The Denver Broncos may have to replace two starters on the defensive line in 2020. How will they utilize free agency to fill their holes?
There’s no doubt about the fact that the Denver Broncos have a list of needs to address here as we approach the 2020 offseason, free agency period, and 2020 NFL Draft.
The short version? They will likely be very active with this position group in free agency, but why? How much could we expect them to spend?
That requires a longer story.
In-house free agents
The Broncos currently have four major free agents on the defensive line in 2020. They are:
- DE Derek Wolfe
- DE Shelby Harris
- DE Adam Gotsis
- NT Mike Purcell (RFA)
Purcell is a restricted free agent which means the Broncos can tender him at a level that basically makes it impossible for another team to steal him without giving up valuable draft capital. It’s rare for teams to offer restricted free agents long-term contracts, so Purcell is widely expected back with Denver.
Not to be ignored are three guys who have been starters for the Broncos over the last 2-3 years with Wolfe, Harris, and Gotsis.
Wolfe has stated he’s not going to do what he did ‘last time’ his contract was up, which was take less than market value to remain with the Broncos. Shelby Harris hired Drew Rosenhaus to be his agent and negotiate what will likely be the biggest contract of his career.
Gotsis was benched at one point this past year, but if the price is right we could see him back on a short-term deal.
Most of the talk this offseason has been that the Broncos will try to re-sign at least one of Derek Wolfe or Shelby Harris, but not likely both. I not only agree with that decision if it’s the direction they are going, I am not completely opposed to neither coming back.
I love Wolfe, and he’s coming off of a career year, but if we’re talking about a minimum of $10 million per year to bring him back, is it worth risking his less-than-50 percent rate of playing all 16 games?
Wolfe is a tough dude who plays through injuries and he’s a great Bronco. I’m not going to put a price on what he’s contributed to the team and he certainly did the team a solid by taking a haircut on his last pay day.
Out of fairness to that, I personally would be willing to give him a better contract this time around but is that what’s best for the Broncos?
Wolfe is going to be 30 at the start of free agency, is coming off of a career year with seven sacks in 12 games, and played great in Fangio’s scheme. The $10 million per year might be worth the risk of him not playing all 16 games.
Harris, on the other hand, is a guy I would not be willing to go upwards of $10 million or more with. He’s certainly made some clutch plays for the Broncos, but there are a ton of guys in this defensive line class who have a higher pressure rate than Harris, and he played 60.25 percent of snaps last year. It’s not uncommon for a defensive lineman to not play every down, but I’m more in favor of a guy who plays at least 70 percent if they’re getting paid eight figures.
I feel like the Broncos could potentially upgrade over both of these starters in 2020 free agency.
They also have Dre’Mont Jones, a third-round pick in 2019, waiting in the wings for one of the starting jobs.
Who’s available in free agency?
This is where things get really exciting. In addition to Wolfe and Harris, there are no shortage of stud players on this year’s free agent market.
In no particular order (okay, these are in order of who had the most QB hits in 2019):
- Chris Jones, Chiefs
- Arik Armstead, 49ers
- Leonard Williams, Giants
- Jordan Phillips, Bills
- Ndamukong Suh, Buccaneers
- DJ Reader, Texans
- Maleik Collins, Cowboys
- Rodney Gunter, Cardinals
- Vernon Butler, Panthers
- Michael Brockers, Rams
- Javon Hargrave, Steelers
- Danny Shelton, Patriots
- A’Shawn Robinson, Lions
- Michael Pierce, Ravens
Are you getting the picture, here?
There are a ton of defensive linemen out there who could fit what the Broncos want and need up front, and it’s possible they could sign two guys on this list who would represent upgrades over Wolfe and Harris.
Counting the cost
What’s the going rate for the top defensive linemen in football today?
Aaron Donald leads the league at $22.5 million per season. The only player on this list who will come even close to that is Chris Jones, and his probably more likely to be franchise tagged by the Chiefs than anything.
Beyond that, it’s going to be no less than $15-16 million per year to sign a really good free agent player to start at defensive end, and for guys who primarily play on the interior, you might get them for $10-12 million per season.
I am not sure what the Broncos will have budgeted here, but they could very well look to make one big splash signing on the defensive line and another depth move for a reasonable price or short term deal.
2020 NFL Draft alternatives
When considering signing guys to big money contracts, I think it’s always important to look at the NFL Draft alternatives.
Vic Fangio has stated that the defensive line in his scheme requires specific types of guys to play it while the defensive backs he targets have really one trait he looks for — can you cover?
Okay, there’s definitely two traits. Fangio has said that tackling is a non-negotiable quality.
The 2020 NFL Draft class for defensive linemen that would fit what the Broncos are looking for does not appear overly deep or star-studded. If we’re talking strictly about first-round guys, I think if the Broncos could get Auburn’s Derrick Brown, Iowa’s AJ Epenesa, or South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, those are players they might prioritize over some free agents, perhaps even their own.
I just don’t see a way they come away from 2020 free agency without feeling good about a starting three on the defensive line, and a player like one of those three mentioned would have to present the best possible value with the pick.
If I’m John Elway, there’s no way I’m leaving free agency without one of the top defensive linemen on my board.
We haven’t seen any cap casualties yet, but there could undoubtedly be even more than what was listed as far as guys who could present upgrades for the Broncos on the open free agent market.
Someone like Denver native Calais Campbell could wind up being a cap casualty of the Jaguars, and would be an outstanding player for this Denver defense.
There are plenty of others who could end up being available that would only enhance my stance about how the Broncos should approach the defensive line in free agency: Sign two.
I would leave this open-ended as far as the price the guys would re-sign especially if they wanted to bring in an older veteran like a Calais Campbell should he be released by the Jaguars, in which case the Broncos could supplement by taking someone in the mid-rounds of the draft to develop behind him.
I would love to see the Broncos sign a young playmaker like Leonard Williams of the Giants who has been one of the most productive defensive linemen in the league when it comes to getting after the quarterback.
I think it’s safe to assume some of the Broncos’ biggest spending in free agency will come on the defensive line, and they will use the NFL Draft to supplement whatever they sign as far as adding depth.