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The Broncos’ 10 best options at QB1 in 2021

George Paton’s choice this offseason could define his tenure as the Broncos’ GM.

Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

In the days following the San Francisco 49ers’ trade up with the Miami Dolphins, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what it means. I wrote out my initial thoughts on Friday and stand by those, but as I’ve watched Broncos Country debate a number of different quarterback options this weekend I thought it time to share my own.

The following is a ranked list of how I see each of the Broncos’ remaining quarterback options. Obviously this list is purely subjective and I’m sure we won’t agree on all of it. That’s okay. Over the last year we’ve let too many disagreements over signal callers distract us from the fact that we’re all Broncos fans hoping George Paton makes the right decision. Just because we disagree on what that is doesn’t mean we can’t still root for the same final result: wins. I hope we can keep that in mind.

As far as the rankings below, I tried to separate the tiers into what I see while the numbers themselves indicate how I view each passer. I considered the cost as well as return and tried to consider long-term implications of each move. So a short-term fix didn’t appeal to me as much as solving the signal caller issue for the long-term. Also keep in mind that a ranking represents how I view a prospective option while trying to consider the risks associated with them.

Almost definitely unavailable

These two players look out of reach.

QB1 Trevor Lawrence - Clemson

Let’s start by saying it’s basically mathematically impossible. I’ve known that since the Broncos beat the Jets on Thursday Night football.

QB3 Zach Wilson - BYU+

2021’s Joe Burrow is a kid from Draper, Utah who threw for 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions across his first two seasons at BYU. To turn himself from afterthought to first round quarterback, Wilson convinced his father to ditch Comcast so he could study tape on Youtube+. He made weekend treks to California to train with former Cougar and NFL QB John Beck. Thanks to his injury-plagued 2019, Wilson approached the road trips as a necessary grind to vault himself past Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney (yes, that Romney) for a starting job last fall.

All of Wilson’s hard work led to the kind of meteoric rise that legends are made of.

The question becomes this: does Wilson live up to what fans and media members see on their television? There’s little doubt he has the arm talent and gusto for big plays that will quickly endear him to his future fans. Mahomesian throws litter Wilson’s tape, which plays a role in why some analysts rank him ahead of Lawrence.

So why is Wilson ranked behind Lawrence and Fields when there’s little question he fits into the Pat Shurmur offense? Almost entirely due to a concern I won’t be able to answer that, the Broncos’ front office probably can. It isn’t Wilson’s fault he already has a right labral tear on his medical history, but there’s no way it can be dismissed without a second thought. The way he can contort his arm into weird angles is majestic, but if the shoulder starts to fail him it all goes by the wayside quickly.

The red flag is enough for me to push Wilson behind Fields, but they will land at two and three on my final board as I’m splitting hairs between them. Both would bring a big play element to the Broncos offense fans already love with Drew Lock. Both show off an easy kind of ball placement and accuracy the Broncos’ current starter simply hasn’t. Wilson’s arm strength isn’t up there with the best in the NFL, but it’s very good and he displays easy accuracy to all levels of the field along with a rare ability to create off platform.

So you’re saying there’s a chance...

With the 49ers’ trade, one of these three will be gone. The other two should be available.

QB2 Justin Fields - Ohio State

There are two big strikes against Fields that the Broncos will need to accept before he garners any real consideration. The first is how he led the #WeWanttoPlay campaign when it looked as though the Big Ten would cancel their season over concerns related to Covid-19. The second is that he played in an offense that relied on receivers running option routes, which led to plays where Fields is left waiting on someone to cut open. I have Fields above every other option this side of Lawrence because I see both as positives.

While it’s totally reasonable to debate if college football should have happened in the middle of a pandemic, it’s hard to miss why a presumptive first round quarterback on a national title contender would want to play. The fact Fields took it upon himself to speak out and withstood all the things that meant speaks to the type of leader he is.

As for the playbook, Fields displays the mental acumen to make full field progressions at a high level. He also shows that he will need to do a better job working off his first read quickly in the NFL. It’s something that I suspect will be a work in progress for him in the league. Every team has to come to peace with this or they’ll simply pass on the 6’3” passer.

So why does Fields land above the competition in my book?

He displays the best combination of leadership, arm talent, accuracy, and poise under pressure of anyone I’ve dug into from this draft class. The Buckeyes shifted their offense from the Dwayne Haskins’ dink and dunk to a sort of bombing run when Fields stepped into the lineup. He’s the kind of passer who will fearlessly hang in the pocket. maneuvering around and through grasping hands to buy time for one of his receivers deep downfield. When plays break down, he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands with 4.4 speed, wiggle, and the vision to make the most of it.

My concerns about Fields stem from his propensity to trust in his initial read and the need to throw with more anticipation. These will sound familiar if you’ve kept up my thoughts on Drew Lock over the 2020 season. Where they differ is that Fields displays very good ball placement to the intermediate and deep levels of the field while Shurmur’s offense moved away from horizontal leading throws because Lock was abysmal at hitting them.

QB4 Trey Lance - North Dakota State

For NFL teams, rankings like this are a subjective, inexact science based around film study, scouting reports, data analysis, interviews, and medical histories. To select a quarterback in the first round of the draft is to embark on what is hopefully a 15+ year journey with stability at the most important position. The reward for getting it right is so large that it pays to take swings on lottery tickets. Now that Josh Allen turned the Buffalo Bills into a Super Bowl contender, no one cares that he was a risky project coming out of Wyoming.

Which brings us to Lance, who is set to become the posterchild for the value of the quarterback position in modern NFL history. Lance has played one game since the 2019 season and 17 games in all. His most recent tape is little more than an exhibition game and one he didn’t look particularly good in.

It isn’t that Lance is a bad passer. He’s simply an extremely callow one with just 318 passing attempts in a run-first offense built to wreck the opposition on the ground. A powerful runner who doesn’t hesitate to inflict punishment, Lance routinely pulled the ball down instead of risking it landing in the hands of defenders, which played a role in his 0 interception 2019. In addition, the talent disparity between NDSU and their opponents was so vast that Lance threw all of 22 passes while his team trailed during his entire collegiate career.

In addition to the concerns above, Lance is clearly the least accurate passer of the big five. Like Fields, Lance’s tape makes it clear he needs to do a better job throwing with anticipation. He also displays an elongated release, inconsistent footwork, and the need to refine his follow through. Josh Allen’s success will convince an NFL team that Lance can fix all these things and when he displays good form, he is very accurate. Only time will tell if they were correct.

These questions raise concerns about his projection into the league. It’s also why he’s a risky choice if George Paton wishes to upgrade on the Broncos’ incumbent at the position. Taking Lance is a bet on traits, with hope that the right offensive coordinator can unlock his potential. The 20-year-old has a very good to elite arm and all reports about his character, mental makeup, and work ethic are superb. It’s up to NFL teams to vet that further, but from where I sit, he passes those tests with flying colors.

All told, I have Lance as a tier below the trio of Lawrence, Fields, and Wilson on my final big board because I do believe he’s a more risky prospect.

Jones’in’ for a change under center

If George Paton is bound and determined to draft a QB...

TQB7 Mac Jones - Alabama

After two years holding onto special teams, Michael McCorkle Jones stepped in for the injured Tua Tagovailoa in 2019 and helped the Tide roll to a 3-1 finish with a Citrus Bowl win over the Michigan Wolverines. Jones began his 2020 campaign by beating out the top 2020 QB recruit in the country to hold onto his starting job. He followed it up by making history with a perfect season to go with a litany of broken records.

There’s been a raging debate about Jones since Alabama wrecked Ohio State in a 52-24 drubbing back in January. How much credit goes to the 22-year-old passer’s surgical accuracy and decision-making when Sports Info Solutions charted all of 181 passes that weren’t RPOs, screens, or play action passes? His defenders will point to his work ethic, demeanor, and leadership while his detractors bring up the fact his entire starting offense will play on Sundays. Both have a fair point.

With the chips on the table, the most important traits a quarterback can posses are the ability to process information quickly and deliver a catchable ball. In these two areas Jones excels, and it will surely provide him with a chance to prove he belongs in the NFL. My concerns about every other aspect of his game knock him down the board. He’s displayed adequate arm strength and a marginal ability to make second reaction plays.

While the old guard quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning sliced up opposition without serving as a running threat, a pocket-bound quarterback hasn’t delivered on his draft stock since the Atlanta Falcons drafted Matt Ryan in 2008. The laundry list of “safe” prospects who busted over the last decade is quite long. Jones will enter a league where quarterbacks are routinely asked to make plays after the play call breaks down. He’ll do so with 17 starts under his belt, and that lack of experience only increases the chances an NFL defense will throw him looks he’s never seen before. It makes him the most risky first round prospect of the rookie class.

Competition?

If Paton looks to trade for another signal caller, these stand out as the best options.

QB5 Sam Darnold - New York Jets

There is little question about Joe Douglas’ plan with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, which means the third overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft should become available. So far in his NFL career, Darnold has played in 38 out of a potential 48 games. He’s missed time with two shoulder injuries, a foot sprain, and mononucleosis. When he’s made it to the field, his production has left most wanting. He’s thrown for 8097 yards, 45 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions in his career.

Darnold’s spot on this list comes down to the fact he’s still just 24-years-old with very good arm talent and athleticism. It’s built upon the belief that spending three years with Rick Dennison and Adam Gase calling plays surrounded by a pathetic supporting cast cut into his production. You spend enough time surrounded by poop, you’ll probably get a little on your shoes.

My concerns with Darnold start with the cost to acquire him. There is only one year remaining on his rookie contract and Paton would need to decide by May 3 if he’s picking up the fifth year option to the tune of $18.8 million in 2022. That should dampen his market, but it makes his fit with the Broncos a potentially complicated one. When I spoke with Tim Jenkins on Cover 2 Broncos, he mentioned that Darnold and Lock probably can’t coexist in a locker room. Trading for Darnold most likely means trading Lock to the highest bidder.

Is that a worthwhile risk?

QB6 Gardner Minshew - Jacksonville Jaguars

Draft pedigree sticks with a player long after he’s drafted. Evaluators will go back to their draft reports when a prospective free agent or trade acquisition becomes available. New decision-makers will consider prior investment when they make their first moves to place their stamp on a roster.

Minshew was a 6th round pick in a weak 2019 QB class, so when the capped-out Jacksonville Jaguars saw a chance to tank into Trevor Lawrence before the 2019 offseason, they pounced. It played a significant role in the fact that after a rookie season where he outplayed Nick Foles, Minshew couldn’t pass Mike Glennon and rookie Jake Luton on the depth chart by the end of 2020 despite leading Jacksonville to their only win completing 95% of his passes for three touchdowns in week one.

He was simply too good to tank with.

Across his first two seasons in the NFL, Minshew has completed 62.9% of his passes for 5530 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He did this under similar circumstances to those Drew Lock dealt with: two offensive coordinators, injuries up and down the roster, and Covid-19 limiting practice time.

With C.J. Beathard set to serve as Lawrence’s QB2, there’s little doubt the former Washington State Cougar will be available. George Paton should be interested.

QB8 Teddy Bridgewater - Carolina Panthers

A year after the Panthers gave Bridgewater a 3-year, $63 million contract to leave the New Orleans Saints, they look ready to move on. If they do so it would cost them a $10 million dead cap charge to trade the 28-year-old. As a former first round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, there’s reason to believe George Paton and the Broncos would be interested.

Bridgewater’s game is reminiscent of late-career Drew Brees. He routinely checks down and takes what’s given by the defense instead of putting the ball in harm’s way in the hopes of a payoff. Across the last two seasons, Bridgewater has thrown interceptions on less than 2% of his attempts and 471 of his 782 pass attempts were considered “short” or “behind the LOS” by SIS charting. He’ll protect the football and try to move the chains.

While Bridgewater’s broken leg meant he didn’t see meaningful action while Pat Shumur was the Vikings’ offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017, it’s hard to imagine he isn’t familiar with the Broncos’ offense.

QB10 Jimmy Garoppolo - San Francisco 49ers

When the Niners traded up to three, it set in motion the wheels that will end Jimmy G’s run by the Bay. A year after his missed pass to Emmanuel Sanders cost San Francisco a Super Bowl title, the former Patriot played in just six games in 2020. Trading Garoppolo away would cost $2.8 million in dead cap space. If he remains on the roster he will eat up 13.5% of the 49ers’ cap space.

It’s an open question if John Lynch will actually move the passer when the rest of the roster looks Super, but if Kyle Shanahan simply wants a short-term bridge quarterback, a cheaper alternative is available as Nick Mullens remains on the free agent market.

In three full seasons as the starter, he’s missed 23 of a potential 51 games due to an ACL tear and a significant ankle sprain. He also injured his AC joint in 2016 after replacing the suspended Tom Brady. Garoppolo has only ever thrown 178+ attempts in a season once.

Best of the rest

Barring something unforeseen, the rest of the QB market is pretty bare.

QB9 Alex Smith - Free Agent

I’ve written at length about Smith and spoke with the Washington Post’s Nicki Jhabvala on Cover 2 Broncos to try to determine how he would fit into the Broncos’ locker room. There are significant medical and durability questions tied to him, but if those check out, he makes sense as an upgrade on Jeff Driskel who could also push for playing time.

What about Russell Wilson?

As I write this, it does not look like the Seattle Seahawks will trade Wilson. There is also no reason to believe he is open to becoming a Bronco at this time. Wilson has a no-trade clause in his contract and earlier this offseason his agent leaked the teams he would be interested in playing for. Denver didn’t make the list. There remains a possibility he could amend this list to facilitate a trade, but it’s not a given.

What about Deshaun Watson?

As I write this, there are 20 lawsuits filed against the Houston Texans quarterback. Before the allegations against Watson, I believed the Broncos were the favorite to acquire him. As it stands right now, I can’t imagine George Paton trading for him with so much uncertainty clouding the picture.

Locked In

Perhaps Paton’s happy with the status quo.

TQB7 Drew Lock

If you’ve been reading my work, you know where I currently land on Drew Lock. The 42nd pick in the 2019 NFL draft finished 2020:

  • 30th in DYAR
  • 29th in ESPN’s QBR
  • 24th in EPA
  • 32nd in traditional Passer Rating
  • 35th in Completion %
  • Tied for 1st in total interceptions

In addition to the abysmal production above, only 65.4% of his career attempts have been deemed “on target” by SIS charting. His on target percentage actually declined in 2020 even as the Broncos’ offense utilized horizontal leading throws at a bottom 10 rate. Lock has also missed significant time to injury in each of his first two seasons in the NFL.

Some paint the decision to stick with Lock as an easy one because of the risks involved with any alternative. They throw around buzzwords like “patience” or create logical fallacies about how his age means he has to improve. They discount the fact that choosing to do nothing at quarterback is a choice and one that carries significant long-term ramifications. Rookie quarterback classes aren’t created equal. If George Paton elects to pass on a prospect this year, it means the Broncos are waiting until 2022 or beyond for a franchise passer if Lock fails.

Believe it or not, I do have faith Drew Lock can improve in 2021, which is why he ranks ahead of low upside options like Jimmy G and Alex Smith. After looking at every single quarterback to start 16 or more games since 2000 as well as hours upon hours of his tape over the last two seasons, I have significant doubt he’ll ever improve enough to be more than a guy before his franchise finds the guy.