DENVER — With one month remaining, a mammoth cargo ship was wiggled free, clearing way for more trades to resume.
Not in the Suez Canal. In the NFL draft. The San Francisco 49ers took control of their quarterback destiny by swapping first round picks this year and dealing first rounders in 2022 and 2023 and a third rounder in 2022 to the Miami Dolphins. This is the kind of move you make when your coach (Kyle Shanahan) and general manager (John Lynch) work in lockstep on short and longterm goals, and fall in love with the third best available quarterback.
There's no way they make this move without having their eye on one specific player.
Free agency continues, but the draft grabbed me by the nape of the neck Friday. San Francisco shook the league by its collective shoulders. So where do they go next? And will it impact the Broncos?
Opinions remain divided on the motivation for San Francisco's bold decision. Was it to land Alabama quarterback Mac Jones -- does Shanahan see shades of Matt Ryan who he coached to MVP honors in Atlanta? -- Ohio States's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance? When the trade went down, my initial reaction was that Shanahan wanted Lance for his mobility and arm talent, with the idea he could redshirt behind Jimmy Garoppolo. However, people who know Shanahan well -- among them his former college teammate and good friend Chris Simms -- believe Jones is the target. So I side with this prediction. The 49ers appear out on Jimmy G, over the health and turnover issues, despite what they might say publicly.
Jones projects as roughly the 25th to 35th best prospect in this year draft, bumped down because of a lack of quick twitch athleticism. That's why it feels like a reach to take him third. However, the NFL is all about fit. And folks rave that while Jones lacks the hardware he has elite software, able to process information quickly, something that has dogged Garoppolo. Making fast decisions remains paramount, leading to better accuracy, and Shanahan seems to believe Jones has enough in the tool kit to manipulate the pocket and run the bootlegs necessary in his offense.
So is it Mac? According to reports, Shanahan and Lynch will watch the Crimson Tide star in Alabama on Tuesday rather than Fields. Elaborate smokescreen or significant tell? For now, I hedge my bet that Jones is their guy. Broncos general manager George Paton plans to attend Fields' pro day with Broncos' representatives in Alabama as well.
Why bring this up? It could influence the Broncos through multiple scenarios:
1) Trade up, take control
The Broncos could take their cue from San Francisco and take control by moving up to fourth or fifth in the draft. To do that, the Broncos would have to love Jones, Lance and Fields and be comfortable with any of them on the board. That is an uneasy place. Paton watched Lance's Pro Day in person (along with Zach Wilson, though he's projected to go to the Jets with the second pick), but not Jones. He sent Brian Stark, the Broncos' director of college scouting, to see the Alabama star. Jones will throw Tuesday on the same day as Fields and is scheduled to interview with the Broncos via Zoom next week (this should happen with all the top QBs, to be fair). Paton will be in Columbus. Does it matter when everything leading up to the draft is a tangled web of half-truths and diversionary tactics? Yeah, probably.
Atlanta could take a quarterback at four, and Fields grew up in the Atlanta area. Would that leave Lance on the board at five? The Bengals are not in the QB market. And if the Broncos want Fields or Lance, they would have to move to five, six or seven because Carolina is in play to take one at eight.
2) Sit pat, cross fingers
An argument can be made for the Broncos to stand pat, and see if one of the quarterback drops to them without surrendering any draft collateral for a roster that still has multiple holes. If Jones goes third, the idea of a quarterback falling to nine becomes more realistic. It would require some teeth-gnashing moments with Atlanta and Dolphins passing on the position, leaving one available for Denver even if Carolina takes one. It would show that quarterback is not defining the Broncos draft, rather showing they are prepared to be nimble if one falls in their lap.
3) Trade for or sign a veteran QB
The Broncos can use the unquenchable QB thirst to their advantage if they move in another direction. If five go in the first eight picks, then the Broncos could choose from the best defensive players at corner (Patrick Surtain III, Caleb Farley), linebacker (Micah Parsons), or at offensive tackle Rashawn Slater. Or they could move back, acquire an additional second round pick and take someone like Miami edge rushers Gregory Rousseau or Michigan's Kwity Paye at 14 or 15. In that scenario, the Broncos would trade for a veteran quarterback like Nick Foles (a true backup), Teddy Bridgewater (would compete to start, but would need to lower his salary), Gardner Minshew (would compete to start after posting 37 TDs, 11 picks in career) or sign free agent Alex Smith as a mentor for Drew Lock.
With the work Paton has accomplished in free agency -- reshaping the secondary with cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller -- all avenues are open. Paton could shoot his shot with a rookie QB with next year's class not predicted as strong, though that would not necessarily benefit Vic Fangio's pursuit to keep his job. Everything remains in play. And Paton, if nothing else, will not get flat-footed as the Broncos create multiple plans at the league's most important position. Next stop: Field(s) of Dreams.