DENVER — As the Broncos attempt to scale back to the mountaintop of relevance, they face important decisions beginning this week at the NFL combine.
In Sean Payton, the Broncos landed a proven winner. But as compromised, this is not a playoff roster. As Payton admitted, there were plenty of fingerprints on last season's 5-12 crime of a season beyond quarterback Russell Wilson's spiral and the ineffective coaching staff.
The Broncos require more talent, pure and simple. They also need to figure out which players they want back and at what price. In talking to sources, the Broncos are expected to prioritize re-signing defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, which was a blueprint when the team traded away Bradley Chubb, who they did not attend to give a new contract. General manager George Paton will meet with Jones' agent at the combine.
Jones, 26, is a candidate for the franchise tag, but the $19.7 or $18.7 million figure makes that approach less likely than pursuing a multi-year deal before the soft opening of free agency on March 13.
Denver could also make a run at inside linebacker Alex Singleton and left guard Dalton Risner, though it's more likely that Risner tests the market where he is line for $9-to-$10 million per year based on comparable players. Singleton played for $1.15 million on a one-year deal last season, but his 163 tackles, 101 solo, scream for a substantial raise.
Those three players demand the most attention because failing to sign them, either by choice or a losing out in the bidding, makes it likely they will head elsewhere as soon as March 15 when new signings can become official. Jones figures to have a robust market. Will a four-year, $60 million offer gain traction with teams like Houston expected to make a play for Jones? Jones' agent will meet with a handful of teams regarding Jones.
Jones has averaged six sacks per season over the past three years.
Bulking up the offensive and defensive lines remains a priority for the Broncos. Denver ranked last in points per game (16.9), 21st in rushing yards (113.8) and 19th in passing yards (211.3), while allowing an NFL-worst 63 sacks.
The Broncos offensive line is in flux.
"Left guard, center, right guard, right tackle, I think it's all up in the air," said former Broncos standout right tackle Orlando Franklin and current radio host on Denversports.com. "I look for the Broncos to invest heavily in the left guard, center and right guard positions, and maybe get somebody in there at right tackle through free agency. Or draft a guy and try to develop him. They are going to start investing heavily in the offensive line under Sean Payton."
Even left tackle Garett Bolles' faces questions as he returns from a complicated broken leg and ankle. While Quinn Meinerz is likely to return at right guard, it's possible Denver will feature three new starters. NFL Network Daniel Jeremiah believes Denver could address the offensive line or edge rusher with their first picks at No. 67 and No. 68.
"When you look at the Broncos and look at the directions that they could be looking to go, I think O-line, D-line obviously would be the places where you start. I think from an offensive line standpoint, I feel pretty good about the interior and some of the depth that you could find in that portion of the draft," Jeremiah said last weekend.
"I think edge rush is actually a pretty good group as well. Kind of pulling up this list and guys that I think could kind of be in that type of range. You know, a KJ Henry from Clemson would be one. Andre Carter from Army. Zach Harrison, Ohio State. Dylan Horton from TCU. Like, those types of guys, those are good players. I think those guys are probably going to be in that third, fourth-round range. Foskey will be another one. We'll see. He is going to test really well, so he might test his way out of that range and up a little bit higher. I think when you are looking at offensive linemen, edge rushers, I think that's not bad. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the depth that's going to still be there in the third and fourth round in this draft."
Given the picks surrendered for Wilson and Payton, the Broncos can afford few, if any misses, on draft picks and free agents. Payton can change the culture, and will with discipline and accountability. But he needs players. And that process gains traction this week in Indianapolis.