ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On Oct. 10, Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton was asked publicly about this year’s NFL trade deadline for the first time. After saying Denver was “not looking to do business with any of our players,” he intimated there was ample time for the proverbial trade winds to shift before the Halloween deadline.
“Three weeks seems like an eternity right now,” Payton said at the time.
Eternity has almost ended. The Broncos, 2-5 after last week’s victory over the Green Bay Packers (2-4), have only six days left to make deals. They have been one of the NFL’s most discussed teams as it pertains to potential deal-making because of a combination of their spot in the standings — Austin Mock’s projection model at The Athletic gives Denver only a 0.5 percent chance to make the postseason — their need to stock a relatively thin draft-pick cupboard, and their handful of players on expiring contracts or those with no guaranteed money left after this season.
“People call teams that aren’t playing well or are struggling, to see if they’re interested in moving players,” Payton said.
So, what are the most likely outcomes for the Broncos between now and Tuesday’s deadline, with another matchup (against the Kansas City Chiefs) sitting in the middle? It does not appear the Broncos are lining up “to have a fire sale despite their troubling part of the season,” The Athletic’s national NFL insider Dianna Russini reported last week, days before the Broncos held on to beat the Packers 19-17. My read on the situation has been the same. The Broncos are listening to the calls — and they have become more frequent as the deadline nears — but they are not actively trying to unload multiple players off the roster.
The Broncos have already made one deal, sending outside linebacker Randy Gregory and a 2024 seventh-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2024 sixth-round pick. But the Broncos planned to release Gregory before the 49ers jumped in with an offer in the final hour. Denver also released fellow veteran pass rusher Frank Clark earlier this month after being unable to find a trade partner. Both moves centered on the Broncos wanting to clear a path for their young pass rushers to get ample snaps. The five outside linebackers on Denver’s active roster — Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper, Baron Browning, Thomas Incoom and Ronnie Perkins — are 25 years old or younger, and none has played more than three years in the league. Bonitto (5 1/2 sacks) and Cooper (four) are off to the best starts of their brief careers, and Browning returned from an injury Sunday and produced four pressures in only 26 defensive snaps.
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Though it was disappointing that Gregory, who signed a five-year deal with the Broncos worth up to $70 million in 2022, had not established himself as the team’s top pass rusher, Denver was wise in not forcing a situation that wasn’t ideal. Gregory and Clark wanted snaps, but the younger players at the position had become more deserving of those reps from a production standpoint. It was time to make a clean break.
But no such obvious logjams remain on the roster. Wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, arguably the two most-discussed Broncos players when it comes to trade rumors, have largely been playing well. Sutton has already caught five touchdown passes, one away from a career-best total. He is well on pace to top his 2022 production of 64 receptions and 829 yards. Jeudy has at least 50 yards receiving in four of the six games he’s played this season, including a five-catch, 64-yard output in Sunday’s win against the Packers. The Broncos need to get rookie Marvin Mims Jr. more involved (zero catches and one target in the past two games), but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say he’s been blocked by those opportunities due to the presence of Sutton and Jeudy, who are different receivers from Mims.
It is still entirely possible one of the Broncos’ veteran wide receivers will get traded. Jeudy, as The Athletic front-office analyst Randy Mueller recently noted, is a more likely candidate because of a contract that includes a $12.9 million guarantee next season but nothing beyond that. The New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers and New York Jets are among the teams that could use an upgrade in young talent at receiver. But any deal the Broncos get for their receivers would need to be substantial. The team would be happy to continue this season trying to improve an offense that has already seen significant gains from 2022, then evaluate the market again in the offseason. But Mueller suggested multiple teams could show strong interest in Jeudy at the deadline, and a bidding war would be Denver’s best hope of bringing back the kind of compensation that would make moving him a consideration.
One player who has started to generate more interest is linebacker Josey Jewell. The 28-year-old, who will become an unrestricted free agent after this season, has 19 tackles in the past two games, including a season-high 10 in Sunday’s victory against the Jets. In Mueller’s recent piece evaluating the trade landscape, he floated the Buffalo Bills as a possible landing spot because of the recent injuries they’ve suffered in the front seven. Plus, Payton, in an unprompted moment during his news conference last week, talked about his desire to find more snaps for rookie linebacker Drew Sanders, the team’s third-round pick in April’s NFL Draft.
“You play (young players) when you feel like they help give you a chance to win,” Payton said. “I feel strongly about a number of these young guys. It’s the same way with Sanders. We continue to look at how many snaps we can give him. He’s progressing. Those are good problems with young players.”
A big trade in the NFL immediately brought Broncos safety Justin Simmons to mind. The Tennessee Titans traded two-time All-Pro safety Kevin Byard to the Philadelphia Eagles for fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2024 and safety Terrell Edmunds. Byard has 27 interceptions since he entered the league in 2016, second among all safeties in that span behind Simmons (28). Byard, like Simmons, has no guaranteed money remaining on his contract after this season, so the theoretical compensation the Broncos would have fetched in a deal could be reasonably similar.
The Broncos likely won’t move Simmons if the offers coming back aren’t appreciably better. Their defense has been markedly better since the 29-year-old returned from a hip injury that forced him to miss games against the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears, which saw Denver give up a combined 98 points. The wild card is whether Simmons is actively seeking an opportunity to play for a contending team, something he hasn’t been able to do during a career full of individual accolades but devoid of playoff experience. He has made no such declarations publicly, and the Broncos might still view Simmons as a foundational piece.
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Then there is the matter of this week’s game against the Chiefs. Denver suffered a 19-8 loss to Kansas City less than three weeks ago in Week 6. The Broncos have been eagerly anticipating the rematch, desperate to end the 16-game losing streak to their AFC West rival. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Broncos are waiting to see how Sunday plays out — are they 3-5 with momentum at the bye or 2-6 with yet another loss to the Chiefs — before putting together the final pieces of their trade deadline blueprint. In each of the past two seasons, the Broncos have made their blockbuster trades (Von Miller in 2021 and Bradley Chubb in 2022) after their final pre-deadline game.
“We’re focused on winning with this group and these guys here,” Payton said Wednesday.
Either way, eternity is almost up for Payton, and the league is watching with interest to see which way the Broncos turn.
(Photo of Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy: Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
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