Pass on Kirk Cousins.
I’ll say it. It isn’t necessarily a popular position right now given what the Broncos currently have under center. Siemian could be a good backup, but has been pushed up a rung because of Lynch’s disappointing development thus far.
So what should John Elway do?
Wait at number 5 for the next franchise QB to fall into his lap. While all the rankings could change a ton between now and D-day, as of now NFL.com’s Mike Mayock currently ranks Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Allen of Wyoming 1 & 2 on his board. Given the access he has to front offices, one could safely assume that is the general consensus around the league right now.
That’s great for Denver.
Of the rookies available, Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield appear to be the most Pro ready. Pro Football Focus has made the argument that Mayfield should go number 1 overall and likely would if he were a mere 1-2 inches taller.
So let’s say Elway takes one of the two. For the sake of this exercise you choose which, but let’s conservatively project them to have an encouraging rookie season with year 2 and 3 slated to be the “breakout” seasons since most franchise guys follow along a similar development route.
What could this do for Denver’s future compared to a roster built around a $30ish M QB like Kirk Cousins? A lot, really.
Repairing the holes in the No Fly Zone
Let’s start with areas that were problematic in 2017. Every Broncos fan knows the offensive line was a sieve, but fewer recognize that the vaunted No Fly Zone came back to Earth last year. While Denver finished 4th overall in total yards allowed through the air, efficiency stats paint a completely different picture.
According to Football Outsiders DVOA stat, which measures efficiency on a per down basis: Denver’s pass D was 15th in the league last year. They were particularly bad against tight ends and tertiary receivers, finishing among the 5 weakest teams in the league defending passes to either. In fact, only Oakland allowed more yards to tight ends on a per game basis than Denver did.
One reason this became such a weakness in 2017 is that the middle of the Broncos defense fell off. While Justin Simmons continued his growth after a promising ’16 Darian Stewart declined and Will Parks showed little of the potential Denver fans hoped for.
The other reason is that after 3 seasons where his play ranked among the best in the league, Brandon Marshall had a very down season. Beside him Todd Davis was his usual self, strong against the run but a liability in pass coverage. Team’s caught on and exploited this.
John Elway has generally passed on paying stack linebackers (with Marshall being the notable exception) so Davis is likely gone. In the past that’s meant a “next man up” philosophy and there’s little indication anything on that front could change this offseason.
So how does the team better defend the middle of the field?
What a rookie QB salary could do is allow the Broncos to enter the safety market for a real difference maker beside Justin Simmons. While Darian Stewart’s deal and dead money leaves him a more likely cut in 2019 than this offseason; roughly $26 million to play with and a strong free agent class Denver could land a stud to put in front of him.
The pie in the sky here is LaMarcus Joyner who had a breakout year for Wade Phillips in Los Angeles, but other players like former Seahawk Bradley McDougald or Ex-Falcon Ricardo Allen could step into the free safety position to bolster Denver’s coverage. Eric Reid would also be a huge upgrade and may find his market cool after his association with Colin Kaepernick and the anthem protest of police brutality.
While safety seems like a position outside the expected moves, many of the better teams in the league such as the Patriots have essentially 3 starters at the position. Adding a strong coverage player like Allen would give Denver flexibility with Stewart, allowing them the ability to go with a big nickel. It would also provide veteran insurance to Joseph if Elway elects to move on from Aqib Talib.
Patching an offensive line
Obviously, whether the quarterback or Cousins starts for Denver next year the quarterback will need more protection than was given to Siemain and Lynch. Unfortunately, it looks like the free agent market will be a weak one, particularly at tackle where former Colorado Buffalo Nate Solder headlines after his worst season as a pro. Since the market will be so weak, a player like Andrew Norwell or Duane Brown (if he leaves Seattle) may well naming his price. A rookie QB gives Denver the flexibility to chase such a player if they deem it worthwhile, but other options do exist.
The best approach here may well be to throw money at a few up and comers such as Chris Hubbard of the Steelers or Cameron Fleming of the Patriots and hope one bites. Another name that intrigues at the guard position is Jack Mewhort who showed a lot of promise early in his career before injuries derailed the last two seasons with the Colts. If Elway and Joseph decide they want a veteran presence, someone like Jahri Evans who most recently played for the Packers may also entice.
Adding weapons to the offense
Lastly, a rookie QB is going to need targets to catch his passes. This would be a question mark for Kirk Cousins’ as well, since his production notably fell off in 2016 after his top targets left for greener pastures (his deep accuracy, in particular). The problem if the Broncos pay Cousins top dollar is the crunch it puts on the cap for addressing this issue, especially given that the team is reportedly shopping Emmanuel Sanders at the moment. Denver is a bit bare here after Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, so a rookie QB salary would provide them more flexibility to address it.
Unfortunately Jarvis Landry was franchised by The Dolphins, but that still leaves Marqise Lee, another slot weapon that could really help alleviate the pressure on Sanders and DT. He’s had unremarkable QB play thus far in his career and has still posted positive PFF grades ever year. Lee is also capable of both slot and outside play, flexibility that could really help moving forward. Other targets I like for the Broncos are names like Tyler Eifert, who has had an injury prone start but could prove a steal if he finds health, or Cameron Brate, who may be looking for a fresh start after Tampa Bay drafted O.J Howard last season.
Drafting a rookie QB also leaves space under the cap for C.J Anderson and his $4.5 M cap number. Long a candidate to be released this offseason because of the absence of any dead money on his deal, Anderson leads the list of potential cap casualties if the Broncos pursue a pricey veteran like Cousins. With a rookie QB and his much more affordable cap hit, $4.5 M is far more palpable for the 2 down thumper and positive locker room presence.
If Elway and the team were to choose to replace him, the upcoming draft is very rich in back talent where a player like Nick Chubb from Georgia could be available on Day 2. Free Agency also has some names worth mentioning such as Alfred Morris, who may be looking for a bigger role after he filled in admirably for the suspended Ezekiel Elliot. LeGarrette Blount may also intrigue as a running down back after a successful stint with the Eagles, though he may be looking for more money.
All the aforementioned players could be targets alongside Cousins’ as well, if Elway decides to go that way. The problem is that a $30 Million salary will seriously tighten the Broncos purse strings, enough so that they may need to cut bait on some veterans to make the cap work. While 9 draft picks inspires confidence that some of these positions could have a rookie solution, it’s unrealistic to expect a 4th rounder to step in his first year and produce above average play.
The best option to win long term is to find a QB that can produce top 10 play at an affordable cost. This will allow the team to flesh out the roster around him early on which will ease his transition into the pros. Using the extra salary his contract provides is the best way to build a Super Bowl caliber roster in 2018-2021. It worked for the Steelers at the beginning of Ben Roethlesberger’s career, with the Legion of Boom era Seahawks and the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. It would work for the Denver Broncos.