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Examining the Broncos' 2021 restricted free agents

Zac Stevens Avatar
March 3, 2021

Before George Paton begins his first free agency leading the Denver Broncos, he needs to make a few very important decisions about his own impending restricted free agents.

Unlike an unrestricted free agent (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA) are, well, more restricted on the open market. For a player to be an RFA, he needs to have three years of accrued service in the league and be on an expiring contract. To rack up an accrued season, a player needs to be on a team’s roster, injured reserve or PUP for at least six regular-season games.

Before free agency begins on Mar. 17, the Broncos must designate each of their six RFAs with one of the four tender options: First round, second round, original round or right-of-first-refusal tender.

In all four of these tenders, the Broncos will have the opportunity to match any contract another team gives to any of their RFAs during free agency. Of course, Denver could choose not to designate a player, but then that player would become an unrestricted free agent.

However, with the first and second-round tenders, if Denver chooses not to match a deal that another team gives to one of their RFAs, then the Broncos would receive that team’s first or second round pick—depending on which tender Denver designated that player before free agency started.

With the original-round tender, the Broncos would receive the draft pick of whatever round the player being discussed was drafted. If that player was undrafted, then the Broncos would not receive anything in return.

The right-of-first-refusal tender allows the Broncos to match any contract an RFA signs with another team, but Denver will not receive any draft compensation if that player signs with another team.

While the price of each tender has not been officially released for 2021 yet, according to the new CBA, a first-round tender is expected to be $4.766 million, a second-round tender is expected to be $3.384 million, an original-round tender is expected to be $2.183 million and the right-of-first-refusal tender is expected to be $2.133 million.

If a team really wants to keep a player, they will, of course, place a first-round tender on them because it’s unlikely another team is going to be willing to give up a first-round pick in order to sign that player away. The downside to placing a higher tender on a player is it costs more.

On the inverse, if a team places a lower tender on a player, it will cost them less, but there is a higher chance other teams will try and sign that player since it won’t cost them much, if anything at all, in terms of resources they will need to give up to acquire that player.

Following Super Bowl 50, the Broncos found this out the hard way with C.J. Anderson. After rushing for over 1,500 yards in 2014 and 2015 combined, the Broncos placed the lowest tender on him during the 2016 offseason.

Since other teams didn’t have to give up anything to get the undrafted running back, the Miami Dolphins offered him a four-year, $18 million contract. In the last minute, Denver decided to match this offer, keeping Anderson in Denver but costing them much more than if they had placed a first or second-round tender on him.

Now, Paton, with input from Elway, will be faced with similar decisions for all six of Denver’s RFAs. The Broncos’ decisions on what tenders to use need to be submitted before the start of the new league year on Mar. 17. Here’s how it breaks down for each of Denver’s restricted free agents.


Estimated Tender: Second round — $3.384 million

If the Broncos want to keep the hometown kid in Denver, they have little choice but to give Lindsay at least a second-round tender. Without at least a second-round tender, it’s extremely likely Lindsay would draw significant interest in free agency and the Broncos either wouldn’t get anything in return if he left or they would have to match another teams offer in order to keep him.

With Melvin Gordon on the books for nearly a $9 million cap hit, the Broncos would be put in a very tough position if they were forced to match another teams offer and give Lindsay a big contract.

Coming off his worst year in the NFL, it would be a surprise if a team was willing to give up a second-round pick in order to sign Lindsay.

It’s straightforward: Give Lindsay a first or second-round tender and he’ll be a Bronco in 2021. Don’t give him at least a second-round tender and Denver will either have to match an offer or watch Lindsay leave Colorado.


Estimated Tender: Second round — $3.384 million

Alexander Johnson is in a very similar situation as Lindsay. If Vic Fangio’s middle linebacker isn’t given at least a second-round tender, there will be significant interest in him in free agency.

However, if Johnson is given a second-round tender, there could still be some interest in him around the league as Johnson could turn into a Pro-Bowl caliber linebacker. Because of that, it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see Denver give Johnson a first-round tender to guarantee that he will be back in 2021.

It would be shocking if Johnson isn’t at least given a second-round tender to allow Fangio to continue to develop the talented linebacker.


Estimated Tender: Second round — $3.384 million

Lindsay, Johnson and Tim Patrick could all be talked about in the same light in regards to the tenders. After Patrick’s breakout season in 2020, he will draw significant interest in free agency if he is not given a second-round tender. And much like Lindsay and Johnson, the Broncos would get nothing in return for Patrick with an original-round tender if he signed with another team since he went undrafted.

After 742 receiving yards to go along with six touchdowns, Patrick will very likely be back with the Broncos in 2021.


Estimated Tender: Not tendered

If the Broncos want Jake Butt back in 2021, they will simply not have to pay the price that comes with the tenders. After only playing eight games since being drafted in 2018, Butt will likely get a contract closer to the vet minimum than the price of an original-round tender.

The Broncos have nothing but respect and admiration for Jake, but if he’s back in Denver next year it will likely be at a cheaper price than the tenders.


Estimated Tender: Not tendered

Toliver entered the NFL under Fangio in 2018. Fangio liked what he saw in Toliver enough in their year together in Chicago that he brought him to Denver in 2020.

However, much like Butt, the Broncos will be able to keep Toliver for a much cheaper price than any of the tenders. Because of that, it wouldn’t make sense to tender Toliver.


Estimated Tender: Not tendered

Austin Calitro was a regular on Denver’s special team units. But after not playing a single snap on defense, the Broncos will be able to re-sign the special teamer and linebacker at a much cheaper price than any of the tenders if they want him back.


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