Broncos GM George Paton aims for shrewd second wave signings

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DENVER — George Paton sharpened his NFL chops by sleeping on couches and watching enough film to make his eyes bleed. As assistant general manager of the Minnesota Vikings, he loved scouting. Vikings former quarterback Sage Rosenfels would bump into him in Ames.

“This guy has a small ego. He is a grinder. There have been many times I have gone to an Iowa State game, and it’s about a three-and-half-hour drive (from Minneapolis), and I would see George there. He’s driven up, and he’s driving back after,” Rosenfels said. “That is George Paton to his core. He’s a worker. He understands production. He’s not obsessed himself. It’s about making the team better.”

Two months on the job, one thing has crystallized during a pair of media sessions. Paton believes in draft and development as the core of a team’s success. The reasons are obvious: it creates cost certainty and foundation pieces and helps develop a culture from the inside out.

Broncos GM George Paton aims for shrewd second wave signings

That said, nobody wins in the NFL without free agent enhancements. And the approach under Paton figures to be different than his predecessor John Elway. Elway helped the Broncos reach two Super Bowls and win a title by signing Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. Paton aims for the Darian Stewart-type additions, those after the initial waves hit the shore.

“You never want to go crazy in free agency. You don’t want to build your team in free agency. You want to fill selective needs going into the draft. That has been my philosophy. You don’t always want to be the first one out of the gate and throw all your money, but there is something you need, you’ll take a shot,” Paton said last week. “I just think you have to be selective and you have to look at every situation. If you can fill a need and help your team, you’re going to go for it.”

Free agency presents problems. Teams overpay because of the nature of the exercise, the demand outweighing the supply. And just because you pay a player top money doesn’t make him better, just more expensive. Timing is just as important in free agency as a player’s ability.

The Broncos reacted quickly to fill holes the past few seasons, and the results have been uneven from Case Keenum, Bryce Callahan and Ja’Wuan James to the solid in Kareem Jackson and Melvin Gordon (though they overpaid for a running back).

They made James one of the highest-paid right tackles in history — he’s never made a Pro Bowl — guaranteeing him $32 million. To date, he has played 63 snaps in two years, and the Broncos are hoping — fingers crossed — he returns and plays well this season after joining linemen Dalton Risner, Glasgow and Lloyd Cushenberry for workouts this month. Even Glasgow didn’t meet expectations because of an ankle issue and a COVID-19 absence after the Broncos signed him to a four-year, $44 million deal.

Gordon averaged 4.98 yards per carry over the final eight games, but he is making franchise tag type money at a position many teams see as fungible because of the draft inventory. Jackson has been terrific, but he turns 33 in April and the Broncos have not decided if they will exercise his $1.5 million contract option due by March 16.

This is what the Broncos would prefer to avoid moving forward, solving glaring problems with big checks. It’s not always easy. Second and third wave signings come with risk — sometimes you get what you pay for (See Menelik Watson, Donald Stephenson).

So where does that leave the Broncos? I will examine positions more in depth this week, but consider this a primer with the legal tampering period starting a week from today:

Quarterback
The Broncos have had a wandering eye this offseason at the game’s most important position. They like Drew Lock — he’s working out four days a week at the facility where COVID-19 testing is required and one day at Landow Performance — but they don’t love him after he tied for the league-lead in interceptions and posted the worst completion percentage. At the very least, look for the Broncos to bring in veteran competition on a modest deal. That player or Lock would get thrown overboard if Deshaun Watson becomes available before the draft and the Broncos acquire him in what would be their biggest move since signing Peyton Manning. Two potential targets:

Mitch Trubisky, Chicago Bears
The Bears need a QB, and are letting Trubisky walk. That is a red flag. However, the Broncos could argue he is a bounce back candidate with upside at age 26. He owns a 29-21 record with 64 touchdowns and 37 interceptions (Compare that to Lock who is 8-10 with 23 TDs and 18 INTs). Trubisky is talented but maddeningly inconsistent. Coach Vic Fangio knows him well, and he went 5-2 against Paton’s Vikings. If he becomes overpriced, the Broncos should steer clear.

Andy Dalton, Dallas Cowboys
Dalton is a stop gap, a game-manager. Lock’s carelessness with the ball last season put him position to have to win the job. Dalton boasts four playoff appearances, a 218-TD-to-126-pick ratio. He posted a 4-5 record for the Cowboys following Dak Prescott’s injury. Dalton can get in rhythm with play-action, but projects more as a valuable backup at this point. Ryan Fitzpatrick also makes sense if he decides to continue playing.

Cornerback
Passing defines the NFL. There’s never been an easier time to complete passes because of the interference rules, the protection of the quarterback and the accuracy of the throwers. To win, a team must cover and create pressure. The former presents a problem for the Broncos because they have one starting corner returning who is solid — Bryce Callahan — but remains plagued by injuries. Callahan, ideally, plays the slot and the Broncos add a starter in the draft — Caleb Farley, Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn — and in free agency, leaving Michael Ojemudia as a capable reserve.

Mike Hilton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Hilton is a strong player who could fit. However, the Steelers’ Hilton excels at the slot, so that might necessitate moving Callahan back outside where he was having a Pro Bowl season before injuring his foot again. Hilton is undersized but features unique versatility in the run game and on blitzes. He should not require top money, projected in the $6-to-$8 million a year range.

William Jackson, Bengals; Kevin King, Packers
Jackson defined consistency last season, and performed well against top receivers. If his price tag stays similar to Hilton’s, he could be worth a look. King has been chasing a contract for a few years, but failed to produce his best season in 2020. He has only been a regular starter for two seasons, and has dealt with injuries. Jackson is 28, and King is 25. I expect the Broncos to trend younger in free agency, unless they get stuck with a band-aid fix.

Inside Linebacker
Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson put up solid numbers. Jewell replaced Todd Davis, and delivered his best season. The issue is that they did not complement each other well as neither is solid in pass coverage. Pairing either one with a true three-down linebacker could help boost the Broncos’ defense that was miserable in producing turnovers last season with a league-low 16 takeaways. One potential target:

Eric Wilson, Minnesota Vikings
Wilson delivered five takeaways last season with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He also forced a fumble. Did I mention he’s 26, and Paton knows him well?