What’s next for Von, Kareem Jackson, Justin Simmons; And who will start at QB?

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DENVER — Perhaps, it is because it seems like it has been March for a year.

Reality has become stranger than science fiction, and has left us all reluctant to peer into the future. However, the NFL waits for no one. The league played its full schedule during a pandemic, and now it charges full speed into an offseason bursting with storylines, including the rapidly spinning quarterback carousel.

The Broncos enter a critical next phase under new general manager George Paton. He has drawn rave reviews for his work ethic, while creating a foundation of collaboration. He is prepared. It’s why he checks in on trades — it never hurts to find out the parameters to gauge interest and how the industry views draft picks and your players — and receives calls from opposing GMs about possible deals.

This is a new day for the Broncos, a former iconic franchise looking to regain its balance through drafting, developing and sprinkled in free agents.

Paton has met with all the coaches, and scoured the film. Knowing his roster is a necessary step as he assembles the free agent board. Players are ranked as the Broncos look to address multiple holes before going into the draft, where teams must address current and future needs.

So what are the key decisions facing the Broncos’ roster over the next month before the tampering free agency period begins on March 15 at 10 a.m.

On or off with Von?
Von Miller is a Ring of Famer and a Hall of Famer. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest Broncos ever. However, his future remains uncertain. The eight-time Pro Bowler turns 32 on March 26. He missed last season after dislocating his left ankle tendon, and finished with eight sacks in 2019, his lowest total since 2013. He is due an $18 million salary with a $22.25 million cap hit. There’s no way he returns at either of those numbers. It makes no sense for the rebuilding Broncos who could use money to allocate to safety Justin Simmons.

The Broncos’ avenues with Von are multiple:

–Pick up the $7 million option guarantee on his $18 million salary by March 16, and have him play out the final year of his deal without change.
–Ask him to take pay cut as a part of a restructured deal with an added season to lessen the cap hit. But what would that like? An offer of $10 to $12 million next season with incentives? Once a team asks for a pay cut, it has to be prepared to move on from the player. Miller could pass, and try to land a free agent deal with a contender closer to the Super Bowl even if the money is similar.
–Cut him, creating a $4.225 million dead cap hit, making Von an unrestricted free agent like J.J. Watt.
–The Broncos could also try to rework his deal and trade him for a late round draft pick, though that seems unlikely.

I have always said I wanted Von to finish his career in Denver. Admittedly, I never envisioned the Broncos missing the playoffs five straight seasons after his Super Bowl 50 MVP performance. These types of breakups are always fragile and messy. If Von wants to play for less in Denver — and finish what he started last training camp as an inspired leader — that is welcomed. However, I would totally understand if he decides to turn down a Broncos’ pay cut, if offered, and chases another ring with the Chiefs, Bucs, Packers or goes back to Texas with the Cowboys.

What’s up with Justin Simmons?
Over the past two seasons, the free safety has been the Broncos’ best player, earning second-team All-Pro honors in 2019 and a Pro Bowl nod in 2020. He never misses a snap, brings leadership on and off the field and fits the blueprint of the draft and development model espoused by Paton. He has earned a longterm contract — the locker room will be watching to see how this unfolds — and frankly the Broncos are not in position to let good players walk. Paton has talked with Simmons this offseason.

The issue is not whether the Broncos like Simmons. They do. It’s how they value him. Does he want to reset the safety market with a deal greater than Arizona’s Budda Baker (four-year, $59 million with a $10 million signing bonus and $33.1 million guaranteed)? Therein lies the rub. The Broncos did not see him as the best safety a year ago. Free agency, however, is about timing. And based on his production as the game’s premier center fielder — even if he lacks physicality — Simmons can ask for top dollar. I believe the Broncos will prioritize Simmons. At the very least I expect them to franchise tag him to continue working on a contract. The window to franchise tag is now open and closes on March 9. A deal must then be struck by July 15. No safety has had the franchise tag applied in back-to-back seasons.

It would behoove the Broncos to work out a longterm deal rather than have him play at the $13.7 million tag because it would create financial flexibility with the salary cap expected to drop to $188 million. As they did with Garett Bolles, the Broncos could start Simmons with a low base salary, while spreading out the signing bonus and making it easier to re-sign defensive end Shelby Harris.

Will KJax be back?
Strong safety Kareem Jackson has lived up to expectations in the first two seasons of his three-year, $33 million deal. He is due a $10 million salary in 2021 with a decision on his a $1.5 million option due on March 16, same as Von Miller.

For me, this is an easy decision. The Broncos have no safety depth, they have no young player waiting to take over. With coach Vic Fangio needing to win to keep his job, Jackson should return. He brings an edge, a nastiness that is needed. The Broncos should draft a safety in the first three rounds to give themselves an option after 2021, but Jackson should return.

What’s next at Quarterback?
As I said for days, the Broncos were not in on Carson Wentz. Thursday, the Eagles shipped him to the Colts for a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick that could become a first-rounder, according to ESPN. The Broncos have not been tempted to pursue Wentz, Sam Darnold or Teddy Bridgewater.

One assumption is clear: They will pursue Deshaun Watson if the Texans make him available — like about 20 quarterback-needy teams — echoing what I said on Monday. Acquiring Watson, though, will be a challenge.

As such, the most realistic scenario as we sit here today is the Broncos landing a veteran like Andy Dalton, Mitchell Trubisky or Jacoby Brissett to compete with Drew Lock for the job. The Broncos need significant improvement from the position after Lock tied for the league lead in interceptions and finished dead last in completion percentage. Lock knows the Broncos have a wandering eye. He is thick skinned. He has been working hard this offseason, aiming to rebound in year three and his first with the same coordinator in back-to-back seasons.

The reality is that there will be a new starter for at least 10 teams, and maybe 15. The Broncos will keep their eyes wide open. It would be irresponsible not to, while knowing their best option might be competition at the position.

Running into issues
Will Phillip Lindsay return? Will Melvin Gordon? Both? One? Neither? Lindsay, a former CU star, is a restricted free agent. The Broncos could place a second-round tender on Lindsay — this amounts to a one-year, $3.2 million contract — creating pause from other teams to sign him away because it would cost them a second-rounder. They could give him an original round tender, roughly $1 million less than the aforementioned figure, preserving the right to match any deal he receives, but without any draft pick compensation.

As you can see, there is no guarantee Lindsay comes back.

In his first season in Denver, Gordon finished with 986 yards on the ground with nine touchdowns in 15 games. He averaged 4.98 yards per carry over the final eight games with five touchdowns. But do the Broncos want to pay him when could miss the first three games if convicted of DUI? Are they simply better dipping into free agency and drafting a player?

Again, this situation remains unresolved and could go in multiple directions.