DENVER -- George Paton came to the Broncos in January after 14 years in Minnesota, a run that included an assistant general manager title since 2012.
After multiple opportunities to leave, Paton won over the Broncos, accepting the challenge of invigorating an iconic franchise that has faded into irrelevancy over the last five years. Paton arrived as a bit of a mystery, having never done a press conference, mastering his craft in the margins of film rooms and closed-door meetings. He works 16-to-18 hour work days without blinking, the first one to arrive and last one to leave the facility, his phone constantly buzzing with texts from his endless stream of contacts.
What has surprised people with the Broncos is his personality. Hall of Fame Los Angeles Times writer Sam Farmer said everyone who meets Paton believes they are his best friend. It has manifested in inspiring collaboration in his first two months with the Broncos as he treats everyone with respect, and has developed a quick friendship with coach Vic Fangio.
Working relentlessly is easy for Paton. Now comes the hard part. Making it pay off in victories for a team that has suffered four straight losing seasons for the first time since 1963-72. He met the media Thursday, discussing the challenge of navigating the salary cap, and weighing all factors when deciding the futures of Justin Simmons, Von Miller, Kareem Jackson and quarterback Drew Lock.
Tuesday represents the deadline to apply a franchise tag. That appears likely for Simmons, buying time to hammer out a longterm contract by July 15. Simmons said on SiriusXM NFL radio Wednesday, "It seems like Denver wants me back, and I want to be there."
Simmons is not going anywhere. If the Broncos don't get a deal done this offseason, it appears it will not be for a lack of trying. But they have the safety net of the franchise tag to keep him.
“Justin is one of our core guys. Our goal since I got here was to sign him to a longterm deal. So we have had good discussions with his agent," Paton said. "I don't know if we will get a deal done or not, but that's the goal.”
The Broncos must decide by March 16 whether to exercise a $7 million option on Miller's $18 million contract, and a $1.5 million option on Jackson's $10 million salary.
Miller is a legacy player, a future Hall of Famer. However, he turns 32 this month and missed all of last season after dislocating his left ankle tendon. When every deal matters with the cap dropping this season to between $185-to-$188 million, Miller could be deemed a luxury. Or he could reject a pay cut if offered, choosing to explore free agency for the first time.
Miller is also facing an off field investigation over alleged allegations of domestic abuse of his former fiancee. The Parker Police Department took the unusual step of announcing the investigation without charges and turning the case over to the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office for review. A decision could be made by this Friday or next week, according to Denver7 sources.
Will this play a role in the decision regarding Von? Will the Broncos ask the eight-time Pro Bowler to take less money even though they are $44 million under the salary cap? Paton wasn't specific, but would like to keep Miller in the fold.
"We want to bring Von back. Obviously, the legal process, it's a serious situation. I don't know all the details," Paton said. "But we do want Von back."
Paton aims to have a defense that applies pressure and covers well. That relates to Von and Jackson. Paton praised Jackson, and has been talking with his agent about his return, admitting, "We've got to work through some things, but we've had positive conversations." He did not provide details on whether he would ask Jackson to restructure his contract, echoing a common refrain that "we would like him back. He's a good player, a good leader." The decision could come down to how the Broncos want to allocate money at safety with Simmons in line for a huge payday.
Fangio and Paton have performed a deep dive on Lock's film. Lock has stayed in Colorado this offseason and is working out typically four days a week at the facility -- that requires constant COVID-19 testing -- and one day at Landow Performance. He has shown a thick skin after leading the league in interceptions and ranking last in completion percentage, sparking intense speculation about his potential replacements.
“Drew is very talented, but he was inconsistent at times. Has a lot to work on. He really wants to be great," said Paton, who has not seen Lock play in person. " We’re always going to try to bring in competition. But, I like the track Drew’s on.”
Added Fangio, who offered praise of Lock before adding, "Until Drew proves to be the next great quarterback, like the ones the Denver franchise is used to in years past, we’re going to always try to bring in competition."
Paton repeated his mantra regarding potential trades when the subject of Deshaun Watson was broached. Paton cannot discuss players under contract with other teams, but said, "We will always look to be aggressive and be in on every deal. It doesn't guarantee anything will happen."
Paton and Fangio addressed a wide variety of topics in roughly 20 minutes with the media. Those included:
Right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who has logged 63 snaps in two seasons and opted out last year over COVID-19 concerns: "He's ready to go. He's excited to come back." Added Fangio, "We’re counting on and anticipating him being part of our team next year." Dalton Risner told Denver7 the plan is for James to return to Colorado in roughly three weeks and train with him, Graham Glasgow and center Lloyd Cushenberry.
Defensive end Shelby Harris, a free agent. While the team is looking to get younger, Harris is a late-bloomer with plenty of tread on his tires: "We’d love to have Shelby back," Paton said. "He's a priority.”
Running back Phillip Lindsay, who is a restricted free agent: "He's a good player. He brings energy and juice." Paton said "We do plan on tendering him, but not sure at what level. But we do want him here." If the Broncos place an original round tender on Lindsay, he could sign elsewhere as a free agent and there will be no draft pick compensation.
Receiver Tim Patrick and linebacker Alexander Johnson, who are restricted free agents: Paton said they will be tendered. He did not reveal the round of the tender. Patrick is the most likely to receive a second-round tender as the team's best receiver last season. Johnson experienced an uneven second season. He brings enormous talent, but the team is seeking to upgrade in coverage at the position, meaning that they might not keep Johnson and Josey Jewell as starters if the right free agent is available, perhaps someone like Minnesota's Eric Wilson.