When Broncos lose Shelby Harris, they should re-sign these linemen

Mike Purcell. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports.
Mike Purcell. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports.

Shelby Harris is as good as gone.

The Denver Broncos’ best kept secret and best interior defensive lineman is about to get a major payday for two reasons. First and foremost, he’s dominated the NFL the last two years. And secondly, he signed with super agent Drew Rosenhaus last week.

Rosenhaus will likely leverage Harris’ superb play into a massive new deal, and Spotrac believes that will be in the neighborhood of $11.7 million per year. That would place him in the Top-10 among his position, which he’s earned, but it seems unlikely Denver will want to pony up that much to retain his services.

Even if Harris has been sensational the last two seasons for the Broncos, they have many holes to fill and somewhere between $62-80 million in cap space depending on what they do with Ron Leary and Joe Flacco.

That will mean missing out on the best pass defender in the NFL on the defensive line (13 batted balls the last two years) as well as a rare tackle who can rush the passer with consistency. Harris’ six sacks last season were a career-high and he racked up eight quarterback hits on top of those. He even made a game-sealing interception in 2018; Harris can do it all.

Luckily for the Broncos, Vic Fangio seems to have a knack for discovering lesser-known players within his roster. Mike Purcell was a huge surprise, literally and figuratively, on the defensive line. The 328-pound behemoth gives great energy on the field, fills run holes as one of the best interior defenders against the run.

In fact, Pro Football Focus gave him a 91.0 run defense grade in 2019, which was No. 1 in the NFL at the position. After being a backup for the first half of the season, Purcell was graduated to starter in the last seven games and was a solid producer. He doesn’t get after the quarterback like Harris, but he makes a lot of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is valuable inside.

Purcell is a restricted free agent and made only $625,000 last season, meaning he’ll likely be a bargain to re-sign going into 2020.

So, that one’s a no-brainer. Especially if the Broncos think he can elevate his game to starter level and be counted on for an entire year.

But, what about Derek Wolfe? Like Harris, Wolfe just enjoyed a career year. And, like Harris, he’ll likely be looking to get paid a lot of money.

Wolfe’s seven sacks last season were a career-high and they came in only a mere 12 games. He also made 22 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage in the run game and was a real game-changer many times this season.

Of course, one of the knocks on Wolfe is his injury history, missing 20 games in his eight-year career. And, at 30 years old, it’s unlikely he improves. Wolfe just finished the fourth year of a $36.7 million deal, which averaged $9-plus million per season. If Denver wants to re-sign him, an $8-10 million salary per year seems like it would get the deal done.

But, do the Broncos want to risk that much money on an injury-riddled lineman who is likely on the downslope of his career? That’s an expensive question to answer.

If they don’t re-sign Wolfe, it’ll mean losing two of their best, veteran defensive linemen and relying on more young guys to step up. Or, Denver could go out into free agency and look to bolster that defensive front.

Then, there’s also Adam Gotsis, who’s an unrestricted free agent. Gotsis has been less than impressive since being picked in the second round in 2016, with five career sacks but zero of them came last season. If he’s inexpensive, the Broncos may decide to re-sign him and keep him as a backup.

While we can go into further depth later, if the Broncos look to fill Harris’ void at tackle through free agency, there are a number of players available this year. One that stands out is Jordan Phillips of Buffalo who had 10 sacks last year. His “market value” is $6.1 million per Spotrac, which would be a steal compared to twice that much for Harris.

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