ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 season, the Denver Broncos‘ top football decision-maker, John Elway, rattled off what he believed the team needed to do this offseason to snap a four-year playoff slump that has included three losing seasons.
Following an offseason like no other, it is time to recap what Elway said and what the Broncos actually did in the weeks and months since he offered “things are trending up.”
On quarterback Drew Lock
What Elway said: “We’re excited about where Drew is. [I] don’t like to show our hand, but I think it’s unrealistic to say that we’re going a different direction. … We believe he’s got the potential to do it, and we think he’s just going to continue to get better and better.”
What Elway did: He showed his hand. The team’s money and premium draft picks essentially made Lock’s promotion to starter the hub of the offseason wheel. Start with the fact that the Broncos used their first two draft picks on wide receivers — Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler — for the first time in franchise history. The biggest contract the team handed out in free agency went to a guard in Graham Glasgow ($44 million), and despite having a two-time 1,000-yard rusher already on the roster, the Broncos still added Melvin Gordon.
This offseason was very much about putting Lock in a better position to succeed.
On trying to avoid a repeat of 2019’s injury misfortune in free agency
What Elway said: “We’re going to go into free agency the same way. We’re going to do all the homework we can and hope that we don’t have the luck that we had this year with the injuries we had.”
What Elway did: A year ago, two of the team’s three biggest free-agent contracts went to tackle Ja’Wuan James (four years, $51 million) and cornerback Bryce Callahan (three years, $21 million, a deal that was later restructured). Then James played just 63 snaps because of a knee injury and Callahan didn’t play a snap, eventually having foot surgery. The Broncos rolled the dice on both players. James, in his previous five seasons in Miami, had not played more than eight games in back-to-back seasons because of injuries; Callahan was already coming off surgery to repair a fractured foot when the Broncos signed him.
This time around, Glasgow was the Broncos’ biggest signing, and he has played in at least 15 games in all four of his previous seasons. He and punter Sam Martin were the only incoming free-agent signings to receive more than a two-year deal.
On left tackle Garett Bolles
What Elway said: “He was there every play. I don’t think he missed a play this year. We talked about availability — he was there. He got off to a slow start, but I think that he continued to get better and better and better as the year went on. We did a better job helping him, too. … Again, nobody is in this thing for sure. It’s always open competition going into training camp, and we’ll evaluate where Garett is and talk to [offensive line coach] Mike [Munchak] and [assistant offensive line coach] Chris [Kuper] and see what they think where we’re going with the offensive line, but Garett continued to get better. He got better and he was available, and that’s important.”
What Elway did: He stuck to those statements. The Broncos did not pursue a tackle in free agency or via a trade this offseason. They also did not use a draft pick on a tackle.
Bolles didn’t get the total vote of confidence — the Broncos did not pick up his fifth-year option for 2021, meaning he will be a free agency next March. But they have also put plenty of faith in Munchak’s abilities. Bolles has led the league in holding penalties, included those that were declined, in each of his previous three seasons, but just two of Bolles’ league-leading 13 holding penalties last season came during Lock’s five starts. With Elijah Wilkinson coming off foot surgery — Wilkinson has been Bolles’ only real in-house competition over the past two seasons — Bolles is poised to start once again.
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On potential for a new contract for running back Phillip Lindsay
What Elway said: “Phillip has done a tremendous job and being the first college free agent to go over 1,000 yards (in two consecutive years to start his career). … Thank God we talked him into coming here. … He’s been tremendous, and he’s got a heart the size of his whole body. The way he works. We’ll look at that. We’ll see where we are budgetwise, but yeah, that’d be something we’d look at.”
What Elway did: He signed Gordon for two years, $16 million. And with the financial concerns that have arrived with the coronavirus pandemic, the Broncos haven’t moved much on any contract front since the opening weeks of free agency in March. Gordon’s arrival will impact Lindsay’s role in the offense, even after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons that have easily outpaced the contract of an undrafted rookie. But Lindsay has also had wrist surgery after each of his first two seasons.
Lindsay and Gordon will each have prominent roles in the offense, but Gordon’s arrival means things are different for Lindsay on the field and possibly with his contract.
On safety Justin Simmons
What Elway said: “We want him back. You know the options there. … He’s a great football player, but he’s a better man. What he does outside of this building and what he’s done in Denver has been tremendous. Just the type of guy he is. These are the type of guys that we want on this football team. Obviously, we have the franchise option there, but we’d like to get something done with Justin for the long term.”
What Elway did: The Broncos did indeed place the franchise player tag on Simmons back in March, and Simmons informed team officials last week he intends to sign the franchise player tender, which would put him under contract for the 2020 season. The Broncos have until Wednesday to sign Simmons to a long-term deal or he will again be a free agent next March. The uncertainty over what the salary cap will look like next season and beyond has affected negotiations.
If Simmons simply plays 2020 on the franchise player tender — $11.441 million guaranteed — the two sides will try again next spring.