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Denver can’t afford to play it safe at quarterback anymore

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One of the Broncos strengths has been getting value out of it’s player acquisitions and not overpaying for anything, but that approach has yielded table scraps at the quarterback position.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Author’s note: this is an opinion piece merely to express my current feelings. I’ll be back to my regular scheduled film study programming shortly.

“The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.” - Robert Iger, Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company.

That quote is the embodiment of three years of quarterback strategy from the Denver Broncos. Ever since Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset with a Super Bowl ring and a 9:17 touchdown to interception ratio in 2015, the Denver Broncos have been on a quest to find something resembling decent quarterback play.

They have approached the situation a myriad of ways, trying free agency where they offered a contract to Colin Kaepernick in 2016, and signed Case Keenum in 2018 after showing interest in Kirk Cousins as well. They tried the draft where they have picked from both ends of the draft with a trade up for Paxton Lynch in the first round, and the selection of Trevor Siemian in the 7th round. They also tested out the homegrown route with Brock Osweiler, opting in the end to let him walk for more money elsewhere.

One can certainly not say that Denver hasn’t tried to fill their quarterback void, as they have looked under nearly every proverbial rock (oh hey, Chad Kelly) to find an answer at the position.

However, all of those moves have one thing in common; they were the safe play. Now, some of them ended up being the right play, with the decision to not hand Brock Osweiler
$72 million dollars standing out among the rest, so I’m not necessarily knocking Elway and the Broncos for having a good eye at the plate to let one sail by high and outside.

But the reality is, in today’s NFL, you have to swing for the fences. Only the lucky few have been successful at filling the NFL’s most important position by playing it safe, and while it’s tempting to want to wait for lightning to strike you just like it did the Cowboys or Seahawks, they are very much the exception, and playing for the exception is a losing strategy.

We can go over each move Denver has made at the quarterback position since Manning and see how it was like the most logical decision at the time, given what we had to work with. Not overpaying for Kirk Cousins, not overpaying for a trade up, taking what the draft gives you, signing the solid low cost option are all moves that one can justify because they were low risk moves. They made the most business sense at the time in terms of resource and risk management. However, they also all subsequently carried a very low probability of reward.

As much as I love John Elway, his moves at the QB position have been the equivalent of throwing five yards short of the sticks on 3rd down and hoping the defender misses a tackle. He of all people should understand that sometimes you just have to hang in there and heave one downfield.

‘So what does swinging for the fences look like’, you might ask. Let’s take a look.

Swinging for the Fences

For the last three years, while Denver has been mired in quarterback sewage, here are some quarterbacks who have been drafted.

2016

Jared Goff

Carson Wentz

2017

Mitch Trubisky

Patrick Mahomes

Deshaun Watson

2018

Baker Mayfield

Sam Darnold

Josh Allen

Josh Rosen

Now, the purpose of this list is not to claim that all of those guys are slam dunks (I recognize that’s the third different sport I’ve pulled a metaphor from. I’ll see if I can weave in golf and Nascar before the end), but to merely show all the action that’s taken place at the quarterback position while Denver was “grooming” Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian.

Every quarterback on that list except Mayfield was traded up for, and all but one went in the top 10 of the draft (Watson went #12). Am I saying that picking someone in the top 10 guarantees they’ll be successful? Absolutely not and there’s as many Blake Bortles as there are Carson Wentz’s in draft lore.

However, while Denver was limping along with obvious short-term band aids, 9 other teams, a near third of the league, got their presumed franchise quarterbacks under our very noses.

As a quick aside, I recognize that Denver drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016 (no matter how hard we try to forget), and that was a decent risk, but trading a 3rd round pick to move up and get a guy at the back end of the first round, who was the third best QB at the time, is more letting the draft come to you and was pretty safe as far as QB trade ups go. Although, I don’t think we can rule out the fact that it potentially made Elway even more gun-shy when his most risky QB move of the last four years fell as royally flat as this one did.

Cost of doing business

Now I mentioned that all of those quarterbacks were taken in a trade up, so let’s take a quick look at the cost each of those teams paid for their respective signal callers.

Jared Goff - Two second-round picks (2016), a third-round pick (2016), a first-round pick (2017) and another third-round pick (2017), while getting back a fourth-round pick (2016) and a sixth-round pick (2016).

Carson Wentz - Third round pick (2016), fourth round pick (2016), first round pick (2017), second round pick (2018).

Mitch Trubisky - Third round pick (2017), fourth round pick (2017), third round pick (2018).

Patrick Mahomes - Third round pick (2017), first round pick (2018).

Deshuan Watson - First round pick (2018).

Sam Darnold - Second round pick (2018), second round pick (2018), second round pick (2019).

Josh Allen - Second round pick (2018), second round pick (2018).

Josh Rosen - Third round pick (2018), fifth round pick (2018).

Obviously the jury is still out on all these QBs, especially the ones drafted last year. So what about the guys from 2016 and 2017?

Well, one of them is playing for a Super Bowl next weekend. Think Rams fans remember or care how much they paid for Goff? Didn’t take Les Snead long to re-stock the cupboard to make up for those lost draft picks either, with a star QB on a rookie deal.

Carson Wentz’s team recovered nicely from giving up all the capital to trade for him. I’m sure the Eagles fans were able to console themselves about that lost 2018 second rounder this year with their Super Bowl parade.

Do we even want to talk about Patrick Mahomes? The Chiefs would gladly pay double what they got this year’s league MVP for, and wouldn’t think twice.

The Texans and Bears, while they haven’t had as much fanfare, both made the playoffs this year, and are beginning to build a core of talent around the future of their franchise, which is as big a win as any for two teams who have been in QB hell for awhile now.

League Average Unicorns

These teams listed above changed the future of their franchise with these moves. Without an infusion of draft talent at the QB position, what are the alternatives?

Denver cannot afford to keep aiming for “league average” at quarterback and hope the defense and running game comes through. That has never been a sound strategy to win football games in the modern NFL. It wasn’t a sound strategy in 2015 when Denver won a Super Bowl with it, it wasn’t a sound strategy when Jacksonville tried (and failed) to replicate it last year. Denver got lucky, and squeezed out just enough from a historic defense and an aging Hall of Fame QB.

Somehow, that seemed to perpetuate this myth that Denver could get by being “just good enough” at quarterback and let the rest of the team fill in the gaps. Denver was laying railroad ties while the rest of the NFL were building space ships. Because the very idea of a “league average” quarterback is a myth.

Want to know who were some of the middle of the pack QBs in QB rating last year? This is excluding the top 12 and bottom 10 QBs. Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Derek Carr.

How about in 2017? Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Andy Dalton. In 2016, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Philip Rivers.

That’s obviously just a sampling, but it’s informative because every one of those guys is paid and viewed as a franchise QB (less so Andy Dalton these days, but was then). The middle of the pack is just when franchise QBs have down years. The guys Denver has been counting on to try and be “just average” have finished #23, #29, #29 in QB rating from 2016 - 2018 respectively.

This safe, inexpensive, middle of the road QB on whom the team can rely to consistently be league average is a myth. Denver will never find one.

Want to know what else Denver will never find? The perfect draft prospect at QB. Unless you plan to be the Browns and camp out in the top five picks of the draft for a decade waiting for the perfect QB to fall into your lap, it isn’t going to happen. Additionally, shying away from a big trade up because the prospect isn’t a guarantee is exactly how you stay in the status quo.

So where does all this leave us? Notice I haven’t even mentioned the QBs that are available for potential trade up this year in the draft. There will be plenty written about each of them over the next 100 days.

This is less about who is specifically there, and more about a philosophy shift; a willingness to swing for the fences; a willingness to potentially strike out. Because big rewards don’t come without taking a big risk - just ask the team who traded a king’s ransom for a quarterback, then hired a 30 year old to be an NFL head coach, and are now playing for a Super Bowl.

Or maybe we’ll just stick with what we have and hope for better results this time. That seems to be working out just fine.