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Broncos 2020 Free Agency Preview: Defensive Tackles

(Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

When the NFL free agency kicks off on March 18, the Broncos figure to be very active. For one, they have a lot of holes to fill, so there are plenty of reasons for John Elway to go shopping. But in addition, Denver’s general manager will have a lot of money to spend.

Currently, the Broncos are $58 million under the 2020 salary cap, but that number could grow to as high as $76 million once Ron Leary and Joe Flacco come off the books as expected. And if Elway really wants to get crazy, he can free up nearly $9 million in additional cap space by parting ways with Todd Davis and Jeff Heuerman.

How should the Broncos put all of those dollars to use? In the weeks leading up to the start of free agency, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the best players projected to be on the open market, as well as analysis of who would be a realistic fit in Denver.

It continues today with a position where the Broncos are in a state of transition – defensive tackle. Shelby Harris had a breakout season once he was moved to the interior of Vic Fangio’s defense. But as a free agent, he figures to cash in during the offseason. That’ll leave a hole for the Denver in the middle of a defensive line that will most likely look completely different in 2020 than it did in 2019. As John Elway and Company looks to rebuild in the defensive trenches, there are some good options on the market.

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Top Five Available

1. Jordan Phillips – After three-plus lackluster seasons in Miami, Phillips found a home in Buffalo. Last season, the former second-round pick recorded a career high 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, becoming a force on a Bills defense that was among the best in the league. Before a team gives him a big contract, however, they’ll have to determine if 2019 was an aberration or if he’s finally found his way in the NFL. Those first four seasons can’t be ignored, which are worrisome.

2. Jarran Reed – When pitching his services, Reed’s agent will certainly focus on his 2018 season. That year, the defensive tackle racked up 10.5 sacks, becoming a dominant force in the middle of Seattle’s defense. That appears to be the exception to the rule, however, given that he’s recorded 1.5, 1.5 and 2.0 in his other four pro seasons. But some team will be mesmerized by that one great campaign, knowing that the former second-round pick has greatness in him; it just needs to be harnassed.

3. Michael Pierce – The numbers aren’t going to get anyone excited about Pierce. During his four seasons in Baltimore, he’s posted just 3.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, a less-than-inspiring total on both fronts. That said, his ability to take up space and occupy blockers is hard to ignore. At 6-foot, 340 pounds, Pierce is an immovable object in the middle of the defensive line, a trait that doesn’t translate into statistics but certainly helps the players lined up next to and behind him.

4. Shelby Harris – Naysayers want to suggest that Harris is a one-hit wonder, coming off of a 6.0-sack season in 2019. But that’s not necessarily true. In 2017, his first year in Denver, Harris also recorded 5.5 sacks. So he’s shown the ability to rush the passer in two different systems, excelling under both Joe Woods and Vic Fangio. Yes, he’s only had five seasons in the NFL, but he’ll be 29 by the time the season starts. That makes giving him a long-term contract a bit of a gamble.

5. Danny Shelton – Shelton found a home this season in New England, having by far his best season as a pro. After three rough seasons in Cleveland, followed by an ineffective first year with the Patriots, the former first-round pick had 3.0 sacks in 2019. That’s a sign of progress, given that he’d had only 1.5 sacks during his first four seasons combined. There’s an argument to be made that once Shelton landed in a place that was stable, he was able to find success. Teams will have to decide if that’s true.

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Realistic Options for the Broncos

1. Michael Brockers – During his eight-year career, Brockers has made a habit out of causing havoc in the middle of the defense. He’s posted 23.0 sacks and 43 tackles for loss during his time with the Rams, a sign that he’s been able to be disruptive consistently. And he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, evidenced by the fact that he’s posted 8.5 sacks during the past three seasons. Yes, he’ll turn 30 in December, but there’s no sign that age is slowing Brockers one bit.

2. Dontari Poe – Broncos fans remember Poe from his five years with the Chiefs, which included two Pro Bowl seasons. Since leaving Kansas City, the 6-foot-3, 346-pound mountain in the middle of the defensive line has failed to reach that level of play again, both with the Falcons and Panthers. There were positive signs in 2019, however, as Poe had 4.0 sacks in just 11 games. Injuries are starting to mount, which is a concern, but he can be a huge force in the middle of any defensive line.

3. Shelton – Given his overall lack of production during his five-year career, Shelton won’t earn a big contract. Most likely, he’ll be in the three-year, $15-million range in terms of a contract, which is a reasonable contract for a team like the Broncos to take on. The question is whether or not he can thrive in Vic Fangio’s defense, building upon the success he finally found last year under Bill Belichick and Company in New England. If so, he could be a good gamble and good value.

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