Remaining free agents Sean Payton of the Broncos could target before camp
In explaining the Broncos’ decision to release veteran kicker Brandon McManus on Thursday, coach Sean Payton acknowledged that money played a role.
It sometimes boils down to “must-haves,” he said, and Denver didn’t think McManus fit that category when compared to the $3.75 million he could free up against his 2023 cap in launching it with a post-June 1 designation.
Denver will have to sign a kicker, of course, which will eat into the available money to some degree, but that’s not the only position Payton has his eyes on.
“The transactions continue here until training camp,” he said. “There’s maybe one in two players we’re still looking to sign. We took a lot of that into account and then we made that decision.
NFL Players Association data for the Broncos was not fully up to date Thursday night, listing $10.943 million in space but 93 players under contract. Let’s be real and say Denver is probably sitting somewhere around $10 million in wiggle room. It’s always nice to defer some of that to next year (the Broncos did it with about $10.6 million last year), but the team can be active in seeking help. of veterans either in the remaining free agent market or via trade in the next few months.
The Broncos added depth on both lines already this week by bringing back offensive tackle Cam Fleming and signing defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster.
Here’s a look at five veteran free agents who could potentially help the Broncos. You will notice a positional theme.
Edge Justin Houston: Broncos fans will remember Houston well from its dominant days in Kansas City. He’s spent the past two seasons in Baltimore and, at 34, can still pack a passer punch. He recorded 9.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 2022 while playing 44% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps. Is he a 60 snaps a game guy these days? No. But put him out there for 20 a game in pass-rush situations and watch the opposing offensive lines still pay attention to him.
Edge Leonard Floyd: Chicago’s first-round pick in 2016, Floyd had nine sacks for the Rams in 2022 but was a victim of the cap given his big salary and lack of guaranteed money remaining. He has started 107 games in his career and has 47 career sacks. His three best sacks have come in the last three years, starting with 10.5 in 2020, 9.5 in 2021 and nine last year.
Floyd wouldn’t necessarily have to be an all-around player for Denver, but he would provide pass juice to a group that has real questions. Floyd has 187 tackles (28 for loss) in three years with the Rams, who have led a similar defense under Raheem Morris to what Vance Joseph will have in Denver. He’ll turn 31 two days before Denver’s season opener, but his market should start to warm up as camp approaches.
Edge Yannick Ngakoue: Like Floyd, Ngakoue is a veteran passer who could bring stability to an injury-plagued group. Ngakoue has started more than 15 games in six of his first seven professional seasons. Broncos point man Randy Gregory has only played more than 12 games once in his career. Ngakoue is younger than Floyd at 28 and posted 10 sacks in 2021 for Las Vegas and 9.5 last year at Indianapolis.
Defensive Lineman Akiem Hicks: If we keep the theme of Payton reuniting with players from his coaching past, Hicks would make a lot of sense. He’s been a disruptive presence on the defensive lines pretty much his entire career. He played 11 games and started five for Tampa Bay last year. Before that: 31 tackles for loss in six seasons in Chicago. Before that, he started his career in New Orleans. Now 33, Hicks has played about 55% of the playing time in three of his last four years (80% in 2020 for the Bears looks like an outlier), but he could still provide an early presence, can to be, for the Broncos. Or maybe they’re counting on Lancaster to fill that role.
Defensive Lineman Shelby Harris: If so, maybe an old friend in Harris could help out in 2023. Wouldn’t that be a story after being part of the March 2022 trade for Russell Wilson? After Seattle beat Denver in Week 1, Harris said, “That’s what happens when you trade one of your best linemen to the other team.” He then started 15 games for Seattle but was cut after the season. He has 24.5 sacks to his name, he and Denver know each other, and he played for Vance Joseph.
Running back Kareem Hunt: This one seems less likely with each passing day. Particularly after Thursday’s revelation that Javonte Williams (knee) is participating in OTAs in a limited capacity. The Broncos running back room doesn’t have a ton of experience behind Williams and Samaje Perine at this point, but it does have several options. Denver should consider Hunt a clear upgrade over most of them at this point. He averaged 3.8 per carry last year for Cleveland, but averaged 4.5 for his career and had 31 touchdowns.
Security Joshua Kalu: A different style of player, but a potential help in an area of importance to Payton anyway. Kalu started five games for Tennessee in 2022 and was on the field for 71% and 67% of the Titans’ special teams snaps in 2020 and 2021, respectively, before 52% last fall amid a surge in the defensive work. You usually can’t get enough guys like that. Denver has a few potential special-teams base safety behind Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, but Caden Sterns needs to stay healthy, Delarrin Turner-Yell has a lot to prove, and sixth-round pick JL Skinner is coming off a pectoral injury. PJ Locke is a trusted special teams guy. Maybe the Broncos could use another one from outside the organization.
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