Evaluating GM George Paton's first free agency with the Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When George Paton was hired in January to be the Denver Broncos‘ top football decision-maker, he became the first person in four decades to hold the job without previously working for the team.

He brings a fresh set of eyes to a franchise that has long preferred its own way of looking at things. His approach to free agency over the long haul remains to be seen, but his first foray as the guy in charge of the checkbook did give a glimpse of what he thought about of the roster he inherited.

As in:

  • The defense needed some immediate attention, and not just a little.

  • When he said re-signing Justin Simmons was a priority he meant it.

  • Drew Lock is a better option at quarterback than spending big in free agency.

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The draft, which opens April 29, is still a significant portion of the Broncos’ offseason work and how Paton chooses to use the picks will also show what his vision is in his first year on the job.

But with one of the league’s youngest group of skill position players already in place on offense, the team’s defense clearly troubled him. Start with the fact he signed Simmons to the richest deal for a safety in league history with a $15.25 million per year average.

Paton also chose to exercise the option in linebacker Von Miller‘s contract, keeping him with the team for the final year of the six-year, $114.5 million deal signed in 2016. And of the six players the Broncos have signed from the open market to this point, including defensive end Shelby Harris and safety Kareem Jackson who were both with the Broncos last season, five were on defense. Running back Mike Boone, signed to a relatively low impact two-year, $3.85 million deal, is the only player on offense the Broncos have signed in the first month of free agency.

With Simmons’ signing, the Broncos also added cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in a secondary eroded by injuries last season. In all it was $132.5 million worth of contracts to defensive players even before defensive tackle Shamar Stephen was signed this week.

“It’s a work in progress,” Paton said about the upgrades on defense after Darby’s and Fuller’s arrival. “We’re not there yet. We have the rest of free agency. We have the draft to add good, young players that fit our culture and fit the scheme. We have a ways to go.”

Simmons’ deal — as well as Harris’ three-year, $27 million deal to a certain extent — also provided a message from Paton to the Broncos’ locker room: The Broncos will retain their own free agents if they produce at a high level. That’s not something they have always been able, or willing, to do in recent years — not unless a player, like tackle Garett Bolles or cornerback Chris Harris Jr. or defensive end Derek Wolfe, was willing to sign a new deal before he actually hit the market.

Paton said right from his arrival he wanted to retain Simmons and had even called the franchise player designation for Simmons a “procedural move” on the way to a new deal. As coach Vic Fangio put it: “I was confident that we would have him back.”

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As for the quarterback position, Paton has expressed confidence in Lock’s development — he said “fortunately we have a quarterback” when asked about potential moves earlier this offseason — but what happens in the draft is still the 1,000-pound Bronco in the room.

With the No. 9 pick in the first round the Broncos could still make a move up to take a quarterback. It would have to be up to the No. 4 pick because the teams selecting 1-2-3 — the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers — are locked in place with plans to take their own QB. But the Broncos would have to really like one one of the QBs available at No. 4 and be willing to to surrender the substantial number of future picks it would cost to make the move.

The Broncos, other than a short dalliance to see what the price would be in a trade for Matthew Stafford, have remained on the sideline in free agency at quarterback. Veterans such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, Jacoby Brissett and Mitchell Trubisky signed elsewhere and the list of those who could challenge Lock as a starter has almost evaporated.

Players such as Gardner Minshew or Teddy Bridegwater would require the Broncos make a trade, and in Bridgewater’s case, he currently carries a $17 million base salary for the 2021 season.

Paton’s actions to this point have backed up his words, that Lock “is very talented … and has a lot to work on,” but that Lock “really wants to be great.”

The last benchmark will be how Paton approaches the draft weekend and how the depth chart looks at quarterback when the calendar flips to May, a depth chart at the position that, at the moment, looks exactly the same now as it did in January.