Monday, May 27, 2024

QB-needy Broncos could be the team to turn 2024 NFL draft on its head

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Sometimes, as we’ve learned, Sean Payton can be rather direct in getting his point across.

Intended or not, now may not be that time.

Payton is a coach in a tight spot without a quarterback, or at least without a proven one as Jarrett Stidham (cool name, four NFL starts) assuming the QB1 spot on the Denver Broncos depth chart after Russell Wilson was kicked to the curb.

How Payton, holding the 12th overall pick at the moment, plays his hand is one of the most intriguing subplots of the NFL draft.

Is it a given that the Broncos will take a quarterback in the 12th slot?

“Do we have to draft a quarterback? You would say, ‘Man, it sure looks like we have to draft a quarterback,’ “ Payton said during a pre-draft news conference on Thursday. “And yet, it has to be the right fit and the right one. If we had the tip sheets as to who everyone else was taking, it would be easier to answer that question. That’s the puzzle here.”

Sure, it’s that time of year. But that was hardly a classic smokescreen. The truth is wrapped with what-ifs and fluid contingencies that can flip a mock draft in a hurry. The quarterback that Payton may envision coming out of the draft with – he knows, we don’t, whether that prospect is Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy – might not be available at No. 12.

Not with the Minnesota Vikings, picking 11th, also in the hunt for a quarterback. And right behind Denver, with the 13th pick, are the Las Vegas Raiders. They, too, need to solidify the position.

In other words, given the manner in which NFL teams are prone to fall all over themselves in pursuit of franchise quarterbacks, it’s a good bet that today’s draft order will be shaken up on or before the first round on Thursday night.

If the top three-rated quarterbacks – USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye – are drafted accordingly with the top three picks, the scramble for McCarthy could intensify. And without much draft capital (remember the picks dealt in the trade for Wilson and compensation for Payton), the Broncos could be hard-pressed to get into that mix. Or so it seems.

George Paton, the Broncos GM who traded away two first-round picks as part of the blockbuster deal to land Wilson in 2022, didn’t dismiss the notion of bargaining with future first-round picks.

“If it’s a player that you think can change the landscape of your organization moving forward, like quarterback, then you do whatever it takes to get him,” Paton said.

Of course, that was the thinking with Wilson – the year before Payton arrived in 2023 – and now the Broncos are paying the now-Steelers quarterback $85 million over the next two years.

“If there’s a consensus in the building, a love in the building, you’re aggressive and you try to get him. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get him, but you try. So, we’re open to everything. We’re wide open.”

Let the gamesmanship roll on.

Then again, what if Payton sees Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. or Oregon’s Bo Nix as a quarterback whom he can win with? Going even deeper, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler could be in the mix.

After all, Paton said there are seven or eight quarterbacks in this draft class whom the Broncos think can play in the NFL. The GM didn’t declare they all project as All-Pro players, but sometimes (hello, Tom Brady) you never know how these things will turn out.

History is flooded with examples of lesser-rated quarterbacks in the draft turning out as gems. Or highly-rated prospects proving to be iffy, or downright busts.

In 2018, Lamar Jackson was the fifth quarterback drafted (32nd overall) and now he’s a two-time NFL MVP. In 2021, five quarterbacks were selected within the top 15 picks and just three years later only Trevor Lawrence, taken No. 1 overall, is positioned as the intended cornerstone.

And Payton can tell you all about the 2017 draft, when, as New Orleans Saints coach, he and GM Mickey Loomis were in the process of trying to trade up to the 10th slot to draft Patrick Mahomes, only to be beaten to the punch by Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, executing their own plan to move up for the quarterback who has blossomed into the NFL’s best. And hey, the record still shows that the Chicago Bears used the second pick in the draft that year on Mitchell Trubisky.

No, you can’t use AI to draft a quarterback. That’s why Payton could still come away with a promising quarterback if he doesn’t land him in the first round. After all, he’s the expert, seeing and sensing things in the evaluations that could make a huge difference.

That he has a crying need to bolster his QB room is not a smokescreen. And this has been a recurring theme long before Payton came to town. In the eight years since Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos have started a dozen different quarterbacks, including first-round flop Paxton Lynch and second-round fizzles Brock Osweiler and Drew Lock.

It was interesting to hear Payton share a nugget from the evaluation process and how he gains insight into the ability of the quarterbacks to learn and retain. Of course, no coach and GM does it exactly the same, which would also be a factor in the range of hits and misses with draft picks. Yet it’s a critical part of the evaluation, given the complexities that come with the position, and especially at the highest level.

“It’s funny, when we bring some of these guys in or we go to the schools to visit, we always finish with, ‘Hey, if we take you, draw up your best play. The play has to come with you; you just love this play,’ “ Payton said. “They’ll draw it up and I’ll say, ‘Well, how do you call it?’

“I’m always fascinated to hear their terminology because a lot of times, they’re signaling plays in. That’s the one thing by just watching film that is hard to predict.”

Yet probably not as hard as it is to predict what some teams will do to find a quarterback in the draft.

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