DENVER — Denver Broncos general manager George Paton has inherited a two-pronged problem.
One, a roster that was only good enough to go 5-11 in 2020. Two, a quarterback position that seemingly everyone inside the organization – including players within the locker room – believes needs fixing.
Paton cannot fix one problem without being mindful of the other.
Look at how he approached Matthew Stafford, for instance. Yes, the
Broncos made an attempt to acquire the once Detroit Lions’ quarterback. But the Broncos were not in to the point that it created more potholes on a roster that could use a year or two of construction. Stafford went to the Rams, instead, in exchange for a considerable chunk of the playoff contender’s future.
Paton has three options in his attempt to upgrade the Broncos’ quarterback position. One, count on incumbent Drew Lock to dramatically reduce his turnovers while also bringing in a No. 2 quarterback with starting experience as a fallback in case Lock falters. This is the option that best protects, and allows Paton to improve on, the overall roster.
Two, replace Lock with one of the franchise-type quarterbacks who may be available. This is the option that would most likely cripple the overall roster. But then again, wouldn’t it be prudent to get your elite quarterback now, and worry about filling in the numerous roster holes later?
Three, bring in a proven, middling starting quarterback to compete with Lock during training camp and the preseason. Here’s a closer look at all the quarterbacks on the Broncos’ roster, and those who figure to be available this offseason:
2020 W-L: 4-9
2020 QB ranking: 32 (75.4)
2021 pay: $1.13 million
Comment: Absolutely, positively he is the best starting option for the Broncos this season – providing he makes a considerable improvement leap in his third season. Lock is wonderfully inexpensive – a mere 0.6 percent of the team’s projected $180 million payroll – and still very young at 24. Once again, he finished the season strong: In the final four games of 2020, he posted a 92.1 passer rating on 7 touchdown passes against 2 interceptions with a 61.2 completion percentage. It was easily his season’s best quarter. And it mirrored his strong finish in 2019 that got Broncos’ management and the fan base so excited about 2020.
But how does that axiom go: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice …
If Lock in the future is what we’ve seen of him overall, the Broncos won’t win big with him. He’s simply been too careless with the ball. During a 7-game stretch last season, he threw 13 interceptions while completing a mere 54.7 percent of his passes for a poor 64.1 rating.
Then again, those seven games were the first seven after he missed a month with a strained shoulder. Were all those interceptions part of his learning curve? Are so many of his mistakes now out of the way, as the final four games of 2020 suggested, and Lock is now on the doorstep to becoming a top 15 starting quarterback?
It requires projection. An extremely difficult call. When Paton made a trade offer for 33-year-old Stafford last month – but didn’t go all in – it was the classic case of hedging his bet. It’s notable that two prominent Bronco players – Kareem Jackson, the oldest starter on the team, and Jerry Jeudy, the youngest starter – publicly expressed their desire for the team to add Houston star Deshaun Watson.
Lock is supremely confident. He’ll turn this lack of internal trust into a boulder-sized shoulder chip.
A confession: I like gunslingers. Joe Namath was my all-time favorite. I have no problem with Lock’s derring-do. I consider this one of his better qualities. He is smart and coachable enough to make better decisions going forward.
His issue is accuracy, especially on throws outside the hashes, and touch on the deep ball. There are quarterback experts who say accuracy is a trait a quarterback either has it or he doesn’t. This was pretty much accepted as truth until Josh Allen came along. The Bills and former Wyoming QB went from completing 52.8 percent of his passes as a rookie in 2018 to 58.8 percent in 2019 to an impressive 69.2 percent in 2020.
In Allen, Lock has hope.
2020 W-L: 1-0
2020 QB ranking: N/A
2021 pay: $850,000
Comment: The Broncos will likely want him back as their No. 3 QB this year. After an encouraging performance in a 37-28 win in his NFL debut start at the Jets in game 4 last season, Rypien was going to get a second start at New England – only to have the game postponed a week because of a Patriot virus outbreak. When the game was played the following week, Lock had enough healing time to return.
Then Rypien got caught up in the virus close-contact controversy prior to the New Orleans game and got shelved along with Lock, Blake Bortles and Jeff Driskel.
Among the Broncos’ disappointments in 2020 is Rypien never got another chance – and there were opportunities for him to replace the struggling Lock – following his game against the Jets.
2020 W-L: 0-1
2020 QB ranking: N/A
2021 pay: $2.5 million (non-guaranteed)
Comment: Turns out, Driskel’s only start last season was against the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Bucs. Ask Patrick Mahomes if the Broncos should cut Driskel some slack. The Broncos also passed on a chance to use Driskel, a fine runner, in a Taysom Hill-type role – one or two option plays a game. Would not expect him to be on the Broncos’ season-opening roster.
2020 W-L: 4-12
2020 QB ranking: 2 (112.4)
2021 pay: $10.54 million
Comment: OK, so at first and second glance, Watson would be the Broncos’ best starting option this season. Despite his and the Texans’ awful won-loss record in 2020, Watson is a proven winner, having gone 11-5 and 10-5 in two previous seasons, and having played terrific in a playoff win against the Bills in 2019 and in the following week’s playoff loss to the Chiefs.
Statistically, Watson has been a consistent elite performer all 3 ½ seasons of his career. There’s not much projection needed here. By most accounts, he is a top 5 quarterback. Let’s see, there is Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Allen, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Watson and Lamar Jackson. Let’s make Watson a top seven QB. That’s still a big improvement from top 32, which is what the Broncos have now.
9News has reported the Broncos are expected to get a seat at the table if Houston caves to Watson’s trade demand. Kareem Jackson, the Broncos’ safety and former Texan, is on record saying Watson is interested in the Broncos. To date, the Texans say Watson is not available for trade. Let’s see where their stance is on March 10, the week before the 2021 league season opens for free agency.
However, as was the case of Stafford, the timing may not be right for the Broncos to go all in. The Broncos are not an 8-8 team on the brink of competing with Mahomes’ Chiefs for the AFC West title. They are a 5-11 team that is solid quarterback play away from 8-8 or 9-7. The Texans reportedly would ask for two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and two young defensive players in return for Watson – again, if he is placed on the trading block.
Watson was superb last year and the Texans still went 4-12. Acquiring Watson may leave the rest of the Broncos’ roster at 4-12-caliber.
Also consider that after Watson’s team-favorable payout in 2021, he will make $35 million in 2022 and $37 million in 2023. With revenue losses from the pandemic not yet subsiding, that’s an onerous financial commitment.
It may be deemed simply too much to give up, and too much to take on, for a Broncos team that is a year away from contention.
If Watson were a free agent, yes, by all means, the Broncos should go all in for him. But a trade may be too depleting to the rest of the roster. Now if Houston eventually lowers its trade demand to one first-round pick, one second rounder and one player …
2020 W-L: 2-3
2020 QB ranking: N/A (97.5 rating through 5 games projected to 13th)
2021 pay: Free agent (made $31.41 million on franchise tag in 2020).
Comment: Providing the Cowboys don’t keep him with a second franchise tag (at $37.7 million for 2021) or contract extension, Prescott could make more sense to the Broncos than Watson. Providing he's healthy, which is hardly a certainty. Prescott would cost money but the Broncos wouldn’t have to give up draft picks or players in return. Albeit, the money would probably come to about $35 million a year for a quarterback coming off a gruesome, dislocated ankle and compound fracture injury.
Prescott may never be the same. The lower leg injury unquestionably will cost him some mobility, which is a big part of his game. Already, there have been reports he underwent a second surgery to stabilize the injured area. Not a good sign.
Then again, there is risk involved in every available QB. There was considerable risk that Peyton Manning was damaged goods when the Broncos signed him in 2012.
2020 W-L: 3-8-1
2020 QB ranking: 34 (72.8)
2021 pay: $25.4 million
Comment: Currently on the Eagles’ trading block. Given Wentz’s performance decline and steep price – there is a March guarantee trigger that sets his contract at $47.4 million over two years -- the Eagles would be lucky to get anything better than a third draft pick in return. Outside of perhaps an initial and cursory “what are you asking for?” conversation, the Broncos have not been involved in Wentz talks according to multiple sources.
Wentz could be viewed as a QB who simply had one bad year – he posted an impressive 102.2 passing rating in 2018 and went 9-7 with a respectable 93.1 rating on 27 touchdown passes against 7 interceptions in 2019. His marked drop-off in 2020, though, lends no evidence he would be an upgrade to Lock.
It says here Lock with a second year under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur would have a better chance to succeed than Wentz in his first year in a new system.
2020 W-L: 2-10
2020 QB ranking: 35 (72.7)
2021 pay: $4.77 million
Comment: As a No. 3 overall draft pick, Darnold may have a little more upside than Lock. But Darnold has been more turnover-prone, throwing 39 interceptions against 45 touchdown passes while losing 7 fumbles in his three seasons with the hapless Jets. He was turnover-prone during his college days at USC, too, so it’s part of his DNA. The expectation is the Jets, who have the No. 2 overall pick, would decline Darnold’s fifth-year option that has been estimated at $25 million for 2022. So Darnold on a one-year bridge makes him tradeable.
But again, Lock in a second year under Shurmur figures to have a better chance to succeed than Darnold in a new system. A Lock-Darnold combination, though, would be enticing. Similar strengths. Similar flaws. Would a weekly competition bring out the best in both?
2020 W-L: 4-11
2020 QB ranking: 22 (92.1)
2021 pay: $17.95 million ($10 million guaranteed)
Comment: Bridgewater is as conservative with his throws as Lock is reckless. Lock utterly outplayed Bridgewater when the two faced off in a December game in Carolina. But for the long-haul, it’s plausible the Broncos’ brass – Paton, Fangio and Shurmur – would consider Bridgewater’s veteran maturity and game-management style a better fit for an offense that is otherwise packed with exciting, young playmakers.
Carolina was in deep on the Stafford talks with their No. 8 overall draft pick plus Bridgewater included in their offer to Detroit. So Bridgewater is available. And Bridgewater as a backup to Lock would be a nice duo as each have different strengths and weaknesses.
For a $17.95 million salary, though, Bridgewater is not coming off the bench. He would start and Lock would continue to develop as the No. 2, providing he wouldn’t be included in the trade package going back to Carolina. Even if Bridgewater restructures, he wouldn’t go below his $10 million guarantee and that is too expensive for a backup.
Paton was part of the Vikings’ management team that selected Bridgewater with the No. 32 overall draft pick in 2014. And Bridgewater guided the Vikings to an 11-5 record and what should have been a first-round playoff win in 2015. But after Bridgewater suffered a devastating, non-contact, left knee injury prior to the 2016 season, Paton was part of the no-brainer decision to not pick up the quarterback’s fifth-year option of $12 million.
I can see the Broncos taking a chance on the more cautious veteran as a bridge quarterback. I can also see the Broncos viewing Bridgewater as not quite good enough to carry a team to a Final Four. This is a decision that could pit the value of improved play in 2021 versus where the Broncos want to be in 2022 and 2023.
2020 W-L: 6-3
2020 QB ranking: 20 (93.5)
2021 pay: Free agent (estimated 1 year, $5 million with incentives)
Comment: He and Fangio had their best year together in 2018 with the Bears. A Lock-Trubisky duo, like a Lock-Darnold partnership, would be an intriguing competition that could bring out the best out of both.
2020 W-L: 7-8
2020 QB ranking: 28 (82.9)
2021 pay: Free agent (Made $3.39 million with incentives last year)
Comment: Was playing well last season until contracting COVID and didn’t look the same after his return. He’ll be 32 this season. A beat up 32. Hard to believe he’d accept a backup role to Lock. But if he finds himself out of work in late-March, Cam might remember he had his best years with Mike Shula as his offensive coordinator in Carolina. Shula is now the Broncos’ quarterbacks’ coach.
2020 W-L: 4-5
2020 QB ranking: 25 (87.3)
2021 pay: Free agent (Made $3 million last year)
Comment: He played well enough for the Cowboys last year to want a “bridge” starting role with a team this year. If he doesn’t get it, the 33-year-old Dalton would make sense as a veteran backup to Lock. If Lock doesn’t play well early, Fangio would have a 10-year starter he could call on.
2020 W-L: 0-0 (7-8 with Indy in 2019)
2020 QB ranking: N/A (18, 88.0 in 2019)
2021 pay: Free agent (estimated 1 year, $5 million with incentives)
Comment: Brissett was the NFL’s highest-paid backup last year at $15.875 million as he was finishing up a two-year extension he earned as a starter. The Colts then went in a different direction and rented Philip Rivers for a year. Brissett would fall into the same category as Dalton – a vet backup with ample starting experience. Brissett would be a younger version at 28.
2020 W-L: 4-3
2020 QB ranking: 17 (95.6)
2021 pay: Free agent (he made $8 million last year and deserves the same in 2021)
Comment: At 38, he’s the NFL’s oldest part-time starter/backup and he’s also the best. The Broncos have never considered him, but the timing might be right this time. Fitz-magic’s work with Dolphins’ rookie and No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa last year strongly suggests he would also be an ideal complement to Lock in 2021.
2020 W-L: 0-0 (7-9 in 2019)
2020 QB ranking: N/A (27, 84.3 in 2019)
2021 pay: Free agent (made $1.1 million in 2020)
Comment: Here’s the ultimate gunslinger. With Tampa Bay in 2019, Winston led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards and was second with 33 touchdown passes. He also led the league with a whopping 30 interceptions. He went 7-9 with a team that Tom Brady won a Super Bowl with a year later. Combining the pick-prone Winston with the pick-prone Lock may not seem like a good idea – except for the fact both have remarkable arm talent. If one of the two can reign in the mistakes, the Broncos might be on to something.
2020 W-L: 13-3
2020 QB ranking: 1 (121.5)
2021 pay: $23.22 million
Comment: He’s not leaving Green Bay. It may take a new deal to pacify him, but he’s not leaving.
2020 W-L: 12-4
2020 QB ranking: 7 (105.1)
2021 pay: $19 million
Comment: He’s not leaving Seattle. It may take a new deal to pacify him, but he’s not leaving.
2020 W-L: 8-8
2020 QB ranking: 10 (101.4)
2021 pay: $19.63 million
Comment: Every offseason there is speculation Carr will be traded. Even if it finally becomes true this year, the Raiders aren’t bailing out the Broncos by trading him to Denver.
Tyrod Taylor, C.J. Beathard, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion, Matt Barkley.
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