DENVER — Accurate. Athletic. Tough.
These descriptions land squarely on the third, fourth and fifth quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL draft. With it all but certain the Jaguars select Trevor Lawrence and the Jets take Zach Wilson, speculation continues to swirl on where Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Trey Lance will land.
One thing is certain: They are all going in the first round. But how high? Top 15? Top 10? Will be there be three straight snatched up -- Lawrence, Wilson and Mac Jones -- for the first time since 1999 Tim Couch (Cleveland), Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia) and Akili Smith (Cincinnati) were off the board in a blink? It certainly feels like Jones fits the 49ers, and he remains the leader in the clubhouse for the third pick because of his accuracy and football IQ.
"He's the most pro-ready to play right now," ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez told Denver7 on Wednesday.
That's when things become interesting. Look at the teams selecting from fourth to 10th? No team in that group needs a quarterback more than the Broncos. This is why the Falcons control the draft, and will leave the Broncos nimble next Thursday.
Atlanta is open for business, seeking multiple first rounders to move the pick. I have said this repeatedly, this represents too big of a risk for general manager George Paton in his first draft. Let's say the Broncos go 6-11, leading to the exits of coach Vic Fangio, the coordinators and Drew Lock, and Paton has no first round pick in 2022 or 2023? Ouch.
It makes more sense to gamble that the Falcons will take tight end Kyle Pitts, teaming him with terrific receivers and quarterback Matt Ryan for a few seasons.
Then, if the Broncos want a quarterback -- and they have had a wandering eye this offseason with Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson, ever-so-briefly with Sam Darnold -- they will likely need to move up since there is no guarantee Fields or Lance will be available at nine, not with the Bears, Patriots, and Steelers among teams that could jump forward. The Broncos don't have to move up, but I think they will need to.
On a Wednesday conference call, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah put it this way: "(Lock) has had ups and downs, but you can see flashes." Then he added, that it would be tough not to take Lance or Fields if available.
Patience can pay off if the Broncos can swing deal with the Dolphins, Lions or Panthers -- I don't see Cincinnati trading out of No. 5 because it goes against their conservative nature in draft. It is possible -- not certain -- the Broncos could move up to No. 7 or No. 8 without surrendering a first round pick. In my latest mock, I have the Broncos sending the Lions a third this year and a second and a third in 2022. It will likely be similar for the Panthers. If the Dolphins move back, I am sure they would want a first. That might be a deal breaker for the Broncos.
If Paton is able to secure Fields or Lance without losing a 1, then I think he has to do it. History tells us not all five quarterbacks in this class will succeed. The bust rate for QBs is frightening. But not having a top flight one in the AFC West -- Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr rank in the league's top 15 for me -- is even scarier. Here's the deal: the Broncos can draft a player and move forward with multiple options:
--Take Fields or Lance, trade Lock, and sign Teddy Bridgewater if cut by Carolina as a bridge quarterback until a rookie is ready.
--Take Fields or Lance, keep Lock, and see if Lock makes significant strides with competition pushing him.
--Take Fields or Lance, keep Lock, and look to play a rookie mid-to-late season to set the kid up as starter for 2022.
With that, let's take a closer look at the two most viable options for Broncos:
Justin Fields, 6-3, 227, Ohio State
Fields is a passing quarterback who can run. I am on record in radio appearances saying I want a hybrid quarterback. By that I mean, Russell Wilson. A quarterback who can make plays with his feet, but makes his money in the pocket. I see shades of this in Fields. He is tough, strong, and staged breathtaking performances on the biggest stage, going 20-2 as a starter and shredding Clemson. He runs a 4.4 40. This is Robert Griffin III, Lamar Jackson speed. However, he's not looking to take off. That is critical. The key for Fields is making good reads in the middle of the field, working through progressions. That has been criticism of him. Some of it is fair, some it is not when you watch the film and see him go through reads and also realize the Ohio State offense emphasized deep throws. Where Fields goes matter. Can the Broncos develop him? That's a concern because we don't know what the coaching staff will look like after this year. It's highly unlikely Fangio survives a third straight losing season to begin his career. But Fields can still learn from watching and, perhaps, eventually playing as a rookie. And Paton has a six-year contract, so he can slow play this with a first round quarterback. Said Sanchez, "Fields is a pocket passer who by the way runs a 4.4. You are welcome. Here's the thing. He has that rare ability to extend plays. I think the criticism of him is unfair."
Trey Lance, 6-4, 224, North Dakota State
Lance has been rising up draft boards this offseason. He is only 20, but has wowed coaches and executives with his maturity in Zoom interviews. No one has a higher ceiling than Lance. There have been comparisons to Josh Allen since Lance played against lesser competition and struggled with his accuracy. His 17 college starts and one in 15 months are concerns. He projects as an ideal redshirt candidate. The reasons for taking Lance are multiple: He's a leader, more team-first than first-team, and is an athletic marvel. If he can improve his accuracy, he will be a star. That is not easy to pull off in the NFL. Everyone mentions Allen as the reason this can happen. However, Allen represents an aberration not a pattern. Given Lance's attributes, will the Patriots trade up to get Lance at six, seven or eight?
“I think (Lance) would best benefit from being in a situation where he has an established starter. To go into a situation like Jordan Love last year. I see a lot of similarities there (without the turnovers in college),” Sanchez said. "But you watch this guy and he’s the one you want off the bus first. (Geez), he looks amazing. He’s big, he’s strong, he passes the eye test. He has the greatest upside.”
Again, the question facing the Broncos is simple: Can they move forward with Lock in the AFC West, believing they will not be picking in the top 10 in future seasons?
The clock is ticking. Eight days remain until the Broncos are on the clock with the ninth pick. Or maybe the 6th, 7th or 8th.