INDIANAPOLIS — Here at the NFL combine, it’s been whispered from behind the plants in the ornate hotel lobbies, and during strolls down the expansive hallways at the Indiana Convention Center.
Why can’t the great Hall of Famer John Elway evaluate quarterbacks?
People love irony.
But let’s put his history in picking quarterbacks in proper context. In the 2016 draft, Elway loved Carson Wentz, the raw talent from North Dakota State. Problem was, the Broncos were coming off their Super Bowl 50 triumph and picked last in the 2016 as Wentz went No. 2 to Philadelphia. (For clarity, it wasn’t a problem Elway’s Broncos won Super Bowl 50. The problem was picking 29 spots away from Wentz). The Broncos wound up trading up from No. 31 to No.26 to outmaneuver Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys for Paxton Lynch.
Elway also loved – loved, loved, loved – Patrick Mahomes II coming out in 2017. But he had just drafted Lynch in the first round the year before, so Elway could only watch in frustration as the rival Kansas City Chiefs traded up from the No. 27 spot to No. 10 to land the Texas Tech quarterback.
"I thought it was a good move by them," Elway said to 9NEWS on Wednesday. "Obviously, it’s turned out to be a good move."
Face it, this whole Elway-can’t-judge-QBs narrative is all about Paxton Lynch. Brock Osweiler? He was a decent second-round draft pick behind newly signed free agent Peyton Manning in 2012.
Yes, Russell Wilson went in the third round to Seattle but remember this: Had the Broncos selected Wilson instead of Osweiler? Wilson would have sat the first 3 ½ years of his career, too.
Osweiler went 5-2 in his fourth season of 2015 to help the Broncos go on to win Super Bowl 50, then got a four-year, $72 million contract as a free agent from Houston.
Trevor Siemian was a hit as a seventh round pick in 2015. He emerged into a surprise starter for nearly two seasons.
But Lynch? That hurt. He was released after his third training camp, before his third season.
"That was a miss," Elway said. "There was a miss there and I think without making excuses there was some circumstances that happened where when you have a young quarterback – you’ve got to be in the same system. You’ve got to be able to have him develop within a system. I’m not sure we were fair to Paxton. He was in three systems in three years.
"We missed on that one but it’s difficult. We’re going to continue to work hard at it to try and find that guy and we’ll evaluate him. There again, it comes down to where you draft him and what’s available, too, so there’s a lot of things that go into it and we’re always looking for that … that Patrick Mahomes now."
Elway might wait till next year to find his next Patrick Mahomes. He’ll go with Joe Flacco this year and Elway said Monday he’s even willing to restructure Case Keenum’s contract to bring him back.
Elway and Keenum’s representatives have talked conceptually about a restructure deal. Here’s how it would work: Keenum is scheduled to make $18 million this year with $7 million of that salary fully guaranteed. Elway would like to restructure so that Keenum keeps the $7 million, but the other $11 million is converted into incentives. It would be impossible to hit those incentives as a backup, but maybe not if Flacco goes down and Keenum becomes the starter.
Such a deal would either make Keenum more attractive to other teams for trade, or the Broncos as a backup. So why wouldn’t Keenum simply ask for his release, take the $7 million from the Broncos and take his chances on the open market?
In this situation, another team would likely sign Keenum to something near a $1 million salary, knowing the Broncos would have to eat the other $6 million. But if a team invests only about $1 million in Keenum, how much job security will that buy him come September when rosters are set? Not much.
Plus, his new deal likely wouldn’t have near the incentive package the Broncos are proposing. It still seems like a longshot Keenum would accept a pay cut and a demotion from the same team. But at least the decision is his.
"I would like Case back," Elway said. "I’ve got a great deal of respect for Case. He played well enough last year where we didn’t necessarily take great care of him. There were some injuries that were involved there (to the offensive line, tight end and receiver positions) but we’d love to have Case back.
"But again, I’ve told Case I want to do what’s best for Case and what’s best for him and his family, so we’ll continue to work on that."
A Flacco-Keenum combo may not beat the one-and-only Mahomes. But it wouldn’t be bad. And then next year, when the quarterback draft class is said to be better and deeper, Elway would go to work on taking another shot on finding the Broncos’ franchise QB for the future.
Other topics Elway addressed in his sit-down with 9NEWS:
The Broncos’ starting tight end is a free agent. He was injury plagued through his first four seasons, but he finally was coming on to play like the Broncos hoped when they made him their third-round draft pick in 2015.
"We’d like to have Jeff coming back," Elway said. "We thought that he started playing – he had a decent year last year till he broke the ribs. Obviously, the issue with Jeff is he’s been injured a lot in his first four years so that’s the only concern that we have. Other than that we’d love to have him back."
The veteran starting safety is due to make $4.97 million in 2019 but because none of that money is guaranteed and he will turn 31 in August, his job security is vulnerable.
"Darian’s been tremendous," Elway said. "We still have to look at that and continue to create our plan on which direction we want to go. But a great deal of respect for Darian and we’ll have to make that decision as we get closer."
Elway traded away Aqib Talib in part to give his starting cornerback position to the younger Roby, who was elevated from No. 3 cornerback.
Roby, though, was inconsistent last season and is now a free agent. At this point, Roby will seek the highest bidder and that’s unlikely to be the Broncos.
"Last year, Bradley, we thought he would step up and play a little bit better than he did," Elway said. "But we’ll see what happens on the market. He wants to explore the market and we’ll see where that goes."
Not only could the Broncos lose Roby, but another cornerback, Isaac Yiadom, recently underwent right shoulder surgery. Yiadom suffered a separated shoulder in game 13 at San Francisco. He sat out the next game against Cleveland, then played in the final two, even intercepting Philip Rivers in the finale.
Then Yiadom underwent surgery. He will miss some if not all of the organized team activity (OTA) sessions in the spring, but he should be full go by training camp. Yiadom had a similar surgery to his left shoulder while at Boston College and bounced back nicely.
Still, let there be no doubt the Broncos need cornerbacks.
"Yeah, we’ve got to do something there," Elway said. "I think there’s a lot of soft spots that we have to take care of. That’s one with Chris coming back, with Yiadom coming off surgery, that’s one area where we need to get better."
Elway has found him both all business and with a wry sense of humor.
"He’s bouncing around, but he’s all football," Elway said. "He’s not going to be one of those where you’re going to spend 20 minutes in a conversation on how the weekend was. That’s just the way he is, and I love it. He’s fun to be around because I learn stuff from him all the time. It’s great to hear a different view from a guy who has that kind of experience."
Emmanuel Sanders and Derek Wolfe
Elway said he would pick up the option that guarantees $1.5 million of Sanders’ $10.15 million salary. He added he would exercise the $1 million option for Wolfe, who would then be in line to add another $8.55 million in 2019 pay.
Elway did state concern about the season-ending Achilles injury Sanders suffered in December, but is willing to pay $1.5 million on his recovery. If Sanders doesn’t recover as hoped, the Broncos would not be stuck with the other $8.65 million left on his salary.
"We’d love to have him back 100 percent because I think he’s a great football player," Elway said. "He’s a great competitor and wants to win. So I’d hope for him to be 100 percent. But the bottom line is, nobody really knows. That’s the hard part when you’re paying a guy $10.25 million and he’s coming off an Achilles as a wide receiver, that’s always a little bit tough. So I don’t know. I hope that he comes back 100 percent."
The Heisman Trophy from Oklahoma can throw, but he may need to use his tiptoes to reach 5-foot-10 – which is running back sized. Elway strongly hinted Murray, while excellent, would not be a good fit for the Broncos’ offensive system that asks its quarterback to play from under center, as much as shotgun.
"I will say this, having played the position: When you’re shorter and you’re in shotgun, it doesn’t have nearly the effect because you see much better out of shotgun," Elway told the mass media during his NFL Combine press conference Wednesday. "So, if you’re in shotgun and starting in shotgun and that’s the only place you’ve ever been, you can see the field much better from shotgun.
"So, really, the height from shotgun doesn’t matter nearly as much if it does if you’re coming out from underneath center all the time because by the time you get back there the pocket a lot of times is caving on you. That’s where height does matter a little bit more. But if you’re playing in shotgun every down like a lot of these guys, then the height, to me, does not have nearly the impact that it normally would if you’re coming out from underneath."
Asked if a team would have to change its change to accommodate a height-challenged quarterback?
"What do you think?" Elway said. "I think that has an impact on it because, like I said, coming out from underneath the center, it’s tougher to see coming out. And shotgun puts you back there, you can see a lot more, those guys are popping up and they’re a lot farther away from you, so they don’t block your view nearly as much as being in shotgun. I think that’s one of the answers."