ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the initial wave of free agency, Denver Broncos general manager George Paton has indeed put his checkbook where his defense is. The team had so many needs on that part of the depth chart, though, that there is still plenty of work to be done.
The Broncos have agreed to terms with outside linebacker Randy Gregory (five years, $70 million) and defensive tackle D.J. Jones (three years, $30 million) as well as retained linebacker Josey Jewell (two years, $11 million) during the open negotiating period.
Including Jewell, the Broncos had eight players who started at least one game on defense last season become unrestricted free agents this offseason. That doesn't include Von Miller, who left in a trade last November. It's why at the scouting combine earlier this month, Paton had a full day planner even beyond his work to acquire quarterback Russell Wilson.
"We're sitting down with a lot of people, meeting, to see about getting some of our own [free agents] back," Paton said then. "But we know we have some work to do on defense."
Gregory and Jones are walk-in starters and Jewell had started 18 consecutive games until a torn pectoral muscle during a Week 2 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars ended his 2021 season. The prospect of Gregory rushing the passer alongside Bradley Chubb was enticing enough for the Broncos to put a $70 million contract on the table, despite Gregory never having more than six sacks in a season and having missed 54 games due to multiple suspensions for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Jones was a quiet signing, but almost as important as Gregory's because of the position he plays. Jones figures to line up at nose tackle plenty in the Broncos' 3-4 scheme and is coming off a 56-tackle season for the San Francisco 49ers, including 10 tackles for loss. Only Nick Bosa had more tackles for loss for the 49ers in 2021.
With next month's draft heavy in edge rushers, cornerbacks and coverage safeties, especially, the Broncos can still hope for some rookie help defensively in addition to the work they do in the second wave of free agency.
New defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero has said he will retain the 3-4 scheme overall with some of his own tweaks in comparison to the 3-4 Vic Fangio and his staff used. But the carryover for a player like Jewell makes him a good fit.
Evero wants to crank up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- the Broncos were tied for 18th in the league in sacks last season and tied for 26th in forced fumbles with just six, despite being No. 3 in the league in scoring defense.
"You have to affect the quarterback," Evero said earlier this offseason. "If you can't get there with four, you've got to bring five. If you can't get there with five, you've got to bring six. We'll bring pressure when we need to."
The Broncos still have openings at nickel cornerback -- they have spent roughly 70% of their defensive snaps in the nickel over the past two seasons -- inside linebacker and safety in the starting lineup. And they need additional defensive depth across the board.
Asked at the combine about Caden Sterns' potential to replace Kareem Jackson at the starting safety spot opposite of Justin Simmons, Paton complimented Sterns' work in the 15 games Sterns played (two sacks, two interceptions), but also pointed to shoulder and hip injuries he dealt with at times last season.
"Caden showed some signs, think he made two starts, played a lot in our dime package [six defensive backs]. ... He needs to be available, he had some nicks that kept him out of games, if you're going to be a starter you have to be available," Paton said. "He's really talented, he has range, he has ball skills, he can tackle, he has everything a starting safety can have, but Kareem Jackson is a hard guy to replace."
Sterns was a fifth-round pick (152nd overall) in the April 2021 draft after dealing with multiple injuries -- including knee, ankle and toe -- at Texas.
So Paton still has some work to do to fill the depth chart enough to give Evero his wish, even with Gregory, Jones and Jewell already on board.
"When people put our tape on, I want them to see a defense that's playing fast, that's playing aggressive, that's playing physical, and we're flying around to the ball," Evero said.