Remaining free agents Broncos’ Sean Payton may target before camp

In explaining the Broncos’ decision to release veteran kicker Brandon McManus on Thursday, coach Sean Payton acknowledged that money played a part.

It comes down to “must-haves” sometimes, he said, and Denver didn’t think McManus fit that category when compared to the $3.75 million it could free up against its 2023 cap by jettisoning him with a post-June 1 designation.

Denver will need to sign a kicker, of course, so that will chew into the available money to some degree, but that’s not the only position Payton has his eyes on.

“The transactions continue here from now until training camp,” he said. “There may be a player of two that we are still looking to sign. We factored a lot of that in and then we made that decision.”

NFL Players Association data for the Broncos wasn’t fully current as of Thursday evening, listing $10.943 million in space but 93 contracted players. Let’s ballpark it and say Denver is likely sitting somewhere around $10 million in room to work with. It’s always nice to roll some of that over to the next year (the Broncos did that with about $10.6 million last year), but the team can be active in looking for veteran help either on the remaining free agent market or via trade in the next couple of months.

The Broncos added depth on both lines already this week in bringing back offensive tackle Cam Fleming and signing defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster.

Here’s a look at five veteran free agents who could potentially help the Broncos. You’ll notice a positional theme.

Edge Justin Houston: Broncos fans will remember Houston well from his dominant days in Kansas City. He spent the past two seasons in Baltimore and, at 34, can still bring punch rushing the passer. He logged 9.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 2022 while playing 44% of the Ravens defensive snaps. Is he a 60-snaps-per-game guy these days? Nope. But put him out there for 20 per game in pass-rush situations and watch opposing offensive lines still pay attention to him.

Edge Leonard Floyd: A 2016 first-round pick by Chicago, Floyd had nine sacks for the Rams in 2022 but was a cap casualty given his big salary and lack of remaining guaranteed money. He’s started 107 games in his career and has 47 career sacks. His best three years sacks-wise came over the past three, beginning with 10.5 in 2020, 9.5 in 2021 and nine last year.

Floyd wouldn’t necessarily have to be an every-down player for Denver, but he would provide some pass-rush juice to a group that has real questions. Floyd has 187 tackles (28 for loss) in three years with the Rams, who ran a similar defense under Raheem Morris to what Vance Joseph will have in Denver. He’ll turn 31 two days before Denver’s season-opener, but his market should start to heat up as camp draws closer.

Edge Yannick Ngakoue: Like Floyd, Ngakoue is a veteran pass-rusher who could provide stability in a group that’s been beset by injuries. Ngakoue has started 15-plus games in six of his first seven pro seasons. The Broncos’ top edge man, Randy Gregory, has played more than 12 games only once in his career. Ngakoue is younger than Floyd at 28 and posted 10 sacks in 2021 for Las Vegas and 9.5 last year in Indianapolis.

Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks: If we keep the theme of Payton reuniting with players from his coaching past rolling, Hicks would make a lot of sense. He’s been a disruptive presence on defensive lines just about his entire career. He played 11 games and started five for Tampa Bay last year. Before that: 31 tackles for loss over six seasons in Chicago. Before that, he began his career in New Orleans. Now 33, Hicks has been around 55% play time in three of his past four years (80% in 2020 for the Bears looks like an outlier), but he could still provide an early down presence, perhaps, for the Broncos. Or maybe they’re counting on Lancaster to fill that role.

Defensive lineman Shelby Harris: If that’s the case, maybe an old friend in Harris could help in 2023. Wouldn’t that be a story after he was part of the March 2022 trade for Russell Wilson? After Seattle beat Denver in Week 1, Harris said, “That’s what happens when you trade one of your best d-linemen to the other team.” He went on to start 15 games for Seattle but was cut after the season. He’s got 24.5 sacks to his name, he and Denver know each other, and he’s played for Vance Joseph.

Running back Kareem Hunt: This one seems less likely with each passing day. Particularly so after Thursday’s revelation that Javonte Williams (knee) is taking part in OTAs in a limited capacity. The Broncos’ running back room doesn’t have a ton of experience behind Williams and Samaje Perine at this point, but it does feature several options. Denver would have to consider Hunt a clear upgrade over most of them at this point. He averaged 3.8 per carry last year for Cleveland, but averages 4.5 for his career and has 31 touchdowns to his ledger.

Safety Joshua Kalu: A different style of player, but potential help in an area of emphasis for Payton anyhow. Kalu started five games for Tennessee in 2022 and was on the field for 71% and 67% of the Titans’ special teams snaps in 2020 and 2021, respectively, before 52% last fall amid a big uptick in defensive work. You typically can’t have enough guys like that. Denver’s got a couple of potential core special teamers at safety behind Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, but Caden Sterns must stay healthy, Delarrin Turner-Yell has a lot to prove and sixth-round pick JL Skinner is coming off a pectoral injury. P.J. Locke is a trusted special teams guy. Perhaps the Broncos could use another from outside the organization.

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