Sam Darnold? C.J. Gardner-Johnson? How Broncos could approach free agency on a budget

The accountants at Denver Broncos headquarters worked overtime this week. And the task of massively reshaping the roster for head coach Sean Payton has only just begun.

The Broncos on Wednesday were roughly $16 million over the salary cap as the 2024 league year approached. By Saturday, the team was a projected $31 million under the cap, according to Over the Cap. The biggest savings came when the Broncos released safety Justin Simmons ($14.5 million in cap savings) on Thursday. On Friday, Denver agreed to a new one-year deal with wide receiver Tim Patrick (roughly $8 million in savings), released tight end Chris Manhertz ($2.12 million) and did a simple restructure on right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s contract ($11 million). Then, on Saturday, the Broncos agreed to trade wide receiver Jerry Jeudy to the Cleveland Browns for fifth- and sixth-round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft, a deal that will be officially processed when the new league year begins.

The Broncos, who could be making more moves in the coming days, are where they signaled they would be all along when free agency arrived: under the salary cap but not in a position to spend big on new players. We’ll see exactly how the Broncos are positioned when the legal tampering period begins at 10 a.m. MT on Monday — a precursor to the official opening of free agency Wednesday afternoon — but all signs suggest Denver will mostly be shopping on the bargain shelves when free agency begins.

Who might Payton and general manager George Paton target on a budget? Here are some options at the team’s biggest positions of need.


Jarrett Stidham, signed by Denver to a two-year deal in free agency last season, is QB1. But he is unlikely to carry that distinction into Week 1 without facing competition first. The Broncos, who hold the No. 12 pick, could find their quarterback in the draft, but the cost of moving up and selecting one of the top prospects at the position could be prohibitive. By signing a veteran to compete with Stidham, Denver can maintain flexibility as it enters the draft.

Sam Darnold could make sense on a one-year deal. The 26-year-old, who was selected by the New York Jets with the third pick in the 2018 draft, could be playing for his third team in three seasons after spending last season with the San Francisco 49ers as the backup to Brock Purdy. Darnold had a strong close to the 2022 season with the Carolina Panthers, posting a career-best 92.6 passer rating in his six starts with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

Darnold’s big arm remains intriguing, but can he be accurate enough to thrive in Payton’s timing-based offensive system? That is one of the big questions the Broncos would have to answer when assessing Darnold’s potential in their system.

Jacoby Brissett could be another option. The 31-year-old played in only three games as the backup with the Washington Commanders last season, but he was highly efficient in his limited action. He completed 18 of 23 passes and averaged 9.7 yards per attempt while throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. During his 11 starts with the Browns in 2022, Brissett completed 64 percent of his passes, and his quarterback rating of 62 is better than what any Broncos quarterback has posted since Peyton Manning’s 72.6 mark in 2014.

Gardner Minshew, Ryan Tannehill and Mason Rudolph could be other options, but it appears unlikely Denver would be in the mix for the top two free-agent quarterbacks: Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield.

Tight end

The Broncos released Manhertz and might allow Adam Trautman to walk in free agency. The top player remaining on the depth chart, Greg Dulcich, has been consistently injured during his two seasons in the league. Lucas Krull, whom the Broncos acquired just before the start of last season, saw the field toward the end of the season and caught a touchdown pass in Week 16 against the New England Patriots. The Broncos are encouraged by the progress Krull made, but they undoubtedly need more at the position. It could be addressed in the draft — perhaps even in the form of top prospect Brock Bowers — but it also is a safe bet that Denver will add a player in free agency.

Irv Smith Jr. is a name to watch. He was a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2019 when Paton was the team’s assistant general manager. Smith is only 25 and, at 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds, can be used in multiple ways along the line of scrimmage. He has caught 109 passes for 973 yards and 10 touchdowns during his four seasons in the league, though he has missed nine games the past two years due to injury.

Geoff Swaim and Will Dissly are No. 3-type tight ends would could also be fits.

Defensive line

When I put a prompt on social media asking Broncos fans to name one premium free agent they’d like the team to target if it created enough room to do so, defensive lineman Christian Wilkins was the most common response. Wilkins would be a tremendous addition to a team in need of more talent and depth along its defensive line. Alas, it’s hard to envision the Broncos being able to fit Wilkins, who could be in line for a contract that pays $25 million annually after producing 20 1/2 sacks during his five seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

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Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, a seven-year veteran who played for the New York Giants in 2023, is set to become a free agent this offseason. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

A’Shawn Robinson, who turns 29 this month and played all 17 games with the New York Giants last season (13 starts), could be a more economical option as Denver tries to construct a better run defense. That is the strength of the 6-4, 330-pound Robinson, who entered the league as a second-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2016. Javon Kinlaw, who was healthy for the 49ers last season after consistently dealing with injuries during the first three seasons of his career, had 3 1/2 sacks last season and could be a high-upside addition if the medical evaluation checks out.


The Broncos appear ready to move on from Lloyd Cushenberry, who started each of the previous four seasons and likely became too expensive for Denver to keep when he turned in a career-best performance in 2023. Denver has expressed confidence in the depth it has behind Cushenberry. The Broncos selected two former Pac-12 centers — Luke Wattenberg of Washington and Alex Forsyth of Oregon — late in the past two drafts. The upcoming draft is considered deep at the center position, offering another path for Denver to find a replacement.

Still, the Broncos might want a veteran in place as they continue to develop and evaluate their younger options. Connor McGovern, who spent his first three seasons with the Broncos and turns 31 next month, could be a name to watch. He re-signed with the Jets last season on a one-year, $1.9 million deal to be the backup starter and eventually started seven games. A similar deal with a similar projected role in Denver could make sense.


Part of the plan to replace Simmons was to re-sign P.J. Locke, who started for the first time in his career last season when he replaced suspended veteran Kareem Jackson. Locke on Saturday reached an agreement with the Broncos on a two-year, $7 million deal. Caden Sterns, the 2021 fifth-round pick for whom Denver had high hopes last season, is also a big part of the plan as he recovers from a knee injury that cost him all but one game in 2023. The Broncos also like the progress of JL Skinner, their sixth-round pick in last year’s draft.

Still, this group needs a veteran presence. A familiar one would be C.J. Gardner-Johnson, a fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2019 who was coached by Payton during his first three NFL seasons. Gardner-Johnson transitioned to safety after beginning his career at nickel, so he would bring some position versatility. The medical history will be important to consider. He missed all but three regular-season games due to a torn pectoral muscle while playing for the Lions last season. He returned for the playoffs and had an interception in Detroit’s divisional-round win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Marcus Maye, who was released by the Saints this offseason and turned 31 Saturday, could be another name to watch. Paton was not on the staff when Maye joined the team in 2022, but he would no doubt have good intel on the player given his connections to the New Orleans front office.

Other positions to watch

The Broncos’ most important in-house free agent might be kicker Wil Lutz, who had a strong season in 2023 as the replacement for Brandon McManus. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Denver re-sign Lutz after acquiring him in a trade with the Saints at the end of training camp last year.

Another position to watch is inside linebacker, where veteran Josey Jewell is a free agent. Denver re-signed Jonas Griffith, who missed all of last season due to injury, on a one-year minimum deal. He could have a chance to start next to Alex Singleton if the Broncos don’t re-sign Jewell, but other options will be explored.

Jeudy’s trade means the Broncos could be in the market for another wide receiver, but Denver won’t be spending big money to bring in an outside player at the position. Re-signing a veteran like Lil’Jordan Humphrey could be the route the Broncos take.

The Broncos will probably not be in the market for a top-end pass rusher in free agency. The cost for a player like Danielle Hunter, who Paton knows well after being part of the front office that drafted him in 2015, will likely be too prohibitive. A player like Andrew Van Ginkel, who played well in Miami last year after injuries to Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb, could be another option.

(Top photo of Sam Darnold: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)

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