BRONCOS

George Paton explains why Broncos will not be in first wave of free agency

Jan 9, 2024, 3:19 PM | Updated: 3:23 pm

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — If the Broncos are going to make the business of roster-building work with a Russell Wilson-sized hole in their salary cap, they’re going to have to make some adjustments.

Should the Broncos cut Wilson with a post-June 1 designation, they will be slated for dead-money cap hits of $35.4 million this year and $49.6 million in 2025. If they absorb it all in one year, they’ll face a cataclysmic $85-million dead-money figure that would be by far the largest one-year write-off in NFL history — more than twice the previous record set by the Falcons and Matt Ryan in 2022 ($40.525 million).

“Ovviously, this would be extreme,” Broncos general manager George Paton said.

But even before any accounting with Wilson’s contract, the Broncos are forecast to be $17.99 million over the 2024 salary cap, per OvertheCap.com. There are some obvious cuts and restructures to get in compliance, but one thing is certain: The Broncos are in a crunch.

“We’ve prepared for any scenario, with Rich Hurtado, who runs our cap. And we’ll have flexibility either way to do what we need to do,” Paton said.

Except, that is, make a big splash in free agency.

BRONCOS WILL NOT RIDE THE ‘FIRST WAVE’ OF FREE AGENCY

Last March, the Broncos stormed into free agency with big-money signings of right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Ben Powers and defensive end Zach Allen, who were all part of a dizzying Day 1 haul that also included tight end Chris Manhertz and quarterback Jarrett Stidham.

But this time around?

“We’re not going to be on the first wave of free agency like we were last year. You can’t do that every year,” Paton said.

“We’ll be very strategic, very specific on what positions, what players we try to sign.”

Even before the contract kerfuffle regarding Wilson, this strategy did not come as a surprise. The Broncos’ plan was to spend massively last year in part because of their lack of early-round draft capital thanks to the trades for Wilson and Sean Payton. But for future years, a more sustainable emphasis on the NFL Draft was the direction in which the organization wanted to go.

And given the Broncos’ mixed bag of results from the first free-agency forays in recent years, this strategy appears prudent.

THE IMPACT ON PENDING FREE AGENTS — AND YOUNG PLAYERS

For starters, it means the Broncos could not only be poised for cuts, but to let some potential unrestricted free agents walk. In particular, Paton identified three draft picks as “starter(s) in this league”: cornerback Riley Moss, linebacker Drew Sanders and center Alex Forsyth.

Of second-round wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr., Paton said, “Work in progress as a receiver, but he had some really big moments.”

But with Moss, Sanders and Forsyth, Paton pointed to their progress in practice — and for Sanders, what he did playing more extensively late in the season at outside linebacker. However, moving back inside is a possibility. That is significant because Josey Jewell is one of the Broncos’ pending free agents. If the Broncos plan to move Sanders back inside, that could lead to Jewell departing after six seasons.

At cornerback, Fabian Moreau played on a 1-year contract last season after replacing early-season starter Damarri Mathis. But with Moss seen as a starter, the Broncos could elect to move on from Moreau. K’Waun Williams, who spent the season on injured reserve, is also unlikely to return following the emergence of Ja’Quan McMillian at slot cornerback.

But Sanders, Moss and Sanders were Day 2 picks.

The Broncos’ final pick last year was Forsyth — the third-to-last pick of the draft overall, at the 257th selection. He didn’t play a snap in the 2023 campaign.

And yet Paton made the vision for the Oregon product clear: “We feel he’s a starter in this league at center.”

Incumbent starting center Lloyd Cushenberry is a pending free agent. But with their cap crunch, re-signing Cushenberry might not be feasible. He concluded his best season Sunday. After the 27-14 loss to Las Vegas, Cushenberry noted that it would be “great” to come back.

However …

“We’ll just see what happens. Just leave it in God’s hands,” Cushenberry said. “I’m not really stressed about it. Whatever happens, happens.”

Tuesday, Paton offered a glimpse at life during wartime — war with the constraints of the salary cap. And it could mean some painful goodbyes … and showing plenty of faith in the team’s youngest, cost-controlled players.

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