What we think we know about Broncos GM George Paton ahead of free agency

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- All we have of new Denver Broncos general manager George Paton are a selection of video snippets: early-morning arrivals, a trip to North Dakota for Trey Lance's pro day and a stroll through the team store posted on the team's website.

Paton has kept a fairly low public profile since his January arrival.

But with free agency set to formally begin Wednesday, Paton will give his first real glimpse, at least with the team's checkbook in hand, of how he thinks it should all fit together. The Broncos have enough salary cap room to either dip a toe or dive all-in to the signing pool.

Paton has set the table for a measured approach in the open market. He said shortly after he arrived that "you never want to go crazy in free agency, you don't want to build your team in free agency, you want to fill selective needs going into the draft. That has been my philosophy. ... You don't always want to be the first one out of the gate and throw all your money, but if there is something you need, you'll take a shot. I just think you have to be selective and you have to look at every situation. If you can fill a need and help your team, you're going to go for it."

The Broncos may mostly wait for the initial 48-hour swirl of free agency to pass -- a swirl that could look different overall given the reduction in the salary cap league-wide due to COVID-19 -- and then work through some shorter-term deals with a selection of veteran players who could impact some of the team's positions of need like cornerback and defensive line. They did add cornerback Ronald Darby on Monday night with a deal worth $30 million over three years.

During Paton's time as the Minnesota Vikings' assistant general manager -- he was named assistant GM in 2012 -- when he was closely involved in the team's decisions in free agency and the draft, the Vikings were highly selective in how they approached the open market. They most often signed players to one-year deals, signed their own free agents and sprinkled in a select few multi-year deals to outside free agents. Paton stuck with the look-inward first approach early in free agency with the franchise tag for safety Justin Simmons and a three-year deal for defensive end Shelby Harris.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was signed to a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million deal in 2018, was the outlier in that period.

"I know free agency, the draft, understanding the roster -- I don't want to speak for him … [but] the No. 1 thing is always the personnel, that's the lifeline of our organization, especially in the draft," said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, who worked with Paton for over two decades with three different teams. "We've always been big believers in building our rosters through the draft. Hopefully you're doing a good enough job where you're hitting on your draft picks and then those draft picks are the ones that you end up keeping and extending and not letting get into free agency and build your roster that way."

In 2020, the Vikings didn't sign any outside free agent to a deal longer than three years or for more than $27 million. Their big splash came in September when they re-signed running back Dalvin Cook, who would have been a free agent in 2021, to a five-year $63 million deal. In 2019, the Vikings' biggest free agency deal went to one of their own players -- linebacker Anthony Barr got a five-year, $67.5 million deal -- as none of their incoming free agents signed for more than a three-year deal.

In 2018, Cousins was the only incoming Vikings' free agent who got more than a one-year deal. In 2017, the Vikings, looking to make over their offensive line, handed out their only two deals for more than three years to Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers -- both for five years.

And in 2016, six of the first 11 signings the Vikings made in free agency were for their own players. Guard Alex Boone (four years, $26.8 million) was the biggest contract for an incoming free agent that year and was released after just one season with the team. In 2015, the Vikings made a trade -- for receiver Mike Wallace -- early in free agency, but made their most significant signings two weeks into free agency.

So, that's the idea.

During his time with Spielman in Minnesota, Paton and the Vikings were often far more intent on acquiring draft picks early and often.

"I think our philosophy in Minnesota is try to acquire as many draft picks as you can," Paton said earlier this year. "The more draft picks you have, the more flexibility you have. In the offseason you can make a trade for a player, draft day you can kind of work your way up and down the draft -- if you want to go get a player, you go get them."

The Broncos have nine picks at the moment with four among the first 114 selections. In Paton's nine drafts with the Vikings as assistant general manager, the team had at least 10 picks in six of those drafts with a high of 15 in 2020.

By comparison the Broncos had two 10-player drafts over that span and haven't picked more than 10 players in any draft class since 1999.

"We all believe that to draft and develop talent that you bring high character players into your organization, you develop them and hopefully get them second contracts, and that's how you build your best culture," Paton said. "Now when you go outside, will you be aggressive and dip into free agency or the trade market? Yeah, every now and then, but it takes that right type of player to do that. I think we all believe in drafting and developing and making them into your own. That's the best way to build a football team."