Pat Surtain's long-term future looms large for Broncos

Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In what is shaping up to be a busy offseason for the Denver Broncos, the long-term future of cornerback Pat Surtain II is a significant front-burner issue.

His standing among teammates is unquestioned, making his future in Denver all-the-more crucial. Those same teammates will likely watch what happens with great interest.

"He is -- we all think it -- and you've heard me say it, one of our best players, if not our best player," safety Justin Simmons said.

What the Broncos do with Surtain in the coming months will signal if the organization's decision-makers agree with the locker room.

By May 2, the Broncos will need to exercise the fifth year of Surtain's rookie deal and could also enter talks for a long-term extension.

"We're all big fans of Pat,'' Broncos general manager George Paton said at the end of the season. " ... We want Pat here for a long time, but I'm not prepared to make any statements on anything moving forward.''

Since the Broncos have made so many trades in the wake of the turnover among the coaching staff -- Sean Payton is the third head coach since the start of 2019 -- as well as changes at general manager and ownership over the last three years, the team has not made a first-round pick since Surtain was selected ninth overall in the 2021 draft. He is also the only Broncos' first-round pick on defense and one of just three of their own first-rounders on the roster.

The Broncos have made three picks inside the top 45 in the last four drafts combined -- Surtain, running back Javonte Williams at No. 35 in '21 and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy at 15th overall in 2020.

Because he has been selected for two Pro Bowls in his first three seasons, Surtain is eligible for a fifth-year option that projects to be a fully guaranteed $18.65 million for the 2025 season. Once the Broncos formally engage that option they could continue to work on a long-term deal.

If for some reason the Broncos chose not to engage the option -- as occurred with tackle Garett Bolles before they eventually signed him to a long-term extension in 2020 -- Surtain would be scheduled to be a free agent after the 2024 season.

The future use of a franchise tag could loom even as Surtain and his representatives watch how things go with the Broncos, who will have salary-cap restraints over the next two years as well as uncertainty at quarterback if Russell Wilson is released.

"I just focus on what I can control to prepare myself,'' Surtain said. "I'm always going to work on my game, work on my techniques, I want to be the best I can at what I do. Accolades are great and I respect them, but I really just want to be the best player I can and everything else comes with that.''

Finding a cornerback to start opposite of Surtain is also going to be key. Paton and Payton met with the coaching staff, scouts and pro personnel evaluators last week to review the depth chart as well as team needs before the scouting combine opens next week in Indianapolis.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph benched Damarri Mathis, a fourth-round pick in 2022, after the Broncos' Week 7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and Fabian Moreau started the final 11 games opposite of Surtain. Moreau, who will turn 30 in April and had been a late arrival to the Broncos as an August signing, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

The Broncos used a third-round pick on cornerback Riley Moss last April, but Moss missed virtually all of training camp with a core muscle injury and played just 23 snaps on defense in the 14 games he played.

Beyond quarterback, that cornerback opening on the depth chart is one of the most glaring as free agency and the draft approach. Joseph is cautious about "the balance of having a player like Pat and the knowledge the quarterbacks are going to avoid him -- and they are really going to avoid him if you don't have a plan about how you play or who you have opposite of him.''

With the 12th pick in the first round this year, the Broncos would be in position to grab one of the top cornerbacks on the board. Alabama's Terrion Arnold, Toledo's Quinyon Mitchell, Clemson's Nate Wiggins and Iowa's Cooper DeJean are among those defensive backs who project into the top 20 picks.

"I've always said you can never have enough corners now,'' Joseph said at season's end. "That's the way the league is, how you affect quarterbacks in the rush and coverage is everything now. Fitting Pat into that is always going to be one of the most important things we do.''