DENVER -- The Broncos completed five general manager interviews over the weekend, leaving three top candidates, and one as a slight favorite.
Following the Zoom calls, the Broncos decision makers -- John Elway, CEO Joe Ellis, coach Vic Fangio and chief communications officer Patrick Smyth -- regrouped, combed over notes and will decide whether to conduct follow-up, in-person interviews or expand the field.
At this juncture, George Paton remains the slight front-runner. At 51, he boasts 14 years with the Minnesota Vikings, most notably as an assistant general manager. He was a finalist in Cleveland last year and in San Francisco before John Lynch took the GM job. He boasts a solid history of strong draft picks, including running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Justin Jefferson, and was involved in signing undrafted free agent Adam Thielen. This job provides authority -- Elway promises not to meddle in daily operations, and I don't think he will based on how much time he wants to spend with his family and out of the office -- a big salary and resources.
Could this be the time Paton, an under radar guy who has had little interaction with the media during his career, take the next step? He is also considered one of the favorites for the Lions GM job.
Chicago's Champ Kelly and the Saint's Terry Fontenot interviewed well. So, too, did in-house candidate Brian Stark, but it would be almost impossible to preach the need for a "fresh set of eyes" and go with an internal choice. As for Kelly, he cannot be discounted. He distinguished himself during this run with the Broncos from 2007-2014 -- former players advocate strongly for him given his eye for talent and personality. Fontenot is a terrific story, advancing from marketing intern 18 years ago to a respected voice on personnel. He's in the mix for the Falcons' job.
The GM needs to arrive ready to make tough decisions with free agents after the Broncos missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, tied for the second-longest streak in the NFL.
Let's look at the the club's 12 unrestricted free agents:
S Justin Simmons
At 27, Simmons sits squarely in his prime. He is the Broncos' best defensive player. The former Boston College star bet on himself last season, unable to bridge the gap in contract talks, and played on the $11.4 million franchise tag. All he did was post career-highs in interceptions (five) and solo tackles (75). He also recovered a fumble. As a result, Simmons accounted for 38 percent of the Broncos' NFL-worst 16 takeaways. The next GM should make signing him a priority. However, it will get tricky. The franchise tag could drop to $10.2 million if the cap dives to $175 million, meaning the team could go that route again. That would represent a huge risk, asking a 2020 Pro Bowler and a 2019 second-team All-Pro to take a paycut. Again, Simmons is homegrown, a leader in the locker room and community, and productive and reliable -- he hasn't missed a snap in three seasons. He's the type of player you build around.
DE Shelby Harris
Harris turns 30 next August. All he does is make plays either with pressure or pass deflections. He returned last year as a free agent on a one-year, $3.095 million contract after his market collapsed. I would try to get him back on a two-year deal. He brings passion, emotion and energy. He arrived in his best shape last summer, leading to a terrific start, only to be slowed by a bout with COVID-19 that cost him four games.
DE DeMarcus Walker
Walker finally found traction the past two seasons, and found his way under Fangio. He had 8.5 sacks combined the past two years. I don't know if he fits moving forward, unless it's a make-good deal. If the Broncos believe McTelvin Agim is ready to take the next step, it makes Walker expendable.
S Will Parks
Parks is a media favorite, a quote machine with human Red Bull energy. I'd like to think he could be a serviceable reserve. But the Broncos didn't attempt to keep him last offseason, so it would be a surprise if he returns this year.
RT Demar Dotson
Dotson was serviceable after replacing the injured and ineffective Elijah Wilkinson. He will be 36 in October. He overachieved this past season, but I don't see a place for him on the roster with Ja'Wuan James returning after opting out this past year because of COVID-19.
RT Elijah Wilkinson
Wilkinson has shown flashes of excellence at guard and tackle over the past few years. But 2020 was a disappointment. He struggled to return from a leg injury early in the season, missed time with a broken shin, and never produced as expected. He remains a solid run blocker, and his versatility gives him a chance to return as protection for James, who has played 63 snaps over the past two years.
DL Sylvester Williams
A member of the Super Bowl 50 title team, Williams returned on the practice squad and contributed in a cameo role. The team is expected to move on from Williams, but it was good to see him back in a Broncos uniform for a brief time.
OLB Anthony Chickillo
Was signed to provide depth. He did that. But I don't see a path for him to come back.
CB De'Vante Bausby
I like Bausby's fearlessness in coverage. He takes risks and makes plays. However, he couldn't tackle at the end of the season. Fangio considers tackling non-negotiable. It makes his return highly unlikely.
OLB Jeremiah Attaochu
Attaochu is a niche player. He is capable of getting sacks in limited snaps. If he's a reserve along with Malik Reed behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, that makes a lot of sense. Do the Broncos want veteran protection or will they go younger with a draft pick or 2020 late rounder Derrek Tuszka, who needs to add weight and strength?
LB Joe Jones
The Broncos' special teams are not good. That's not because of Jones. He is steady on the coverage units. The issue is simple: Do the Broncos go younger at this spot? As we sit here today, there's still a good chance he is brought back.
TE Jake Butt
Butt is a great story of perseverance, overcoming three ACL surgeries in college and the NFL. He loves football. And anyone who has been around him for a second wants to see him succeed. But, I think he could benefit from a fresh start elsewhere.