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With free agency looming, Broncos balance key departures with additions

Justin Simmons remains top priority
Posted at 2:13 PM, Mar 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-10 17:13:17-04

DENVER -- Consider it Formula 1 speed dating.

Free agent flirting begins at 10 a.m. Monday. Deals will be agreed to in principle and made official Wednesday morning. The 72 hours will boast a flurry of arrangements. It draws more attention this year because so many top quarterbacks are available, among them Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

The Broncos are no longer exceeding their cellphone data seeking a signal-caller. They are committed to second-year pro Drew Lock, a step that cannot be overstated, but must be coupled with a series of a wise roster decisions to snap the team's four-year playoff drought.

With six days until the blizzard of moves, the Broncos plan to be aggressive, but not necessarily with their own free agents. Safety Justin Simmons remains a top priority and isn't going anywhere -- either because of a franchise tag or a longterm deal.

Fans, however, should start preparing themselves for the departure of cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end Shelby Harris, safety Will Parks and center Connor McGovern. And while it's more likely Derek Wolfe returns -- he wants to retire a Bronco -- it is no guarantee.

As I have written before, I expect the Broncos to go after receiver Amari Cooper if the Cowboys don't place a tag on him. He could command a five-year, $95 million deal. The Broncos can afford it -- they could have as much as $75 million to spend when rolling over unused money from last year. They need weapons to microwave Lock's development. Receiver Robby Anderson is mentioned as a fallback, but sources have described the Broncos as having little interest in the receiver who said Tuesday on ESPN that there is mutual interest in working out a longterm deal with the Jets.

The Broncos could also pursue guard Joe Thuney, the Patriots best offensive lineman last year, linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, cornerback Prince Amukamara, defensive tackle D.J. Reader and running back Melvin Gordon (the Broncos are looking to add a big back in the draft or free agency to pair with Phillip Lindsay).

Because of the negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement, the deadline for franchise tags has been pushed from Thursday to Monday by 9:59 a.m. local time. The legal tampering period begins one minute later.

Thus far, the Broncos have shown an aggressive inclination to keep only one of their free agents -- Simmons. In absence of a new deal, the Broncos can place a one-year franchise tag on him for $11.6 million, keeping the negotiating window open until July 15. Simmons can ask for a four-year, $58 million deal with $33 million guaranteed with a straight face, matching the contract the Bears gave safety Eddie Jackson. Jackson is more accomplished, and the Broncos could slow play it and even franchise tag Simmons in back-to-back seasons if deemed necessary. Regardless, he will be back.

Such is not the case for Harris Jr. Sources have told Denver7 that Harris is moving forward as if the Broncos will not make an offer before Monday. If Harris finds a tepid market, the Broncos could get involved. That seems unlikely given the strong interest in Harris from the Cowboys, Lions, Jets, Raiders, Texans, Seahawks, Browns, Cardinals, Chargers and Chiefs. The Broncos acquired A.J. Bouye last week and could chose to pair him with a less expensive option like Amukamara, a solid performer for the Bears who has made no secret about wanting to play for coach Vic Fangio.

Shelby Harris set a career-high with six sacks last year, his season exploding after he moved to defensive end. He is in line for big money with the Colts among those with interest.

The Broncos would like Parks back, but recognize he will have a robust market given his reasonable salary and versatility. It's hard to see a scenario where the Broncos pay Simmons, Kareem Jackson, A.J. Bouye, a moderately-priced corner and Parks.

Wolfe wants to stay in Denver, but continues to keep an open mind regarding free agency. The Cardinals, Bengals, Ravens and Patriots are teams that have been connected to Wolfe, though it's unclear if they would offer enough guaranteed money to make it worth leaving the only team he's ever known.

McGovern delivered a solid season at center. With his market strong, the Broncos could choose to pay someone like Thuney or center/guard Graham Glasgow rather than McGovern.

Comp pick haul
The Broncos were rewarded three compensatory picks in the upcoming draft after losing free agents a year ago. With a fourth-rounder going to Jacksonville for cornerback A.J. Bouye to make trade official next week, Denver has 11 pick. They added the following on Tuesday: No. 178 (5th-round), No. 252 (7th-round), No. 254 (7th-round pick).

Denver is not planning to tender a contract to cornerback DeVante Bausby, per sources. However, they remain interested in re-signing him. Bausby is healthy after suffering a scary neck injury early last season. ... The Broncos are expected to place a high-round tender on swing tackle/guard Elijah Wilkinson. He started primarily at right tackle last season for Ja'Wuan James, who was limited to 63 snaps because of a left knee injury.