ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos sift through their list of potential free agents and draft picks, coach Vic Fangio thinks a third group of players could also impact the choices ahead.
"I kind of feel like we'll have two offseasons this year, once we get some of the guys back who were injured last year and didn't play much for us," Fangio said. "Hopefully we get those guys back healthy [and] have an influx of a few guys."
When the Broncos closed the book on the 2020 season, they had 14 players on injured reserve. That total included eight players who were considered starters at some point before or during the season.
One of those players -- linebacker Von Miller, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection -- didn't play a snap because of an ankle injury he suffered just days before the season opener. Wide receiver Courtland Sutton suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2.
Sutton's injury, as well as running back Phillip Lindsay's late in the season notwithstanding, it was the defense that was particularly gutted. At one point the entire starting defensive line -- Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris -- was on injured reserve. During a three-week stretch as November turned to December the Broncos lost five cornerbacks.
"To get those guys back will be a big jolt for us," Fangio said.
And how the Broncos believe those players are doing in their recovery as well as when they suffered those injuries will certainly impact how the Broncos approach free agency and the draft in the weeks ahead.
Sutton's injury was in September so his recovery is on schedule. The Broncos believe even if he is on some kind of snap-count restriction in training camp he would be ready for the regular season. A player such as tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who suffered a torn ACL in early November, may need more time.
The Broncos released Casey earlier last month in a salary cap move and Broncos general manager George Paton said Thursday he hoped the Broncos could re-sign Harris in free agency. But the crowd of returning players from IR -- especially in the secondary where four cornerbacks finished the year on injured reserve and A.J. Bouye missed the final four games with a suspension -- will dictate who gets signed this month as well as who gets selected in April.
Fangio said Thursday the Broncos would have to consider both free agency and the draft, at cornerback in particular, in the coming weeks. Fangio essentially outlined the math that with teams, including the Broncos, playing the nickel (five defensive backs) as their base defense much of the time these days, there are "96 starting corners" in the league so demand easily outdistances supply.
This draft's top cornerbacks, players such as Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley and Alabama's Patrick Surtain II, would be in play with the No. 9 pick in the first round. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has said he has 31 cornerback graded into the first six rounds of this year's draft.
"We hope to at some point, whether it be in free agency or in the draft, to add a player to that position for us because we need to," Fangio said.
Paton added "you never want to go crazy in free agency. You don't want to build your team in free agency," but added he believes the Broncos could "fill selective needs going into the draft" and that "I think in this league -- Vic can tell you better than I can -- you need pressure and you need cover players. You look at the good defenses around the league, teams can rush the quarterback and teams can cover. That is going to be a priority here."