Will Broncos re-sign veteran playmaker Josey Jewell?

Denver Broncos linebacker Josey Jewell recovers a fumble against the Los Angeles Chargers. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos' decision-makers unpack how they will attack one of the franchise's most challenging offseasons yet, their most experienced unrestricted free agent linebacker Josey Jewell will be one of the biggest question marks.

"It would be great to stay,'' Jewell said. "But you look around and see what could happen, and who know what happens with all of that?"

Jewell, center Lloyd Cushenberry, defensive tackle Mike Purcell and cornerback K'Waun Williams, who missed this past season after two left foot/ankle surgeries, are the Broncos' most prominent impending free agents. Jewell, with 78 games played and 58 starts since Denver took him in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, has three 100-tackle seasons over the past four years.

After the team's 8-9 finish that included a defensively fueled five-game winning streak over a 6-2 stretch, Jewell believes the potential is there for a better 2024 and that he would like "to be a part of getting us back in the playoffs.'' But he is also aware enough to know the Broncos face the prospect of one of the league's tightest salary caps with limited options.

"Lot of great guys in this locker room, it's why I enjoy it do much here,'' Jewell said. "But we'll see where it all takes us.''

If the Broncos release quarterback Russell Wilson, the team will absorb $85 million in dead money' charges against the salary cap over the next two years. It's a daunting enough proposition general manager George Paton has already alluded to a more low-key approach in free agency. Last offseason they signed three free agents -- tackle Mike McGlinchey, guard Ben Powers and defensive end Zach Allen -- to deals worth at least $51 million overall led by McGlinchey's five-year, $87.5 million pact.

"This would be extreme,'' Paton said of any potential move with Wilson. "We've prepared for any scenario with [vice president of football administration] Rich Hurtado, who runs our cap. We'll have flexibility either way to do what we need to do. We won't be in on the first wave of free agency like we were last year. You can't do that every year. We'll be very strategic and very specific on what positions and what players we try to sign.''

The rub for the Broncos, especially with Jewell, is they do not have a natural successor to replace him. With coaching staff turnover in the past seven years as well as trading away draft picks, including three first-rounders and two second-rounders, to acquire Wilson and hire Sean Payton as coach, the Broncos had their smallest draft class last year (five players) since 2007.

They have six picks in April to follow that up, with only two of those picks in the draft's first two days. They project to be $22 million to $25 million over the salary cap next season with $10.6 million in dead money already on the books before a Wilson decision.

Drew Sanders, a third-rounder in 2023, started the season as an inside linebacker but was moved to more of a pass-rush/edge role at outside linebacker as the season wore on. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has said he believes Sanders could be a long-term outside linebacker.

Jonas Griffith, who has started 22 games for the Broncos at inside linebacker before he missed half of the 2022 season and all of 2023 with injuries, is also an unrestricted free agent. Jewell's high volume of snaps, especially on first and second downs (he played 75% of the defensive snaps this season) as well as his ability to get the front seven in the right spots before the snap would be a tall order to replace in the short term.

"Still a lot more work to be done here,'' Jewell said. "And that's why I want to come back. There's a great opportunity next year with the players we got and I'm sure the players we're going to get ... but we have a continuity on defense, I think, we communicate, everybody likes each other and you can build off that."

Jewell and Alex Singleton, who led the Broncos in tackles for the second consecutive season with 177, played 16 and 17 games this past season as fixtures in the defense. The two are friends away from the team's complex, and Singleton has endorsed Jewell's return.

"I've said I hope [the Broncos' season finale in Las Vegas] wasn't the last time were out there together,'' Singleton said. "I'm going to keep thinking it won't be until something happens, but I definitely hope we maintain what we have on defense.''