Broncos offseason puzzle begins in earnest

Payton must figure out solutions with possible contract extensions
Broncos Bolles Protection Football
Posted at 7:52 PM, Feb 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-12 21:52:03-05

DENVER – At least the streak is dead.

In October, the Broncos halted their 16-game losing skid to the Kansas City Chiefs. Consider it a dab of balm on a gashing wound.

Sunday night, the Chiefs became the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls in 20 years. Worse, Broncos Hall of Famer John Elway carried the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the podium at Allegiant Stadium for Kansas City’s coronation.


This was the worst Chiefs team with Patrick Mahomes as a starting quarterback. They lost to the Raiders at home. They threw helmets and were good to the last drop with a spotty receiving crew during the season. And yet, their gnarly defense, the best in the Mahomes era, helped them chop off the Dolphins, Bills, and 49ers at the knees long enough for their quarterback to work his magic.

Mahomes is now the first NFL player with two MVPs and three championships in his first seven seasons.

The closest contemporary athlete to Mahomes? Perhaps, the Nuggets' Nikola Jokic. He is attempting to become the fourth player to win three straight MVPs, joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird. But to enter the conversation with Mahomes, Jokic needs another title in the next few years.

It is against this backdrop the Broncos returned to work Monday, with coach Sean Payton turning over the puzzle and beginning the task of putting the roster pieces together. The quarterback question will dominate the offseason.

Will the Broncos fall in love with a prospect like J.J. McCarthy or Bo Nix and take one in the first round? Will that be at No. 12 or by moving up? What about trading back and taking someone such as Michael Penix or Michael Pratt with an added second-round pick?

And there could be a bridge – Sam Darnold, Jake Browning, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill come to mind – to keep the seat warm for a season.

However, the Broncos face issues that go beyond the most important position. Let’s examine the candidates for contract extensions:

The Broncos are expected to designate Russell Wilson as a June 1 release, leaving an $85 million dead cap hit over two seasons, $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025. These chunks remain salient as they relate to keeping key veterans.

Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons is due $14.5 million in 2024 with $18.3 million against the cap and no guaranteed money in 2025. He is in line for an extension that would lower the upcoming season cap hit. There is no obvious solution to replace him. And he’s arguably the team’s most valuable player given his ability and communication skills in the secondary.

Garett Bolles offers a more interesting decision. The left tackle had hoped for an extension during the season. He has made it clear he would like to play his entire career with the Broncos but will obviously keep options open. He is due $16 million in 2024 with no guaranteed money in 2025. Coming off a nasty broken leg/ankle, Bolles posted his best season since 2020 when he was second-team All-Pro. His salary is reasonable. But would Denver absorb a $4 million cap hit to take his $16 million off the books? Doing so means the Broncos would have to entertain taking a tackle in the first round – they haven’t drafted a tackle in any round since 2017 – or put remarkable faith in young players Alex Palczewski and Demontrey Jacobs.

What about receiver Courtland Sutton? He led the Broncos with 10 touchdowns, becoming a red zone force. However, he caught only 59 passes for 772 yards. Is that worth his $17.4 million cap hit in 2024? The Broncos must rearrange their receiver room. A potential outcome is Sutton reworking his deal with more guaranteed money and the team trading Jerry Jeudy as both parties could benefit from a fresh start.

Nose tackle D.J. Jones brings a $12.9 million cap hit for 2024. Moving on from him could save $10 million. But who is going to play the position at a high level? The Broncos struggled to stop the run and would be frighteningly thin without him. A contract extension makes sense.

These are just some of the roster mechanics in play. The Broncos cannot afford to miss as they attempt to gain ground and return to relevancy. The Chiefs are now a dynasty with three titles in five years, while the Broncos are trying to escape an ugly history that includes seven straight losing seasons, their longest drought since 1963-72.

At least the streak is dead.