Predicting every move Sean Payton's Denver Broncos will make this offseason

Henry Chisholm Avatar
March 6, 2024

The Denver Broncos’ brass made its decision: the Russell Wilson Era in the Mile High City is over.

So what’s next?

I’m taking my stab at figuring it out, as the new hypothetical owner/president/general manager/coach/ruler of the Denver Broncos.

Starting with cuts, trades, restructures and extensions to clear cap space.

Then free agency.

Then the draft.

This is Mock Offseason 1.0.

Step 1: The Plan

Before we can make moves, we need to decide what we’re trying to do.

Here’s the goal: Return the Denver Broncos to the proud franchise it once was.

That won’t happen overnight.

The plan is to make it happen by 2026.

That means, the 2026 season is successful. I won’t put exact benchmarks here. Maybe it’s 12 wins. Maybe it’s a playoff win. Maybe it’s more. Who knows.

But—because of the success of the 2026 season—fans, players, coaches, the front office, the owners and Broncos Country in general believe the Broncos will compete at the highest level. The “this year is our year” mentality is back after the 2026 campaign and beyond.

So what does that look like? Let’s work backward.

2026: Success.

2025: Show proof of concept. Prove that you’re on the right path. Broncos Country should believe that a couple of smart moves and some internal growth will be enough to achieve success.

2024: Bite whatever bullet needs to be bitten to set up 2025 and 2026. If there’s a way to bite that bullet and have fun doing it, that’s great. But if not, then don’t force it.

Step 2: The plan at quarterback

Eventually, the Broncos will need to draft a quarterback who turns into a star if they want a Super Bowl window.

The question is whether to use the 12th pick to take a stab or wait to find a quarterback until after the salary cap settles.

I’m drafting a rookie.

Giving $35 million or more per year to a Kirk Cousins or a Baker Mayfield doesn’t fit within the Project 2026 parameters. That’s too much money to blow in a stretch when winning as many games as possible isn’t the top priority.

Trying to reclaim a rejected quarterback like Justin Fields, Mac Jones or Sam Howell is more tempting, but I’d rather shoot my shot with a rookie. If it doesn’t work, we can try again. And again. And again.

But you can’t solve the Broncos’ biggest problem—the lack of an answer at QB—without trying to find one. If that means I’m drafting another quarterback in 2025 or 2026, then so be it.

You can’t win if you don’t play.

Step 3: Fix the salary cap problem

After you account for the cost of their rookie class, the Broncos are about $20 million over the salary cap.

But there’s a catch.

That estimate results from taking a $35.4 million cap hit for Russell Wilson this season, leaving the rest of the $85 million that still needs to be accounted for to be paid off in 2025.

The Broncos have the option to change those numbers so they can pay $53 million of the $85 million in 2024, instead. That’s what I’m going to do. I want to clear the books for the future.

The Broncos are now $37 million over the cap.

Here’s how I’m going to clear space.

Warning: You’re going to hate it.

Cut

WR Tim Patrick, 30 – (+$9.5 million) – Patrick was a success story in Denver. His second contract has been a failure, though. Since signing the three-year, $34 million deal, he hasn’t played a game. He’s participated in less than two weeks of practices. I’m taking the savings and saying goodbye.

DT DJ Jones, 29 – (+$9.5 million) – This is purely a salary cap move. Jones has lived up to his contract. I wouldn’t say he outplayed it, though. He’ll still be a good player when the Broncos enter their window. Keeping around for that window would require an extension after 2024, and I’d rather cut ties now and take a payday than wait to decide his future next offseason.

Restructure

Mike McGlinchey, 29 – (+$10 million)

I decided to restructure only one deal. I expect the real-life Broncos will restructure more. Maybe three or so.

But competing in 2026 is the goal. And I’m sticking to that by not pushing much money down the line.

This is a simple restructure. We’re giving the bulk of McGlinchey’s 2024 salary to him right now, which means we get to spread that money out over the rest of his time in Denver.

He gets his money upfront. I get a little more flexibility. Everybody wins.

Trade

Patriots receive LT Garett Bolles, 31 & 209th pick (6th round)
Broncos receive 136th pick (5th round)
Broncos save $16 million in cap space

The Patriots are moving on from left tackle Trent Brown. They have $91 million in cap space. They get a protector for their rookie quarterback.

This one could bite me in the butt. Bolles is a solid left tackle. I’d make the case he belongs in the NFL’s top 10 players at the position.

But he’ll be 32 before the season starts. And he’ll be 34 when the 2026 season starts. Bolles may still be a solid player in 2026, but he won’t be useful much longer than that.

Losing the blindside protector before adding a rookie quarterback is a risky decision. But I’m taking the gamble and saving $16 million.

Lions receive S Justin Simmons, 30, & 146th pick (5th round)
Broncos receive 61st pick (2nd Round)
Broncos save $14.5 million in cap space

The Lions were inches away from the Super Bowl. Now they’re adding a game-changer to their defensive backfield. With $54 million in cap space, Simmons’ deal is no problem for Detroit. They’re happy to move on from one of their two second-rounders, especially after adding a handful of studs in last year’s draft.

This is the most painful move I’ll make all offseason. I’m not confident it’s the right decision, but I’m pulling the trigger anyway.

Simmons is reaching the final stretch of his career. He’ll be 33 at the end of the 2026 season. I’m confident he’ll still be a good player. I’m not confident of anything past that point.

The kicker is that Simmons’ contract expires after this season. There’s no reason to believe he wants to be anything other than a Bronco, but he’ll have plenty of options. Losing him for nothing would sting. The sting of spending an extra $14.5 million on a departing player in a bite-the-bullet season would hurt worse.

I hate it. But I’m pulling the trigger.

Bears receive WR Jerry Jeudy, 24
Broncos receive 123rd pick (4th round)
Broncos save $13 million in cap space

The Bears need playmakers for Caleb Williams. They’ll take Jeudy for cheap.

Jeudy is on a fifth-year option, which is fully guaranteed. After this year, he’ll be a free agent. I’d rather cut ties now and save the money.

Extend

Quinn Meinerz, 25 — 4 years, $58 million ($31 million guaranteed)
Broncos lose $3 million in 2024 cap space

Meinerz is one of the best guards in the league. He was a Pro Bowl alternate last year. This year, he’ll be a Pro Bowler. I’m getting ahead of the situation and giving Meinerz his money now, before he costs more.

This deal makes Meinerz the eighth highest-paid guard in the NFL by average value. It’s the fifth-largest deal by total value. It’s also fifth in guaranteed money.

Meinerz gets long-term security. The Broncos get a discount.

The Math

After all of that, the $37 million deficit has turned into about $28 million surplus.

That’s not bad.

Moving on from Simmons and Bolles makes the team much worse, though.

Step 4: Sign Free Agents

All of these deals will be made using Pro Football Focus’ projected contracts. It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s the only system I have. The rest of the contracts will be veteran minimums for players who have been playing for the veteran minimum. The cap hits from the contracts will be structured as typically as possible.

Here we go…

S Xavier McKinney, 24 — 4 yrs, $54 million, $30 million guaranteed

Year 1 Cap Hit: $5.625m
Year 2 Cap Hit: $15.125m
Year 3 Cap Hit: $16.125m
Year 4 Cap Hit: $17.125m

This is my lone big-time addition.

McKinney has established himself as a well-rounded safety who can make plays all over the field. He’s a stud in deep coverage and in the box. He rarely misses tackles and finished second on the Giants with 116 of them last season. Pro Football Focus graded him the fourth-best safety in the NFL in 2023.

McKinney is a young player who fits the Broncos’ timeline. His ability to cover from anywhere in the field means he can be somewhat of a chess piece as the Broncos find other playmakers who take their own roles.

WR Tyler Boyd, 29 — 2 yrs, $17.5 million, $10.75 million guaranteed

Year 1 Cap Hit: $6 million
Year 2 Cap Hit: $11.5 million

Boyd doesn’t fit the Broncos’ timeline perfectly, but he’s a cheap bridge to the next era.

Boyd is a true slot receiver. He creates separation in the middle of the field and hauls in tough catches in traffic. He’s one of the league’s better pure slots and would be the Broncos’ top slot receiver since Wes Welker left town.

Boyd’s numbers aren’t spectacular. He’s coming off a 667-yard season despite playing in every game. But as Cincinnati’s No. 3 option—and a slot receiver to boot—those numbers aren’t bad. He has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. He’s averaged 863 yards per year over the last six seasons, a span in which he’s played all but four games.

With a rookie quarterback on the way, I want weapons who can make his life easy. Boyd can do that job perfectly.

TE Jonnu Smith, 28 — 2 yrs, $12 million, $8 million guaranteed

Year 1 Cap Hit: $4 million
Year 2 Cap Hit: $8 million

The Falcons cut Smith to save $6.5 million this season. PFF didn’t have a projected contract, so I set the deal at $6 million per year, which could be a little too high.

I’m surprised the Falcons moved on.

Smith is a versatile tight end, and he’s coming off the best receiving total of his career, hauling in 50 balls for 582 yards and three touchdowns. These numbers came despite playing fewer snaps than fellow Falcon tight end Kyle Pitts.

Smith can move around the formation and even play out of the backfield. Sean Payton can get creative in how he uses him. Hopefully, Smith can provide much-needed production from the tight end spot.

Plus, a deal like this would allow Denver to save about $4 million if they opt to move on after one season. This scenario is unlikely but, for example, if Greg Dulcich comes into his own, the Broncos have flexibility.

K Wil Lutz — 2 yrs, $8.1 million, $5.75 million guaranteed

Year 1 Cap Hit: $3 million
Year 2 Cap Hit: $5.1 million

Lutz did what he was asked to do last season.

This is a two-year deal with the same average salary of his last contract.

DT Javon Kinlaw, 26 — 1 yr, $5.5 million, $2.5 million guaranteed

The Broncos need help along the defensive line. Lots of it.

Kinlaw has disappointed since being the 14th overall pick in 2020. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, he has all of the physical tools and athletic traits to be one of the league’s top interior pass rushers.

If Kinlaw figures his game out, the Broncos could have a stud on their hands. If he doesn’t, they can move on after the season.

This move is a gamble, and it might not pay off.

LT Mekhi Becton, 24 — 1 yr, $5 million, $3 million guaranteed

Like Kinlaw, Becton has struggled since entering the league as a top prospect.

Becton is a freak. He’s 6-foot-7 and 364 pounds. His arms are 36 inches long. But that size has led to frequent injuries. He’s struggled to keep his weight down, too. But Becton only missed one game last season, which is some positive momentum.

Becton has primarily played left tackle, and he would be the favorite to win the Broncos’ starting job. If he pans out, the Broncos could retain him after the season. If not, they can move on.

Like Kinlaw, it’s a gamble. And if you’re shopping for a left tackle on a $5 million budget, you could do much worse.

FB Michael Burton, 32 — 1 yr, $1.21 million

Burton was a Pro Bowl alternate and a member of the PFF All-Pro team in his first season with the Broncos.

Why not bring him back?

WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey, 25 — 1 yr, $1.125 million

Humphrey serves a purpose. He’s a big-bodied receiver who can block better than plenty of tight ends. He might not win a roster spot, but he’s worth bringing back to training camp.

DL Jonathan Harris, — 1 yr, $1.125 million

Harris earned a significant role in the Broncos’ defense last year but had his ups and downs. Given the lack of depth along the line right now, the Broncos should bring him back to compete for a role in 2024.

IOL Cameron Tom — 1 yr, $1.125 million

Sean Payton’s Saints signed Tom as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He stuck in New Orleans for his first four seasons before bouncing around for the past three years, most recently with the Chargers. He’s played some center, but his only career start was at guard.

I don’t expect Tom to make the team, but he’s a capable competitor and the Broncos could use more options at center.

LB Justin Strnad, — 1 yr, $1.125 million

Strnad is a very good special teamer. With Josey Jewell moving on, he provides solid depth.

OT Quinn Bailey, 28 — 1 yr, $985,000

Bailey was the Broncos’ sixth lineman in heavy packages last year. He’s capable of playing guard or tackle. He could provide solid depth at either position.

Step 5: The Draft

The full draft order isn’t official. That should come out later this week.

By my tracking—with a little help from Tankathon’s estimated compensatory picks—the Broncos should have these picks following our trades:

No. 12 (1st round)
No. 61 (2nd round)
No. 76 (3rd round)
No. 122 (4th round)
No. 123 (4th round)
No. 136 (5th round)
No. 144 (5th round)

For the draft, I’m using ESPN’s rankings. It’s the most reputable board that lists the top 200 prospects. With each pick, I’m assuming the players ranked above that pick are off the board.

I’m making another assumption: The top four quarterbacks are gone by 12. To snag one, you have to trade up.

I’m not trading up. Here’s what I’m doing:

Pick No. 12: QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington

Call it a reach if you want, but I prefer Penix to Bo Nix. I don’t want to risk losing him by trading down.

Penix, 23, has impeccable accuracy, near-perfect placement, plenty of arm strength and he’s shifty in the pocket despite not having notable scrambling ability. In my opinion, he’s the perfect fit for a Sean Payton offense.

He’s battle-tested, too. At Indiana, he posted an 8-4 record, the Hoosiers’ best since 1994. His back-to-back winning records were also the first since that season.

He transferred to Washington and led the Huskies to the National Championship. He was a Heisman finalist and one of two quarterbacks in college football history to throw for 4,500 yards in back-to-back seasons. The other was Patrick Mahomes.

Penix is an older prospect. He was banged up at Indiana and didn’t finish any of his three seasons as a starter. His medicals reportedly passed with flying colors at the NFL Combine, though. He had no injury trouble in his two seasons at Washington.

I see no reason Penix can’t be one of the top pocket passers in the NFL.

Pick No. 61: LB Payton Wilson, NC State

Wilson, 23, is a freak.

His 4.43-second 40-yard dash shouldn’t be possible for a 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker. He was a monster in the shuttle runs as well.

Wilson led the ACC in tackles twice. First in 2020 and then again in 2023, when he was eighth in the country. His six sacks last season were a monstrous number for an off-ball linebacker. His 17.5 tackles for loss were equally impressive.

Wilson is a little small by NFL standards, so he can get stuck on blocks occasionally. But he’s sharp in coverage, picking off three passes last season and breaking up six more.

In 2023, he was a consensus All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He won the Dick Butkus Award for the nation’s top linebacker. He also won the Chuck Bednarik Award for the national defensive player of the year.

Wilson can step in and change games immediately.

Pick No. 76: WR Ja’Lynn Polk, Washington

Receiver isn’t the Broncos’ biggest need, but the 2024 pass-catcher class is one of the deepest ever. Some great players will be available in the third round.

Oh, and Polk, 21, caught 69 passes for 1,159 yards and nine touchdowns from new Broncos quarterback Michael Penix Jr. this season.

If the Broncos want Penix to succeed, bringing one of his best weapons with him is a great option. The instant chemistry would be a boon for both players.

Polk is a big receiver with plenty of speed. His top trait is his ability to bring in contested catches. He’s a monster on the fades and hole shots that Penix loves to throw along the sidelines. Polk will give you a highlight-reel grab every other week.

Pick No. 122: OT Blake Fisher, Notre Dame

Fisher, 20, was the No. 8 tackle prospect in his recruiting class and won the starting left tackle job at Notre Dame as a true freshman. In the first game of the year, he sustained a knee injury that kept him out until the postseason.

In 2022, Joe Alt—the likely first lineman off the board in this draft—won the left tackle job. That left the right tackle job for Fisher, who started every game there the past two seasons.

He’s 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds. He isn’t the strongest lineman, but once he fills out—remember he still can’t legally buy a drink—those problems should fade. Hopefully, his special athleticism remains. He isn’t the most polished prospect, but what do you expect from a 20-year-old?

Fisher is a project. Despite playing right tackle, he could compete for the starting left tackle job. The transition might be clunky, but with a left-handed quarterback, it’s easier to justify flipping him.

Pick No. 123: DT McKinnley Jackson, Texas A&M

At 6-foot-1 and 326 pounds, Jackson is a stout defender who can plug up the middle of the line of scrimmage. He’s bigger than his opponent on nearly every rep, helping him dominate gaps in the running game.

But Jackson’s explosiveness is what stands out. He’s shifty with good burst and provides pass rush ability in the A gaps.

Jackson, 22, would ideally fill the nose tackle role that Mike Purcell has held down in recent years.

Pick No. 136: TE Erick All, Iowa

You can’t go wrong with an Iowa tight end, right?

All, 23, is a big athlete, standing 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds. He’s a good receiver, primarily working underneath in the middle of the field, but he’s more than capable of stretching the seam, too.

As a blocker, All is willing and has the frame to be successful but is yet to put all of the pieces together. He’ll probably still be on the board at this point because he tore his ACL in October.

All’s numbers won’t catch your eye. He hauled in 21 balls for 299 yards and three touchdowns this season.

But remember this: He played at Iowa.

His 299 receiving yards led the team.

His three total touchdowns were the most on the team. You read that right; no Hawkeye had more than three touchdowns.

All is a big, long tight end who could develop into a do-it-all player.

Pick No. 144: C Drake Nugent, Michigan

Nugent, 23, transferred from Stanford to Michigan for his final season, where he was part of one of the best lines in the nation.

Nugent will probably be available at this point in the draft because he lacks special traits. He measured in at 6-foot-1 and 298 pounds at the combine. His athletic testing was solid.

But what Nugent lacks in physical tools, he makes up for with solid play. His technique is clean and once he gets his hands on a defender, it’s unlikely he’ll come free.

For what it’s worth, his father was an NFL center in the 1980s, and he’s a graduate of Highlands Ranch High School.

The Roster

The Broncos have about $3 million in cap space, which is small. But it’s about double what they had at the end of last year. Cutdown day should add a little more room, but the Broncos are stuck signing minimum contracts. I counted room for 17 college free agents. That’s a big number, but more young talent would be a good thing.

QB: Michael Penix Jr., Jarrett Stidham, Ben DiNucci

The future is here. Penix is NFL-ready and gets the Week 1 start.

RB: Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine, Jaleel McLaughlin, Tyler Badie, Michael Burton

The Broncos can add an undrafted free agent to this group to add some spice, but they already have a solid Big 3 to carry the load. Williams and Perine are both entering the final year of their contracts.

TE: Jonnu Smith, Erick All, Greg Dulcich, Chris Manhertz, Nate Adkins, Lucas Krull

The Broncos have a nice blend of upside and veterans in this group, but they’re unlikely to have a Pro Bowl-caliber stud in 2024.

Denver could save more than $2 million if they move on from Manhertz before the season begins. The Broncos seem to have plenty of depth without him, but that decision should be made on cutdown day.

WR: Courtland Sutton, Tyler Boyd, Marvin Mims, Ja’Lynn Polk, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Brandon Johnson, Jalen Virgil, Phillip Dorsett, Michael Bandy, David Sills

This is a well-rounded Big 4. Sutton and Boyd are steady performers worthy of massive playing time. Mims and Polk provide upside.

I like the idea of big bodies who can win on the sideline because that’s where Michael Penix Jr. thrives. Mims’ speed and Boyd’s abilities over the middle complement them well.

The rest of the group will compete for the final one-to-three roster spots.

LT: Mekhi Becton, Blake Fisher, Quinn Bailey, Alex Palczewski
LG: Ben Powers, Will Sherman
C: Luke Wattenberg, Alex Forsyth, Drake Nugent, Cameron Tom
RG: Quinn Meinerz
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Trey Jacobs

The Broncos’ offensive line got worse. The question is how much.

Denver has options at left tackle, which is important when you don’t have a sure-fire starter. The smart money would be on Becton to win the job. I like Palczewski, though.

Similarly, the Broncos will have a battle for the starting center job. Sean Payton said he thinks Wattenberg and Forsyth can get the job done, but I added a couple more options to compete with them.

These positions aren’t final. Bailey can play inside. Wattenberg and Tom can play guard. I’m sure others can move around, too.

If I had to guess, I’d say Becton-Powers-Forsyth-Meinerz-McGlinchey is the starting line. Fisher, Wattenberg, Nugent, Bailey and Palczewski earn roster spots.

DL: Zach Allen, Javon Kinlaw, Matt Henningsen, Jonathan Harris, McKinnley Jackson, Elijah Garcia, Jordan Jackson, Rashard Lawrence

I’m worried about the starters.

I’m worried about the bench.

The Broncos might make a move or two here on cutdown day. Their top college free agent should be a defensive lineman. (Might I suggest Montana’s Alex Gubner?)

OLB: Jonathon Cooper, Baron Browning, Nik Bonitto, Drew Sanders, Ronnie Perkins, Thomas Incoom, Durell Nchaimi

Cooper and Browning are in contract years. Either one could earn himself eight figures per year. Either one could come back as a reserve.

Can Bonitto become the dominant speed rusher the Broncos drafted him to be?

Can Drew Sanders carve out a full-time role for himself in Year 2? Is he even an outside linebacker?

Oh, and undrafted free agent Thomas Incoom told me last season that he’s making the NFL Top 100 next year.

This group will be one of the most fun to watch in 2024.

ILB: Alex Singleton, Payton Wilson, Drew Sanders, Jonas Griffith, Justin Strnad

I think Wilson is a Day 1 starter, but Sanders or Griffith could give him a run for his money.

(I included Sanders with the inside and outside linebackers because he could find himself in either camp this fall.)

The Broncos have some solid depth here.

S: Xavier McKinney, Caden Sterns, JL Skinner, Delarrin Turner-Yell, Devon Key, Tanner McCalister, Keidron Smith

The depth here is scary.

McKinney is a starter. Sterns is probably a starter, but he needs to stay healthy which has been a struggle. Skinner hardly saw the field last year, so it’s tough to imagine he could win a starting job this time around.

For a couple million dollars, I think PJ Locke would be a great addition to this group. Unfortunately for the Broncos, I think he’ll cost more than that.

Safety will be a top priority in college free agency. The Broncos will probably keep their eye on the cuts, too.

CB: Pat Surtain II, Ja’Quan McMillian, Damarri Mathis, Riley Moss, Tremon Smith, Art Green, Reese Taylor

Surtain is CB1.

McMillian is the slot.

Mathis and Moss battle it out for the other starting job, with Moss also serving as the backup slot. (Green might have a sneaky chance to win a starting job, too.)

This is another priority spot in college free agency and beyond.

ST: Wil Lutz, Riley Dixon, Mitchell Fraboni

Run it back.

Final Thoughts

This team might give up 400 passing yards per game.

There’s a big question mark at corner.

There’s a big question mark at safety.

There’s a big question mark with the defensive line. (Which doesn’t bode well for the run game, either.)

But we knew this team would be flawed, right? We’re biting the bullet.

Investing our limited resources in the offense makes the most sense because that strategy gives Michael Penix Jr. the best chance to succeed. I chose weapons over linemen, which might come back to bite me, but I stand by my decision.

We ate the larger portion of Russell Wilson’s dead money, which could set up for some big moves in free agency next time around.

Shoot for seven wins in 2024. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.

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