The Denver Broncos have several key players and starters on defense who are set to hit free agency in March. Which players should be back or could be heading elsewhere next season?

Denver Broncos list of defensive free agents

The new league year kicks off officially on March 13th, and the Broncos will have to make decisions regarding the status of several key players on defense who are set to become free agents. In some areas, the Broncos could look to go younger, but losing several veterans could impact the team’s overall depth on defense.

Inside linebacker Josey Jewell:
The Broncos defense has benefitted from the presence of Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton as their one-two punch at inside linebacker. Jewell is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March and has a chance to return to Denver, but could also see interest from other teams.

During the NFL trade deadline period, several teams had interest in Jewell and could make a push for him during free agency. He finished the 2023 season with 108 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. Jewell’s one of the most instinctual players on Denver’s defense and has been a stable part of the unit’s success, but there’s really only one question that arises when analyzing whether or not he’ll return in 2024; what is the Broncos plan for Drew Sanders?

The Broncos drafted Sanders in the third round of last year’s NFL Draft, and he received reps all throughout training camp and the NFL preseason before being moved to outside linebacker at the midway point of the season. Is Denver going to keep Sanders as an outside linebacker, or do they envision him moving back to being an off-ball linebacker?

If the plan for Sanders is at inside backer, then Denver could move on. However, Josey’s impact on Denver’s defense would be missed, and Broncos Country would have to find patience with Sanders as he gets more comfortable in the position despite his overall limited experience playing there except for his final year at Arkansas.

Estimated Market Value: Two-year deal, $15.3M – the average annual value of $7.6M, according to Spotrac.

Safety P.J. Locke:
The Broncos need to find a way to bring P.J. Locke back into the mix this upcoming season. Right now, he’d be the penciled-in starter next to Justin Simmons. With the departure of Kareem Jackson, Locke filled the void at safety in 2023.

Injuries to Caden Sterns impacted some of Denver’s plans defensively, and with him expected to return and be fully healthy for the regular season, the Broncos’ depth for their top three safeties is important. With third-year safety Delarrin Turner-Yell expected to miss the start of the regular season after suffering an ACL injury in the final two weeks of 2023, the depth value at the position is in a crucial spot.

JL Skinner is expected to have an elevated role this upcoming season, but he’ll have to prove that in training camp. It doesn’t seem that the team views him as a starter, and more development is necessary for him. Practice squad safety Devon Key will be back in 2024 after signing a futures/reserve contract.

Denver’s immediate void is not having a starter in place next to Simmons as it stands right now. Locke is going to command interest from various NFL teams this offseason after he took massive strides and had a big impact on Denver’s defensive production when stepping into the starting role. He finished the season with 53 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and five passes defensed in just 12 games this past season.

It’d be wise for Denver to bring him back, but they’ll have to deal with competition for Locke’s services.

Nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams:
This is a tough dilemma for the Broncos. George Paton signed Williams from San Francisco a few years ago in free agency and when he’s been healthy, he’s been one of the best interior slot and run defenders in the league. The unfortunate news for Williams and his upcoming free-agency status is his injury history.

With the emergence of Ja’Quan McMillian, it doesn’t appear that Williams will be back in the mix for Denver defensively in 2024 unless he is willing to take a pay cut or a prove-it deal. It’s hard to ignore the impact McMillian had this season.

Defensive tackle Mike Purcell:
Purcell had a pretty solid impact on Denver’s defense this season and has been around since 2019. He’s a solid run-plugging defensive tackle, but the Broncos defense in general on the defensive line struggled to create consistent interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

This is an area the Broncos may have to address in the NFL Draft. There is a chance the Broncos look to bring Purcell back on a one-year deal, but addressing depth at defensive tackle is one of the top priorities the team needs to look at this offseason.

Interior pressure is paramount in today’s NFL, and while Denver was able to generate pressure off various stunts, there wasn’t as much of a visible impact in pressure created when the defensive line didn’t stunt.

Cornerback Fabian Moreau:
Fabian Moreau had a pretty solid impact for the Broncos this season when he stepped into the starting role, but he didn’t have a very strong finish to the season. His veteran presence was big for Denver, but he struggled with giving up explosive plays in the passing game during the crucial stretch when the Broncos were still in the playoff hunt.

Moreau started in 11 games and appeared in 16 for the Broncos this season, accounting for 46 tackles, seven passes defensed, and one interception.

Broncos GM George Paton hinted that they view Riley Moss as a starter in this league, which pretty much opens the door for him to take the reins opposite of Patrick Surtain II next season on the outside. Denver also has Damarri Mathis, who they are still high on despite some of his early season struggles; he has an opportunity to compete for the starting job as well in 2024.

Cornerback depth is crucial to have in today’s NFL, and Denver very well could look to add a piece or two in the NFL Draft or make an offer to another veteran corner during the second wave of free agency.

My belief is that Denver will move forward with Moss as the envisioned starter for them in 2024.

Defensive lineman Jonathan Harris:
Harris stepped up in a big way for the Broncos this past season after the team lost DeShawn Williams and Dre’Mont Jones in free agency. He had several flashes at various points of the season, but the optics of him being a long-term starter are not there.

Harris appeared in 17 games for the Broncos and started in five of them, racking up 43 tackles, four tackles for a loss, four quarterback hits, and one sack.

The only way I could see Harris coming back is if he signs a one-year deal, but Denver has various players on the roster who are younger and could look to compete for the starting job in 2024. Elijah Garcia and Matt Henningsen are two names to keep an eye on.

Jordan Jackson is also on the roster after signing his futures contract after the season ended. As mentioned when discussing Purcell above, Denver needs to look into adding depth or options in free agency and the NFL Draft regardless.