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Broncos' Paton takes patient approach as searches for QB competition

Trade, draft, free agent remain options
Panthers Washington Football
Posted at 11:46 AM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 13:49:53-04

DENVER -- He added two veteran cornerbacks. He signed Justin Simmons to a record contract. He brought back Von Miller and Kareem Jackson, and inked former Vikings running back Mike Boone defensive tackle Shamar Stephen for depth.

Over the course of his three months on the job, as he took over a franchise absent from the playoffs for fives seasons, general manager George Paton has provided a bolt of energy and inspired collaboration. Now, the tough part, which has undermined the Broncos since winning Super Bowl 50, has been exposed in plain sight.

Paton needs to make a significant move at quarterback. All options remain on the table: a trade, a free agent or a first-round draft pick.

With the annual selection process three weeks away on Thursday, the conversation swirls, especially in light of the 49ers' acquisition of the third pick and the Panthers landing Sam Darnold.

What will the Broncos do?

Let's take a look at where this stands, navigating scenarios past and present:

For starters, the Broncos did not chase Sam Darnold, according to multiple sources. They had exploratory talks, but were never surrendering a second round pick for a player they did not view as an upgrade over incumbent starter Drew Lock. Time will tell if this was a misstep, but there were reasons for pause. Darnold, like Lock, struggles with turnovers, throwing 39 interceptions and fumbling 20 times in 38 games. Also, a decision must be made on his fifth-year option by May 3. That framed this decision as well. If you pick up the $18.8 million salary for 2022, which the Panthers are expected to do, he is your quarterback.

Also, and here's where it gets interesting, acquiring Darnold would have handcuffed the Broncos in the draft. Let's say that Justin Fields or Trey Lance are available with the seventh pick. Had the Broncos surrendered a second rounder for Darnold, they might not have had the draft cache to make a move for Lions' selection to say nothing of the Falcons' and Bengals' picks. Elasticity in the draft is valuable.

In contrast, the Broncos aggressively pursued Matthew Stafford. The Rams won the bidding, but it provided a peek into how Paton is approaching this quarterback search. He remains patient, and appears ready to move when he sees the right fit.

So who is that? There is no simple answer yet.

In a trade scenario, Teddy Bridgewater is available after Carolina replaced him with Darnold. Paton worked for the Vikings when they drafted Bridgewater. He knows him well. Everyone raves about Bridgewater's character and leadership. I fully expect the Broncos to express interest in Bridgewater, but they want to minimize the cost in any deal.

Simply put, they don't want him at his $17 million salary even if it only requires a late-round pick. If the Panthers pay $10 million, Bridgewater at $7 million makes sense as competition for Lock. The issue with Bridgewater? He is available for a reason. He is a game manager, valued for smart decisions. The Panthers are moving on after he completed 15 touchdowns and 11 picks in 15 games, going 4-11. Lock posted 16 touchdowns with 15 picks in 13 games, leaving him with a 4-9 record.

If not Bridgewater among veterans, then what else is out there? The Broncos could send a late-round pick to Jacksonville for Gardner Minshew -- some think the league has figured him out, but he owns 37 TDs and 11 touchdowns in 23 games -- or Nick Foles, a true backup at this point. Alex Smith remains available as a free agent. He is the perfect mentor, but is he capable of starting?

Look at Spotrac's list, and there are lesser names like Nick Mullens, Sean Mannion and Brian Hoyer available. Lock would be the favorite to win the job if any of those players is signed.

Then comes the draft.

I was talking with Mark Schlereth on 104.3 The Fan on Wednesday, and he made a great point: if the Broncos loved one of the quarterbacks, they would have already moved up. It is an interesting point. Every source I have talked to over the past few weeks insists the Broncos are still working through their assessment of the QBs. Of course, they were impressed with the workouts by Lance, Fields and Wilson, all attended by Paton. But were they infatuated enough to surrendered future multiple first round picks to land one of them? For San Francisco, the decision was easier. The 49ers' roster is ready to win now, and they will, in theory, be drafting late in the first if they make deep playoff runs.

If the Broncos move up on a quarterback and miss, they could lose out on top 10, top 15 picks at a time when their roster has multiple needs. The counter argument? If you don't have a quarterback, the rest of the roster doesn't matter. And next year does not project as a strong quarterback class.

This is why this is such an interesting decision for Paton. Can the Broncos reach the playoffs with the fourth best quarterback in their division with Lock ranking behind Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr? The Bears pulled if off last season with Mitch Trubisky, but it is not an easy mountain to climb, and requires a brilliant defense that produces takeaways.

So Paton continues to watch film, hold conversations and consider options. He has, by all accounts, enjoyed a solid offseason. But until another quarterback is added, questions will continue to linger if the Broncos are actually better.