Denver Broncos: Four free agents to prioritize in free agency

  • Cory Littleton
  • D.J. Reader
  • Denver Broncos
  • Eli Apple
  • nfl free agency
  • Yannick Ngakoue
By Keegan Hartman March 16, 2020 0 Comment
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The NFL free agency tampering period has begun. We take a look at four players the Denver Broncos should prioritize this week.

Ladies and gentlemen, Merry “NFL’smas”! It feels like it’s been an eternity and with all of the things that have transpired in the sporting world over the past few days. All that said, free agency frenzy couldn’t have come at a better time, and it seems to be the proper prescription to replenish the sports deprivation we’ve been experiencing. With the NFL tampering period open, it’s time to cue the cliche columns discussing your favorite team’s “shopping list.” So if you’re anything but a Denver Broncos fan, then this might not appease you. However, if you’re an objective sports connoisseur, you might be intrigued by this proposed shopping list.

We haven’t even put our “feet in the water” of free agency, as signings cannot officially begin March 18th at 4 pm ET. Denver already made a move as, a couple of weeks ago, they traded a 2020 fourth-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye. So, where does that put them now? Well, knowing how head coach Vic Fangio operates (defensive-minded) expects the Broncos to approach the free agency period, aggressively re-structuring their defense.

The Broncos come into the offseason with a cap space estimation of $41.9 million, expected to move up to $51.9 million if and when the team moves on from quarterback Joe Flacco.  The team has approximately 16 free agents testing the market this offseason. You’ve heard the big names, but let’s reiterate whose finding a new home: cornerback Chris Harris, defensive end Derek Wolfe, nose tackle Shelby Harris, defensive end Adam Gotsis, just to name a few. So, what’s a team to do with all that money? Ladies and gentlemen… LET’S GO SHOPPIN’!!!

1. D.J. Reader, Houston Texans, Defensive/Nose Tackle

So, looking at where Denver stands on the defensive front, arguably one of the best defensive/nose tackles in the league these last couple of seasons and one of the best in free agency, Shelby Harris, is testing the market after three seasons with the Broncos. His stock in the NFL has seemingly sky-rocketed in his time with Denver, having bounced to various practice squads before his career took off with the Broncos. Now, Denver MUST re-establish their dominance, especially at the nose-position.

D.J. Reader, 25, finished, not only with a PFF grade 86.7, but also recorded 28 tackles and 2.5 sacks during the 2019 regular season. Likewise, last season, Harris finished with a PFF of 76.8, recording six sacks and 31 tackles.

On paper, yes, Harris DID have the better season. Still, Reader in Fangio’s system will just enhance an already top 15 rushing defense in the Broncos (Denver finished 15th in the league according to Pro Football Reference).

2. Cory Littleton, Los Angeles Rams, Inside Linebacker

You all want to alleviate the tight end production? Bring in a guy with the stats to support his defensive production against opposing TEs. *Cue* Cory Littleton. A man who finished top 10, according to PFF, in the following categories: solo tackles (94-9th), INTs (2-4th), and forced fumbles (2-8th). Littleton finished with an overall grade 78.9, and better yet, the Rams finished top 10 in covering the tight end last season, finishing 12th on the 2019 season. The Broncos have seemingly struggled for years in this category, and to compete in the AFC West, given the opposing tight end depth (Kelce, Henry, Waller), it is crucial they re-establish the middle-of-the-field.

Littleton would join a coach, who, in his years as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, especially in 2018, Fangio’s defense finished as a top ten defense against opposing tight ends (top 10-2017/2018). Fangio’s scheme hybrid scheme helped to pick up a much deprived tight end coverage team in the Broncos, and you not only bring in the speed from Littleton but veteran depth.

3. (Trade for) Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars, Defensive End

What can I say, other than, you’re welcome, Jacksonville? Denver has two defensive ends hitting the door for the market: Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis. However, as of now, Denver does have younger depth with (soon to be) 2nd-year man, Dre’ Mont Jones, and 3rd-year man DeMarcus Walker. Yannick Ngakoue did receive the franchise tag from Jacksonville but is wanting to “get out of dodge.” The irony of this move, if it were to happen, was that the A.J. Bouye trade was made to free up space to sign Ngakoue to a long-term deal RATHER THAN placing him under the team’s tag. Ngakoue, 24, would come at a hefty price. His franchise tag would make him a whopping $19.4 million in the 2020 season. However, people are projecting his salary to be in the ballpark of some of the highest-paid pass rushers.

Ngakoue finished the 2019 season with a PFF of 72, recording four forced fumbles (4th) and solo tackles (22nd) among edge rushers.

A hypothetical here, Denver, if/when the Broncos do free up $10 million with the departure of Flacco, then this move would be much more logical. However, given the market of players that Denver is already said to be pursuing, it’s safe to say that Ngakoue to the Broncos is close to a “pipe dream.”

4. Eli Apple, New Orleans Saints, Corner Back

Time to “think like an Elway.” John Elway is the master of manipulation and negotiation when it comes to free agency. Better yet, he’s become a mastermind in utilizing the infamous quote, “I’ve got a coupon for that.” Well, if you’re a champagne guy on a beer budget, look no further than Saints’ CB Eli Apple. He’s a guy who has had a brief tenure with injury but has been productive.

First and foremost, the Saints passing defense finished the 2019 season at 29th in passing yardage allowed and 22nd in passing touchdowns. The former first-round pick out of Ohio State, Apple, was traded from the Giants to the Saints after just two games last season with New York. In the “Big Easy,” the young “Apple” (ha, city humor) thrived, having a career season: 75 tackles, 14 passes defended and 2 INTs. During a contract year, Eli’s PFF grade came in at 63.8. Mind you, that was just ten total games for the Saints.

Apple’s fifth-year option, if it were to be exercised, would’ve paid Apple $13.7 million during the 2020 season. That, of course, not the case as Apple will test the market this offseason. It has been told that Denver will continue to rebuild their secondary with the anticipated departure of 8 season man, Chris Harris. The secondary, alone, has consumed 21% of the Broncos’ cap space (Bouye, Simmons, Jackson, Callahan).

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