Cuts, restructures and trades: how Sean Payton is finally rebuilding the Denver Broncos 10 years on

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Sean Payton’s first year in Denver saw Broncos Country endure a true rollercoaster of a season, from a 1-5 start to 7-6 and then back down to a seventh losing season in a row.

Now we’ve entered the offseason, the multiple superstars have moved on and the Broncos are staring down the largest dead cap hit in the history of the NFL. 

To outsiders, it may seem like the Broncos are in free fall and fully embracing a ‘tanking’ season, but in the Mile High city Broncos Country is getting the rebuild they’ve been so desperately longing for since Peyton Manning left in 2016. 

Figures correct as of Thursday, March 15.

The outs

Almost two years on from dropping their major trade acquisition of Russell Wilson, the Broncos announced that they were cutting Russell Wilson. 

Wilson was designated as a post-June 1st cut spreading his cap hit across 2024 and 2025 slightly nulifying the blow of the largest dead cap hit in NFL history. 

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During his time in Denver, Wilson threw for 42 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, and finished with an 11-19 record playing under Nathaniel Hackett and Sean Payton as well as two games under interim-head coach Jerry Rosburg. 

Before even playing a snap in orange, Wilson was handed a five-year 4245 million contract extension on top of the remaining two years he had remaining on his existing Seattle Seahawks contract. 

Now, anyone who can put two and two together will have noticed that the trade happened two years prior to the cutting of Wilson, meaning the 35-year-old failed to play any downs on the blockbuster extension he signed with the organisation. 

Payton has steadied the ship in Colorado after a disastrous season in 2022 but cutting Wilson officially called an end to one of the most disastrous eras in Broncos history, leaving a mere $85 million dead cap hit in its wake.

The dead cap hit more than doubles the previous record and has led to the Broncos having to make numerous other readjustments to gather some meaningful cap room for the 2024 season. 

The biggest casualty of this was superstar safety Justin Simmons who was cut after eight years with the Broncos, who selected the two-time Pro Bowler with the 98th pick of the 2016 draft.

Simmons was the true definition of a ball-hawk safety and a key addition to the Broncos’ roster, however, due to the league’s reluctance to pay safeties and the cap hole the Broncos found themselves in, Simmons was an obvious trade or cut candidate. 

Veteran tight end Chris Manhertz was also cut while fellow pass catcher and former 2020 first-round pick Jerry Jeudy was traded to the Cleveland Browns for two later-round picks.

Jeudy never truly fulfilled his potential in Denver and will get another chance to prove why he was a first-round selection in Cleveland next year, as for the Broncos they were able to free up more cap space and gather some much-needed draft capital in the process.

Away from cutting and trading players two star performers of the Broncos hit the open market in interior offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry III and interior linebacker Josey Jewell. 

Cushenberry earned himself a big-money move to the Tennessee Titans while Jewell currently remains a free agent in a position that is, like safety and running back, deemed as less valuable in the modern game. 

The 2024 linebacker draft class is quite weak which will play into Jewell’s favour, while for the Broncos they will have to decide whether they give second-year player Drew Sanders the keys or whether they look to free agency or a potential gem in this 2024 class, to play alongside Alex Singleton. 

General Manager, George Paton suggested that Sanders may eventually move outside so perhaps an inside linebacker will be in play for the Broncos with some of their mid-round picks. 

Restructures and more cuts?

In the week leading up to free agency, the Broncos restructured the contracts of their three big free-agent acquisitions from a year ago. 

They began by reworking a one-year deal with Tim Patrick, then freeing up $11 million by restructuring Mike McGlinchey’s contract before restructuring both Ben Powers’ and Zach Allen’s deals to allow for an extra $20 million to become available. 

After almost a week of free agency the Broncos’ current cap number sits at around $26 million under the cap and that may grow with some more likely cuts. 

NFL insider Benjamin Allbright hinted at the potential of at least three more cuts that could happen soon from the Broncos roster. 

The most likely candidate for the Broncos to part ways with is defensive tackle, DJ Jones who would free up nearly $10 million in cap space while Garrett Bolles and Samaje Perine may also be restructure or cut candidates. 

Bolles was part of Denver’s amazing run-blocking unit last year and if Payton wants to build his team in his mould it would be strange to see Bolles cut, but his $20 million against the cap does pose as a big figure.

Some flirted with the possibility of Courtland Sutton being a trade candidate but those rumours seem to have been squashed, which is great news for the Broncos after his monster year in 2023.

Free agents  

In the first week of free agency, the Broncos acquired Brandon Jones on a three-year, $20 million contract and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach on a two-year, $8 million contract. 

They also resigned, fullback Michael Burton for one year, safety P.J. Locke on a two-year, $7 million contract, and former New Orleans Saints duo, kicker Will Lutz and wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who both spent the 2023 season in Denver.

With the Broncos sitting at around $26 million in cap space and the free agent market dwindling, they perhaps won’t be going out and making any major deals. 

Perhaps some extra defensive line and linebacker help will come through the door later in free agency on some veteran minimum or cheap ‘prove it’ deals but unless more cuts come it seems unlikely the Broncos will play a much bigger role in the rest of this year’s free agency. 

Draft prospects

Coming later in the draft cycle we will bring you more mock drafts, a full seven-round Broncos mock draft and more draft spotlights. 

As we remain a month and a half out of the draft in Detroit this Spring it’s difficult to properly project any prospects and with a team in need of capital but also in need of a top quarterback prospect, the Broncos are a tough team to place in the draft pecking order. 

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They could go down the route of trading up for JJ McCarthy or Jayden Daniels if one starts to fall, but they likely don’t have the assets to properly facilitate that trade. 

So most likely, it’ll be a trade back to accumulate more capital before moving for one of the mid-range, second-tier quarterbacks, Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr. to learn under veteran Jarrett Stidham in 2024. 

Elsewhere, the draft class is deep at receiver and with Sutton, Patrick, Humphrey, Brandon Johnson and Marvin Mims as the only receivers on the roster it is likely the Broncos will look to add one of the receivers out of the 2024 class.

The class is also deep at edge rusher, something the Broncos can always use more of, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Paton to select someone like Jared Verse or Laiatu Latu at 12th overall if they liked them enough. 

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With the linebacker class looking quite weak in 2024 in both the draft and free agency, it’ll be interesting to see how the Broncos fill that void. 

What do the next two years look like for the Broncos? 

2024 will be a year for rebuilding for the Broncos and Sean Payton, looking to add some franchise cornerstones through the draft before looking to 2025 with more cap room and bringing more quality into the team. 

The QB question heading into the 2024 draft is intriguing and with the prospects of a trade-up looking less likely, it’ll be interesting to see how the Broncos play the board with the top of the second tier of QBs. 

With the 2025 class of QBs looking weak, it would be surprising to see the Broncos pass on a signal-caller in this draft cycle. 

It would be expected to then see the front office use their extra cap room to surround him with talent when he takes a starting spot in 2025.

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