A look at Broncos quarterback candidates for 2018

The Broncos will put the full-court recruiting press on Cousins. If they get him, Paxton Lynch could well be their backup quarterback and their No. 5 draft pick would be used on a player at another position.

KUSA—It’s become the conversation topic of post-holiday gatherings.

Who will be the Broncos’ quarterback in 2018?

The candidates come from two pools. The first, and most likely, is from the veteran group of potential free agents or trade commodities. We have broken this group into two levels: The elite and middling.

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The second pool comes for the NFL Draft, where the Broncos have the No. 5 overall selection. Again, we’ve come up with a split: Those potentially worthy of the No. 5 pick and those who are not.

The 2018 free agent signing and trading period begins on March 14. The 2018 NFL Draft begins with the first round on April 26.

First quarterback possibilities, first.


Elite: Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith, Case Keenum

This assumes free-agent Drew Brees will play for nobody but the New Orleans Saints next season and the San Francisco 49ers will place the franchise tag on Jimmy Garoppolo if they haven’t worked out on a long-term deal by the tag deadline of March 6.

We could also make the same franchise-tag assumption with the Minnesota Vikings and Keenum, but it’s slightly more far-fetched to think he could receive a $23.6 million salary designation.

Kirk Cousins, Washington: At this point, he would be the Broncos’ No. 1 choice because he’s the proven, quality quarterback most likely to become available without strings.

He will turn 30 at the midway point of the preseason. In his three full seasons as Washington’s starting quarterback, Cousins has averaged 4,392 passing yards and 27 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions.

Statistically, he’s been a top 8 quarterback the past three years. His record has been a mediocre 24-24-1.

Cousins played the past two seasons on franchise-tag salaries of $19.95 million and $23.94 million. If Washington places a transition tag on him (which features a right-of-first-refusal) or allows him to walk away as an unrestricted free agent, it would take a multiyear contract in the neighborhood of $25 million to $30 million a year to sign him.

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Don’t be startled by the $30 million a year possibility. If Cousins becomes available for bid, the Broncos are expected to receive competition from Arizona, the New York Jets and possibly Cleveland, Buffalo and Jacksonville.

I can see Broncos general manager John Elway leaning toward Cousins on his quarterback priority list. Cousins would not only be the quickest fix in elevating the Broncos to a playoff contender, the team could then use their No. 5 overall draft pick on a starter at another position.

Cousins, thus, would mean upgrades at two positions. And the Broncos wouldn’t have to compensate Washington with a top draft pick or proven player.

Alex Smith, Chiefs: Let’s start with Smith was the NFL’s best quarterback this year. His 104.7 passer rating – on 4,042 passing yards, 26 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions – says so. It wasn’t his fault the Chiefs had one of the league’s worst defenses.

Smith is on a seven-year run of high-level consistency who has flourished in Andy Reid’s West Coast offense which is what the Broncos will run with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

I can see Broncos head coach Vance Joseph placing Smith high on his wish list. Joseph as a 49ers’ defensive backs coach from 2005-10 got an up-close look at Smith’s growth as an NFL quarterback.

Smith turns 34 before the draft so he may only have one to three high-level seasons left in him. A bigger problem is Smith is under contract for one more season.

I would be surprised if the Chiefs let Smith go. They can have the young gun talent of Patrick Mahomes II sit one more year.

If the Chiefs did decide to deal Smith while they could get great value in return, the division-rival Broncos don’t seem like a logical trade partner. Then again, Reid traded quarterback Donovan McNabb from Philadelphia to division-rival Washington in 2010, so it’s not impossible for the Broncos to acquire Smith.

As a division opponent, though, the Broncos would likely have to give up more than any other team to get Smith. That No. 5 overall draft pick would be too steep.

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If the Broncos were to land Smith, they would probably use that No. 5 pick to take another quarterback. Double-down on quarterbacks and give Elway twice the chance to pick the right one.

Case Keenum, Vikings: Before Gary Kubiak found Trevor Siemian, there was Case Keenum. Not that the football world didn’t know of Keenum after he threw 48 touchdown passes against 5 interceptions in his senior season of 2011 for the University of Houston.

But after Keenum was undrafted, Kubiak signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and started him eight games in 2013. In Keenum’s first three games – all losses by 3 points or less – he threw a combined 7 touchdown passes against 0 picks.

The Broncos nearly traded for Keenum when Kubiak was their head coach in 2016. He is now a special adviser to Elway.

However, Keenum’s surprising-to-everyone-but Kubiak’s performance this year makes him virtually untouchable. If the Vikes can’t re-sign him, they are expected to apply the franchise tag. If he does somehow escape to Minnesota, Keenum is expected to follow his offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to the New York Giants.

Keenum should know, though, the Broncos are interested in him.

Middling: Eli Manning, Tyrod Taylor, Sam Bradford, Blake Bortles

These would be the Plan B consolation prizes if the Broncos can’t get Cousins. None of these quarterbacks would prevent the Broncos from also taking a quarterback with their No. 5 draft pick.

Manning has two years left in his contract with the New York Giants at salaries of $16 million and $17 million. He could come hang out with his brother Peyton in Denver for a year or two.

Taylor has a connection with Kubiak when the two were in Baltimore in 2014.

Bradford is still a good passer when he’s healthy – he completed 29 of 32 for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in Minnesota’s season-opening win against New Orleans – but he’s almost never healthy.

Bortles is one win away Sunday from staying with Jacksonville long-term – or one clunker away from possibly becoming trade bait.

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No. 5 worthy: Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Mason Rudolph, Lamar Jackson

Wyoming’s Allen is Elway’s kind of quarterback. Allen is the perfect QB size at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. He has a cannon for an arm. And he can move.

No other quarterback in this draft has an A grade in each of these three pivotal categories.

What the Broncos must decide (the team’s QB evaluation think tank consists of eight people: Elway, Kubiak, Matt Russell, Brian Stark, Vance Joseph, Musgrave, new quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan and assistant QB coach Klint Kubiak) is whether Allen has the poise, accuracy, leadership and ability to process as those characteristics translate to the NFL.

The Broncos love Baker Mayfield, too. He has the fire, attitude and mobility the Broncos want in their quarterback. The concern is he doesn’t have ideal quarterback size at 6-1, 220.

Allen and Mayfield will be on the Senior Bowl’s North team coached by Joseph’s staff next week.

Rosen is the most NFL-ready passer but his narrow hips are more commonly seen on tennis players, not quarterbacks.

Darnold may be the league’s best quarterback someday, but he was too turnover prone for the USC Trojans last season – 13 picks, 8 lost fumbles – for the Broncos, who are coming off a 5-11 season in which QB turnovers was a major problem.

I’m surprised Rudolph and Jackson aren’t getting more first-round love. NFL teams don’t have the guts to take the smaller, athletic Jackson in the first round, but his physical talent is so freakish, he may eventually become a top 5 player in this draft.

Not No. 5 pick worthy but maybe later: Rudolph, Jackson, Luke Falk

It’s not fair but the fact Zac Robinson and Brandon Weeden put up huge passing stats at Oklahoma State, only to not have stellar NFL careers may hurt Rudolph, who is otherwise 6-4, 230 and clutch.

The 6-4, 223-pound Falk seemed to be on his way to becoming a first-round pick during his sophomore season at Washington State when he threw 38 touchdowns and had just 8 picks.

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But there is always a fair amount of projection needed for quarterbacks who play in Mike Leach’s spread system.

Falk is also on Joseph’s North team at the Senior Bowl.

My prediction: The Broncos will put the full-court recruiting press on Cousins. If they get him, Paxton Lynch could well be their backup quarterback and their No. 5 draft pick would be used on a player at another position.

If Cousins winds up elsewhere, the Broncos will use their No. 5 pick on a quarterback who will serve as a backup to whichever free-agent QB the team does sign, at least to start the 2018 season.