DENVER — Sean Payton did not return to coaching to lose. Win a second Super Bowl, and he boasts a strong Hall of Fame case.
Hitting the reset button in Denver presents a challenge regardless of Payton’s resume and ability. The Broncos have not reached the playoffs in seven years, the second longest active drought to the New York Jets. They have posted six straight losing seasons and own a 5-16 record over their last 21 games.
So if Payton does not want his tenure in Denver to become a vanity candidacy — and I don’t believe it will — he needs better players. And that’s where this week enters the picture. Since Payton was hired, he has covered the Super Bowl for Fox, filled out his coaching staff, save for a few spots, and spent last week watching and meeting with draft prospects at the NFL Combine.
He hasn’t begun a deep dive into his own roster, Payton said last week. That begins now as the NFL’s legal negotiating window to talk to free agents opens at 10 a.m. mountain time next Monday.
“It wasn’t with scuba tanks, but it was with a snorkel. I’ve had the chance to look with (general manager) George (Paton) and talk about our players. When we get back from the combine, we’ll have another meeting that will take the better part of two days,” Payton said. “We’ve been ongoing with that.”
Franchise tag Dre’Mont?
The first order of business is the Tuesday 2 p.m. deadline for the franchise tag. There are no plans to tag defensive end Dre’Mont Jones, who has averaged 6 sacks and 11 quarterback hits over the past three seasons. Jones would make $18.7 million on the tag. In a perfect world, Denver would prefer him back at closer to $15-$16 million per season. Jones plans to test the market, where he will have plenty of suitors — Texans, Bears, anyone? — as one of the top defensive tackles available. Spotrac projects Jones to receive a four-year, $68.5 million deal.
If Jones leaves, Broncos must add in free agency. Will Zach Allen, who played for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph in Arizona, make sense as a less expensive alternative? Allen burst last season with 5.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss and 20 quarterback hits.
Will they keep Alex Singleton, Dalton Risner?
Paton talked about Singleton in glowing terms, calling him “a great leader, has a nose for the ball, players gravitate towards him. We’d like to have Alex back.” Singleton led the Broncos with 101 solo tackles and only started 12 games. Josey Jewell received a two-year, $11-million contract a year ago. Can something in that range keep Singleton? Working against Singleton is the deep inside linebacker pool — Bobby Wagner, Tremaine Edmunds, Eric Kendricks — so he might not sign until the second wave.
Left guard Dalton Risner’s durability and run blocking have earned him a longterm deal around $9.5 million per season. It’s hard to see that happening in Denver. Risner is considered a top-5, if not top-3 free agent at his position. So it’s easier to see a team like Buffalo paying Risner than Denver, which could add new starters at left guard, center and right tackle. For the math to work for the Broncos, they will likely need to add an interior line starter in the draft.
Right fit at right tackle?
So as Payton goes blurry-eyed watching the video of last season will he and Paton come to the conclusion that they need to address right tackle in free agency? It has been a sinkhole position for Denver since Super Bowl 50, from Donald Stephenson to Menelik Watson to Jared Veldheer to Elijah Wilkinson to Demar Dotson to Bobby Massie to Cam Fleming. Fleming exceeded expectations last season, and the Broncos would be wise to monitor his market. But someone like Jawaan Taylor, 25, could make sense at four-year, $56 million as Spotrac projects. There will be multiple candidates in the draft at picks 67 and 68, making this one of Denver’s most important decisions on how to address this position. The Broncos haven’t drafted an offensive tackle since 2017.
Payton isn’t Vic Fangio, who tossed around compliments like manhole covers. But the Bill Parcells influence is obvious when he talks about players. He didn’t give Russell Wilson any flowers at the combine, just bluntly saying that he had a tough 2022 season. Given Wilson’s age and multiple injuries last season — labrum, hamstring, concussion — it would not be a surprise to see Denver add a veteran backup quarterback as protection. I was asked during my Monday 104.3 The Fan appearance who I would prefer between Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Mayfield is the best of the group, but I believe he will have better opportunities with the Bucs, Rams or 49ers. Winston could be the fit. He will likely be a cap casualty with Derek Carr signing with the Saints. Winston played well for Payton in 2021, posting a 5-2 record with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions before suffering a season-ending injury.