Denver Broncos 2020 free agency plan of attack: Cornerback

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 06: James Bradberry #24 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after breaking up a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 34-27. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 06: James Bradberry #24 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after breaking up a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 34-27. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

The Denver Broncos will have to address the cornerback position in the 2020 offseason. This year’s free agent class has variety and depth.

The Denver Broncos, armed with over $60 million in 2020 salary cap space, are poised to be very active on the free agent market.

With so many prominent players on the defensive side of the ball slated for free agency, it makes sense that this team would be poised to prioritize that side of the ball with their available funds.

The Broncos’ top needs defensively are along the defensive line and at cornerback, once the team decides how it’s going to move forward with Justin Simmons (franchise tag or long-term deal).

Even without many roster cuts at this point, the free agent cornerback class looks absolutely outstanding. In fact, this could be the top position group overall in free agency, right up there with quarterback and defensive line as the deepest groups of available players.

The timing couldn’t be better for the Denver Broncos, who will be providing some of that depth in Chris Harris Jr.

Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the Broncos certainly have a number of intriguing young players at the cornerback position, all signs point to John Elway and the front office attacking this position aggressively over the course of the next six weeks.

How will the Broncos address this position in free agency in 2020? They could go a number of directions, so let’s begin exploring.

The legal negotiating period is going to be crucial for the Broncos this year, as a wide variety of players will have their market value established, which could actually lead to a reunion for the team and veteran Chris Harris Jr.

Bringing back Chris Harris Jr.

Depending on which headlines you read (the correct one or the completely wrong one), you may or may not know that there is actually a glimmer of hope that the Denver Broncos and free agent cornerback Chris Harris Jr. are not destined to part ways.

Harris explained that if the Broncos want him back, he will be back, and left that door open so long as the team is ready to meet his contract desires.

Whether or not re-signing Harris is the Broncos’ number one goal remains to be seen, but the depth of this year’s class as a whole as well as options on the trade market gives Denver leverage to not overpay Harris, who will be 31 in June.

Should the Broncos pay at or close to market value for Harris, who was already offered (and rejected) an extension from the team last season?

Because Harris declined the Broncos’ initial offer of two years, $25 million on top of the raise he got in 2019, it stands to reason that Denver is not going to be jumping at the chance to match an offer some other team might make of $14 million per year or more. But Harris could get that from someone else.

If he does, it’s hard to see the Broncos matching.

Exploring a trade…

The big trade rumor out there right now involving a prominent cornerback is centered around Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay.

Slay has been connected to the Broncos in the past, and he’s being connected to them again.

Trading for Slay, in particular, would likely cost the Broncos a third-round draft choice and $10 million against the 2020 salary cap, a very palatable number considering the current value of top cornerbacks is in the $14-16 million per year range and rising.

If the Broncos could land Slay in a trade this offseason, they could perhaps recoup a high compensatory selection in 2021 while also finding a way to extend a very good player in Slay for the next 3-4 years.

Right now, this option is one of the most enticing given Slay’s 2020 cost, the potential of a 2021 compensatory selection, the fact that the Broncos won’t be rostering 12 rookies, and his pedigree.

Exploring the open market

The 2020 free agent cornerback market is currently ridiculously good, and possible roster cuts could make it even better.

At the top of the class are players like Harris, Dallas’ Byron Jones, Carolina’s James Bradberry, Tennessee’s Logan Ryan, Kansas City’s Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller, Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby, and a wide variety of other big names and former high draft choices with intriguing upside and potential in Vic Fangio’s defense.

Fangio has stated before his top qualities in defensive backs are simply guys who can ‘cover’ versus scheme dependent players as well as his non-negotiable — tackling.

The Broncos have a possible nickel corner in place with Bryce Callahan, so an outside corner or player who follows the opposing team’s top receiver could be the top target for Denver (hence the Darius Slay rumors) but the Broncos were also initially planning on Callahan playing outside last year.

That could wind up being the case again in 2020.

Players like Jones, Bradberry, Ryan, and Harris could wind up setting the market in this year’s free agent period, but players like Breeland, Fuller, Darby, and some other talented guys in this class — including former Broncos first-round pick Bradley Roby — could wind up being bargains in comparison.

Putting on the GM hat

If I were John Elway, here’s what I would do…

1. Trade for Darius Slay, then re-sign him

Although the price of a third-round draft choice seems steep, the Broncos won’t be keeping all 12 of their projected 2020 draft choices one way or another. Instead of trading up, why not acquire a stud veteran like this?

Getting Slay for a third-round pick is a small price to pay for a guy who could step in immediately as a CB1 for your defense. Where Harris struggled playing on the outside in 2019, Slay is maybe more likely to excel.

This move would allow the Broncos to utilize Bryce Callahan in the nickel role.

After trading for Slay, I would re-sign him to a three-year, $44 million extension with $25 million guaranteed, as well as a team option in that fourth year.

So, it would essentially be a re-do of the Chris Harris deal, but Slay would have $35 million in guaranteed cash over the next three years and the Broncos get their new CB1 whose deal would essentially be four years, $54 million ($13.5 million APY).

2. Sign Bashaud Breeland for 4 years, $36million

Although Bashaud Breeland has bounced around the league a bit in recent years, he’s been a very good player at two of his three stops (Washington, Kansas City).

He’s coming off of a very good season with the Chiefs and his physicality as well as his versatility would be welcomed additions in Vic Fangio’s defense.

With Slay and Breeland in place, the Broncos could move Bryce Callahan to the nickel role full-time and have two long, aggressive corners on the boundary to make plays on the ball.

Since 2014 (when Breeland was drafted), including a couple of playoff appearances for both guys, Breeland and Slay have combined for 32 interceptions and 175 pass breakups.

Both guys have the size and instincts to excel in the Vic Fangio defense, feasting behind Denver’s terrific pass rush duo.

If the Broncos were to make these two moves, they could theoretically get both Slay and Breeland at a combined 2020 cap hit around $15-16 million. Combined with the $12.8 million dedicated to re-signing Justin Simmons, that would mean investing just under $30 million of the available cap space in 2020 to the defensive backfield.

But when you play Patrick Mahomes twice and — if they make the playoffs — potentially three times per year, you have to have ballhawks on the back end of the secondary. These two moves would give the Broncos a top secondary of:

  • Darius Slay, CB
  • Bashaud Breeland, CB
  • Bryce Callahan, NCB
  • Kareem Jackson, SS
  • Justin Simmons, FS

Next. 2020 Broncos mock draft with huge veteran trades. dark

On top of these signings, I would use one of the remaining top six picks (first four rounds) on the cornerback position and create a healthy competition going into the 2020 offseason program.