We’re in the end game now, that time in the pre-draft process where there’s more misinformation than smoke and ridiculous takes all over the networks. So of course it’s the perfect time for a general manager to trot out and have a press conference to give a few breadcrumbs for each and every outsider to go insane over. The best course of action is to treat every statement with a healthy dose of skepticism.
What follows are my musings after reflecting on George Paton’s statements from Thursday.
Did Paton have a Freudian slip about Drew Lock?
The Broncos general manager was asked about his confidence in Drew Lock as well as his belief that the third year signal caller can contribute in week one.
“I don’t know about Week 1, but we’re really high on Drew. I like seeing Drew here every morning when I come in. He’s working hard and trending in the right direction. As you know, he has a lot of talent. I think he’s becoming a better pro, but we’re still going to look at the quarterback position. I’ve said since I’ve gotten here that we want to bring in competition. That’s the goal, and we plan on doing that.”
Hesitating to give full confidence in Lock as the week one starter is nothing more than reaffirming what Paton has said every step of the way this offseason: the Broncos want to make him earn it. The way Paton phrased it gives the front office and coaching staff flexibility down the road. They can rally around Lock or move to another QB without providing a meme-worthy moment like the Arizona Cardinals had when they drafted Kyler Murray weeks expressing faith in Josh Rosen.
The Broncos didn’t talk about trading up. Unless they did.
The next question for Paton was about the strengths of Justin Fields and Trey Lance. The Broncos have been a steady presence at both their Pro Days and there’s rampant speculation they could move up to acquire one or the other.
“They’re different. Both are elite athletes with really strong arms. Both are really talented and smart. They have all the intangibles you want in quarterbacks and football players. They’re raw a little bit, but really high ceilings for both players.”
Paton’s answer was fascinating because he started by making it clear they’re different players before he weighed in on both. This was a great way to make sure he didn’t reveal any favoritism for either.
Last week the Gazette and ESPN’s Woody Paige reported that the Broncos have spoken with the Atlanta Falcons about moving up to select one of the two quarterbacks. The report was quickly shot down by DNVR’s Andrew Mason and KOA’s Benjamin Allbright.
Hearing from a source with knowledge that the Broncos have not made a call to ATL about trading up to the No. 4 pick. They could inquire at some point, but at this time, Denver hasn’t called about moving up to that spot.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) April 17, 2021
Per source with knowledge of the situation: the #Broncos have not called Atlanta about trading up to 4 thus far, does not mean they are not looking at quarterbacks in the draft, doesn't mean they wont...but have not thus far.— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) April 17, 2021
So it was no surprise that George Paton was asked about trading up. He didn’t reveal anything groundbreaking when asked about the idea in a general sense.
“If we feel a player is good enough to go up and get. There may be players in this draft that are worthy of that.”
Paton also made it clear that a deal would have to wait until draft day because the Broncos weren’t sure if their target would be available after three.
“This is a draft-day trade because you don’t know if the player is going to be there. Typically, these happen when they’re on the clock. Obviously, we had a few trades early, but they knew they were going to get one of their players. If we were to move up, we’re not sure the player we’re moving up for would be there.”
What caused a bit of a stir within some corners of Broncos Country is when Paton said the Broncos have not made calls yet to move up.
“We haven’t made any calls yet to move up. We’ve received calls to move back. Being a first-year general manager really doesn’t impact whether we would move up or not. If we feel a player can help us and can upgrade us, and if we feel he’s worth going to get, we’re going to go get him.”
Paton’s quote led to some patting on the back by those who believe the Broncos never spoke with Atlanta. What caught my intention is how specific Paton’s answer was, especially when he used the same specificity when NFL Network’s James Palmer asked him a similar question after the press conference.
"If it doesn't work out where we don't draft a quarterback, we still have Drew."— Doctor of Words (and tights) (@docllv) April 23, 2021
Yeah, that's not a GM who loves his current QB1. https://t.co/6U2XZTcXNs
Paton also mentioned later in the press conference that he spoke with the Miami Dolphins’ Chris Grier. While it’s entirely possible Grier and Paton merely spoke about golf, the weather, or something benign, it’s impossible to ignore that the Phins are reportedly interested in trading down from the sixth overall pick.
“I haven’t spoken with all of them. I spoke to [Dolphins General Manager] Chris [Grier] yesterday, but he wasn’t giving me any words of wisdom. We’re kind of competing. You take something from everyone you’ve been around...”
Whether the Broncos made the call, received it, or communicated via carrier pigeon, I have a hard time believing George Paton hasn’t broached the possibility of moving up in the draft with rival GMs.
Keep in mind that it doesn’t benefit the Broncos to come out and say something akin to “We spoke with the ____ about moving up,” on this side of the draft.
Grier called about moving back. Broncos haven't called about moving up.. https://t.co/AZ0gMAp6YB— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) April 23, 2021
Paton thinks this QB class is strong, may see six in the first round.
Last week ESPN’s Matt Miller shared that he’d heard Stanford’s Davis Mills could go in the first 32 picks in the draft. While Paton didn’t reveal who he thought the six were, he seemed to confirm he’d heard or believed something similar.
“I think it’s very strong. It just depends on what flavor you want. I think it’s a strong class. There could be five, maybe six drafted in the first round. That’s always really strong. It’s a really good class.”
Have heard some chatter that Mills might end up QB6 in this draft. His arm is muy impressive https://t.co/OMi1AHdbu2— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 18, 2021
John Elway is involved in the process
When George Paton was first hired there was some confusion about the power he’d wield since the Broncos previous general manager would be his new boss. Local reporters such as Allbright only added to this confusion with speculation that Paton would merely continue the plan Elway started because it was the smart career move.
So I thought the question about Elway’s role in the draft process informative, though a follow up to provide more clarity could have been good.
“John has played a great role and he’s been a great resource for me. I have him watching certain positions. He’s been in this role and I haven’t, so what a sounding board for me to have John right next door. It’s been amazing to have him.”
Do you think John Elway scouts quarterbacks? pic.twitter.com/oK5inhg3x4— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 23, 2021
Rookie or vet, the Broncos will add a signal caller at some point.
I’ve gone back over every statement Paton’s made about the quarterback position a few times this offseason. He’s careful to leave himself room in every direction going forward, but he’s been very clear that another quarterback will join the room. So far, that hasn’t happened. Doesn’t mean it won’t. For his sake, I hope Jeff Driskel is renting.
We do like Drew Lock. What we don’t want to do is force it and bring a guy in or overpay a guy to come in and he’s not as good as the guy we have and maybe he’s not good enough to compete. We want to get the right guy, and we still have time. There’s a trade market and we still have the draft. The landscape may change after the draft. If a team drafts one, maybe that quarterback is on the market. We’re going to be patient and not force it. We realize we want competition, and I’ve said that since I’ve gotten here. That hasn’t changed.”
When it comes to George Paton, Drew Lock, and the Broncos QB situation: actions speak volumes. pic.twitter.com/cccHY6C1eI— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 22, 2021
Any hints as to Paton’s thoughts on other positions?
Fret not, it sounds like Bradley Chubb and Courtland Sutton are considered foundational pieces.
“They’re two of our core guys, and we want them here a long time. We’re not going to address that until after the draft. We’re strictly focused on the draft, but those are two of our guys.”
Paton said the expectation is Ja’Wuan James will start.
“He’s been here, and he’s been working out. He’s looks great and the expectation is he starts at right tackle and he plays well.”
While I don’t think Paton went out of his way to lie here, I don’t think there’s anything else he could have said. It would cost the Broncos $19 million in dead money to cut James before June and $13 million after. He has little to no trade value after playing 65 snaps since Elway signed him to a $51 million deal in 2019. Regardless of how fans may feel about him, the Broncos are stuck with him this year.
I do expect the Broncos to add an offensive lineman or two, and the press conference did nothing to dispel my suspicions. Most of the draft analysts I respect believe the 2021 offensive line class is a very talented one. It’s a sentiment Paton seems to share.
“I like our offensive line. We probably need a little more depth. I like the draft and I like the draft at guard and tackle. I think you could get a good offensive lineman in the first three rounds and maybe even 4-6. I think our offensive line—if you had to rank them in the league, they are in the top third. We just need to add depth and we need to add competition. I think we’ll do that.”
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise if you remember that the Broncos tried to sign the Chargers’ Mike Davis, but it sounds like Paton saw a need for two corners before free agency. He said as much when asked about Kyle Fuller.
“Kyle is just so instinctive. He’s a savvy vet. Really good ball skills and great anticipation. He fits what Vic is doing here and he had his best year with Vic. Just to get a guy like that as late as we did was a big bonus. Now we don’t have to force it in the draft, and we don’t have to reach. We don’t have to take a corner. We have [CB Ronald] Darby, we have Fuller and we have some young guys. That was really big for us.”
When the Broncos decided to decline Kareem Jackson’s team option it looked like a bit of a gamble on the safety market. When you lump in the dead money for cutting and then re-signing the veteran, Jackson will count for $7.28 million against the 2021 cap instead of the $10 million. Paton didn’t sound surprised he could bring the 33-year old back.
“We were really happy. I don’t know if I was surprised. The whole building wanted Kareem back and he’s a big part of what we’re doing. I’ve enjoyed my talks with Kareem. When you watch him on tape, he brings the energy and he brings the juice. He’s everything you want. He’s a leader, so we’re really fortunate he came back.”
The Broncos have made the most of this wacky offseason.
Due to Covid-19, there’s no denying the last year has been a mess for everyone. NFL evaluators have had to adjust to one offseason with very limited Pro Days, a number of prospects opting out of the 2020 college football season, no NFL Combine in Indianapolis, and no in-person visits with prospects.
I’ve been very curious to see how the Broncos new general manager would adapt to such an atypical situation. It sounds like time could prove meeting via Zoom is more helpful than brief face to face interviews.
“It’s really important to see these guys in person. That’s why the pro days were really important for us. We weren’t allowed to meet with them in person and get them on the board, so you miss a little bit of that.
When you can get an hour with them on Zoom, you’d be amazed. You can get them board and you can send them materials beforehand and have them study it and take them through it. There’s a lot of things. Coaches are creative, scouts are creative. You need to keep trying to figure out ways to get know these players. The Zooms have been beneficial. You can have more of them. When you’re at the combine, you get 15 minutes to try and figure a guy out, and that’s impossible.
Like I said, we’ve had a number of Zoom calls and it’s been beneficial. The whole staff—the college staff—we’ve hit most of the pro days as well. You get a different feel there just watching the guy live and how he competes at any position. Is he going to run the 40 [-yard dash]? Is he going to go through all the testing, or is he going to back out on that? If he opted out, what kind of shape is he in? That’s huge. There’s a lot of things, but we’re so used to adapting and being flexible that it really hasn’t been that big of a deal. It really hasn’t.”
“...I think it’s an advantage to spend more time with the kid, whether its Zoom, on the phone or whatever. Zoom is obviously the No. 1 way. Can the guy learn it? What kind of person is he? What’s his demeanor? What does he do in his free time? What are his hobbies? You can really get into that because you have more time. When you have 15 minutes, it’s like speed dating. I’ve never done that.”
I’ve been very curious to see how NFL evaluators view players who opted out. There’s been reports a team in the top 10 of the draft won’t consider them. It sounds like the Broncos will.
“Yeah, you want to know why and what they’ve been doing since they opted out. It’s telling when you go to a Pro Day, and a guy who opted out is out of shape. That’s telling. You’ve had all this time to work out and train, and you show up and the other guys are in better shape than you.
We evaluate them like everyone else. We’re going to watch the tape and the last time they played. That’s the evaluation. Then, we’ll get into the character. Can he learn along with all the other stuff? We evaluate them like everyone else, but we do want to know why. We don’t penalize them for it, but we want to see what they’ve been doing. I’ve been to a few pro days where the guys weren’t in the best of shape, and that’s not going to help their cause.”
I’m optimistic about George Paton
It’s probably worth a reminder that just about everything Paton said above that could point one way or another could be little more than hot air. It does not benefit the Broncos to give away secrets with the draft on the horizon, even if we fans wish it did.
One of my favorite things from this pre-draft presser were the questions that dug into Paton’s philosophy in a general sense. I found it illuminating that rather than make the Broncos’ entire organization adjust to him, Paton learned the their grading scale.
“That’s a really good question. We kept the grading scale that they had here. I didn’t want to change 30 people. It’s easier for me to change. We’ve made a lot of adjustments within that scale—the way we run our meetings and the philosophies—but we did keep the grading scale intact. Again, I just didn’t want 30 people changing with the coaches, college scouts and pro scouts. It just made sense for me to keep that the same so we can be a little more streamline. But we did make a number of changes in the meetings and the structure.”
If you’ve read the four simple rules I adhere to when it comes to the NFL Draft, you’ll know I’m a huge proponent for trading down. History has shown time and again that the NFL is a bit of a crapshoot, so it pays to take extra swings. Paton’s response to a question about the Vikings’ draft philosophy leaves me hopeful he believes something similar.
“It was a philosophy. We wanted to—I don’t want to tell their philosophy—but we just wanted to acquire as many picks as we could. If a player is there, we were going to take him. But if there were three players we still liked, we were going to try and trade back and accumulate capital. I guess the philosophy is the more darts, the better chance you have to hit the bullseye. You know how it is. If you have seven picks and you hit on half, that’s not great. You get three players. We always liked to have 10 plus and just have more darts.”