is his fit on this team going forward?
At the right price, Harris would be a great option to return to the Broncos. But this is his first and possibly last chance at the age of 29 to really cash in on a big free agent contract.
With such a strong defensive line class in free agency around Harris, it wouldn't surprise me to see him priced out of the Broncos' range when all is said and done. You would love to see every guy be able to come back, but the Broncos might be able to get a better player in free agency for Harris' price, and they also have to be confident in the development of young players like 2019 third-round pick Dre'Mont Jones.
Connor McGovern, Center (2020 age: 27)
The Broncos have a really tough decision to make with Connor McGovern coming up.
The going rate of top interior linemen these days is north of $10 million per year. Connor McGovern is set to hit the market as really one of the best young players coming free from their rookie contract.
It's hard to say at this point whether he's proven himself worthy of being a $10 million per year player, though. There are guys like Brandon Scherff scheduled to hit the market who have played at a Pro Bowl level, but McGovern has really just been a solid center and solid right guard.
If I'm the Broncos, I'm not paying McGovern anything above $8-9 million per season unless they can get him on low guarantees and get out of it relatively easily. Sometimes the supply and demand of NFL free agency is frustrating, and losing McGovern would be creating uncertainty on the interior offensive line again, but what do you do?
The Broncos have to make sure they pay the best players, and while McGovern has been really solid, it's hard to say he's been worthy of an eight figure contract to this point.
There are options on the free agent market and this is a deep draft class, though the Broncos don't like to go into the draft with huge needs. They could try to sign a veteran player like BJ Finney to play center and project RFA Elijah Wilkinson at RG for the time being.
Unless McGovern's price is reasonable enough, I don't know if we see him back.
Will Parks, Defensive Back (2020 age: 26)
It's hard to believe that the Broncos' 2016 NFL Draft class has produced so many players worth considering keeping around as key players for a completely new regime, but here we are.
Will Parks has been a key reserve and spot starter for the Broncos over his first four years in the league, and after some inconsistent play early in the season as he adapted to Vic Fangio's scheme, Parks became the Broncos' nickel at the end of the year and excelled.
It was an important audition for the versatile Parks, who is not only one of the Broncos' most valuable special teams players but one of the team's biggest voices in the locker room.
Parks has been an outstanding fit in terms of his personality type, and the Broncos would be wise to consider keeping him around for the right price.
Some seem to think Parks is going to bolt for a starting safety job, but Parks wasn't just a full-time safety in college. His role at Arizona was more of what we saw from him down the stretch for Denver.
He did a good job playing the nickel and matching up with guys, and I would love to see him return on a three- or four-year deal as a 'starter' at the nickel going forward.
Other notable unrestricted free agents
Adam Gotsis, DL
The former second round pick out of Georgia Tech was benched this season but later got back on the coaching staff's good graces and played solid in the second half of the season.
The price has to be right here for Gotsis, who came to Denver dealing with a knee injury he suffered in college and ended this season on IR with a knee injury.
Theo Riddick, RB
The Broncos signed Riddick to a one-year, $2.5 million deal and unfortunately an injury kept him out all season. It would be fun to see him back on a cheap one-year deal.
Casey Kreiter, LS
The Broncos have been hesitant to give Kreiter a long-term deal, for whatever reason. I think they'll bring him back as he's one of the better long snappers in the NFL.
Jeremiah Attaochu, EDGE
Attaochu just kept getting better and better all season long for the Broncos. His emergence after struggling for a couple of years with injuries was very encouraging and I would love to see the Broncos bring him back as a top backup to Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.
Cyrus Jones, CB/RS
The Broncos brought in Jones off waivers, but he ended up having open-heart surgery in a scary situation with a non-football issue going on. He has bigger things going on right now, but we'll see about the football side of things down the road.
Corey Nelson, LB
One of the NFL's great dudes, Nelson came on when the Broncos were desperate for some depth at linebacker. He is likely to hit the free agent market.
Devontae Booker, RB
I think the Broncos and Booker need a separation from each other. He led the team in rushing in his rookie 2016 season, but he's struggled since then to seize a full-time role.
Joel Heath, DL
The Broncos claimed Heath off of waivers from Houston, and he's apparently an unrestricted free agent. Why would the Broncos make this claim other than to keep him around?
Club (team) options
The Broncos have the option to pick up or decline a few options on key players. John Elway already noted that Von Miller's $18 million team option will be picked up, but what about some of the other guys?
Todd Davis, LB
The Broncos can save $5 million by declining Todd Davis' option. They're not starved for cap space, but do they want to spend $5 million on Davis ($6 million cap hit) or do they want to go after another free agent?
Davis was a tackling machine for the Broncos but his time in Denver could be coming to a close.
Brandon McManus, K
If the Broncos decline McManus' contract option, they would save $3 million. I'm not so sure they're going to do that. They may look to extend him.
Ron Leary, OG
This is a pretty easy call in my opinion. The Broncos can save north of $8 million by declining Ron Leary's option and that chunk of change could open up a lot of other possibilities in free agency.
Leary's injury history and inconsistent play make this a pretty easy call.