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Aaron Rodgers or Bust?

If the Broncos fail to solve their QB conundrum in 2021, “What ifs” could haunt George Paton’s tenure.

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Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers
Did Paton Lock the Broncos in QB purgatory?
Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

George Paton has never been shy about the importance of the quarterback position. The first time he spoke to Broncos Country, he mentioned that he’d look under every stone in his efforts to solve the problem that’s haunted Denver since Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset like John Elway before him: a two-time Super Bowl champion.

“The quarterback is the most important position in sports. If you don’t have stability at quarterback, you’re going to have a hard time sustaining winning. So, very important, but I don’t think the focus should be taken off the defense just because you want a franchise quarterback. I think we all want the franchise quarterback, and that’s the number one goal is trying to draft and develop or acquire any way you can. When I was in Minnesota, I think we went to the playoffs with six different quarterbacks if I’m not mistaken. That’s not ideal, but you can still win if you don’t have the franchise guy. You can still win, but obviously we’re looking.”

So far Paton’s actions have failed to live up to his words unless you believe he sees Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater as the Broncos’ next franchise quarterback. Perhaps he does. It would make his actions this offseason a bit peculiar, however, as the Broncos showed interest in a wide spectrum of potentially available passers this offseason.

In January, we learned the Broncos were interested in Matthew Stafford before he was dealt to the Los Angeles Rams. According Benjamin Allbright of the Broncos flagship station 9News, the deal fell apart because the Lions wanted multiple picks, Jerry Jeudy, Drew Lock, and another player, In February, Dan Patrick shared that the Broncos offered the ninth overall pick and Drew Lock. Before the NFL Draft, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported the Broncos offered the ninth overall pick and wanted the Lions’ second round pick in return.

The number one overall pick in 2009, Stafford turned 33 in February after finishing 2020 as the 14th most efficient quarterback by Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic. A trade would have turned the Broncos into a team immediately chasing championships to maximize a veteran quarterback’s prime years, rather than waiting for a callow passer to figure it out. Alas, the conflicting reports hint that Paton and Detroit’s General Manager Brad Holmes never came close in terms of fair compensation for the 2014 Pro Bowler. The Rams gave Detroit first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023, a third-round pick in 2021, and former number one overall pick Jared Goff.

In March, we learned the Broncos showed continued interest in Deshaun Watson despite 22 allegations of sexual assault situation hanging over his head. On one hand, this is perfectly understandable in a country where one is presumed innocent until he’s proven guilty. Watson is only 423 days older than Lock and finished 2020 as one of the best quarterbacks in football despite a pathetic supporting cast with the Houston Texans. On the other hand, it is a disservice to victims to assume a high profile athlete is innocent simply because he can throw a football well. It seems foolish or even cruel to assume anything in this situation.

Following the NFL draft, NFL Network’s Mike Silver reported the Broncos showed interest in Andy Dalton during free agency. The Red Rifle’s 2020 with the Dallas Cowboys was disastrous, but he still signed with the Bears for one year and $10 million. Thanks to a spending spree focused on constraint and retaining core defensive pieces such as Von Miller, Justin Simmons, and Shelby Harris, the Broncos are one of the only teams in the NFL with more than $20 million in cap space.

In early April, the Athletic’s Connor Hughes reported the Broncos were involved in talks with the New York Jets about Sam Darnold before he was traded to the Carolina Panthers. A day later Hughes’ report was refuted by Troy Renck of Denver7, who stated Paton never planned to pay what it took to acquire Darnold when they had already Lock. Like the Broncos’ 2nd round pick, Darnold finished 2020 as one of the worst quarterbacks in football by Football Outsiders. The third pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, Darnold missed time in every season and threw for 8097 yards, 45 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions over his career to date. When I spoke with quarterback coach Tim Jenkins, he believed Darnold was the right fresh start away from becoming a franchise quarterback.

Amidst all the reports and rampant speculation about Paton’s plan for the quarterback room, the Broncos performed their due diligence on every first round quarterback prospect not named Trevor Lawrence.

Paton didn’t travel alone. The Broncos’ Quarterback Coach Mike Shula and Director of College Scouting Brian Stark joined him at Trey Lance’s and Justin Fields’ first Pro Days. Paton sent Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur and Director of Pro Personnel A.J. Durso to Lance’s and Fields’ second pro days. Stark also led a contingent to Alabama to see Mac Jones up close.

In the week leading up to the NFL Draft, I heard from a trusted friend that the Broncos were cool on Fields and did not intend to take him if he fell to them, but I hoped it wasn’t true. Multiple sources told me the Broncos were keen on Trey Lance, who went to the San Francisco 49ers with the third pick. With the first pick of Paton’s career as a general manager, he picked cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Both Fields and Jones remained on the board. USA Today’s Mark Schofield saw Fields as an ideal fit in the Broncos’ offense.

Following the draft, we’ve learned from NFL Network’s Mike Silver that Paton had received preliminary offers from the Philadelphia Eagles at 12, the Minnesota Vikings at 14, the Bears, and the New Orleans Saints at 28. Pace admitted to the Athletic’s Adam Jahns that he saw picks 8-12 as the “sweet spot” to trade up for a quarterback, and there’s reason to believe Paton could have turned the ninth overall pick into 20, 164, and a 2022 first and fourth.

Of course, it’s entirely possible a potential Aaron Rodgers trade influenced Paton’s view of a rookie quarterback. In the hours leading up to the draft’s first round, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported a rift between Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers had become irreconcilable. Rodgers wanted out. Former Bronco and 104.3 the Fans’ Mark Schlereth reported the Broncos were close to acquiring Rodgers. Since then I’ve heard from a trusted source that the deal fell through on draft night because the Packers backed out, not Paton. It makes sense: Rodgers was the MVP of the NFL in 2020 and finished the year as one of two most efficient quarterbacks in football.

It’s also entirely possible the draft eve trade for Teddy Bridgewater soothed any concern about the quarterback room. The 32nd pick in the 2014 Draft, the 28-year-old Bridgewater has walked a road less traveled through the NFL. A devastating knee injury almost ruined his career and cost him his role as the Minnesota Vikings’ franchise quarterback. He’s since been a member of the Jets, Saints, and Panthers. He finished 2020 as the 18th most efficient quarterback by DVOA.

So what does Paton have to show for all this reported interest?

We currently find ourselves in a lull between the Draft and when a potential Aaron Rodgers trade could feasibly happen.

According to Over the Cap, trading Rodgers before June 1st would blow a $38,356,000 hole in the Packers’ cap due to the guarantees in his contract. The only reason Green Bay would feasibly do this is to eat all of the “dead money” in 2021 so they’re free and clear of what’s essentially a crater in their payroll by 2022.

After June 1st, NFL contract rules could make a Rodgers trade more palatable to Green Bay, as the Packers would only eat a $21,152,000 dead cap hit in 2021. The remaining $17,204,000 hit would occur in 2022. This would create a little over $22 million in cap space in 2021, which would give Brian Gutekunst a little wiggle room to acquire more talent on the eve of the Jordan Love era.

There’s a distinct possibility the Packers reconcile with Rodgers and the 37-year-old finishes the current year or even remainder of his career in Green Bay. It’s also possible Paton finds himself outbid in his pursuit of Rodgers. If this occurs, odds are the Broncos enter 2021 with either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater as their starting quarterback. Paton sounded content with the current group at his post-draft press conference, without ruling anything out.

“I’m happy with the room right now. We are going to look at every position. Are there many quarterbacks just hanging out? Not many, if any. We are good to go. We’re happy to open the season with the guys we have now, but we are open to improving everywhere.”

Your Broncos’ Coverage

Broncos cut right tackle Ja’Wuan James following torn Achilles

James’ release comes after he was placed on the non-football injury list with the intention being not to pay him the $10.58 million he was due in salary because his injury occurred away from the team facility, Rapoport reported. “Expect James’ camp to fight it,” Rapoport added.

Ja’Wuan James: NFLPA needs to have our backs if we’re injured away from team facilities - ProFootballTalk

Broncos offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon away from the team facility, stands to lose his $9.85 million salary this season, and perhaps even more than that, as the team could even go after previously earned signing bonus money. James indicated on Twitter today that he’s having second thoughts about following the NFLPA’s advice.

Broncos WR DaeSean Hamilton suffers ACL tear

The injury news comes just a day after it was reported by NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo that the Broncos had initially planned to waive the wide receiver before receiving trade calls.

Report: Broncos were finalizing DaeSean Hamilton trade before injury - ProFootballTalk

The Broncos won’t be obligated to pay Hamilton’s $2.183 million salary since he was away from the facility. He joins right tackle Ja’Wuan James as Broncos players who have suffered serious injuries working out on their own this month.

How tough is the Broncos’ 2021 schedule? - Mile High Report

Breaking down the Broncos’ 2021 opponents

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The Denver Broncos have made 11 undrafted free agent signings official on Friday. Here are your college free agents for 2021.

Eight NFL rookies in the best position to succeed in 2021

I mean no slight toward the first cornerback drafted, Jaycee Horn, taken eighth overall by Carolina — but I’m quite high on the future of the player selected immediately after him. Surtain, chosen ninth overall, may very well be the best cornerback prospect turned out by Alabama since Nick Saban became head coach there in 2007, and that’s saying something, considering the talent Saban has produced. Surtain was the highest-rated defensive player on GM George Paton’s draft board, and it’s easy to see why. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year should immediately step into the starting lineup, and he’ll have three veteran cornerbacks (Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan) and a cornerback-turned-safety (Kareem Jackson) to serve as guideposts.

NFL News

Rusty Hardin: Tony Buzbee has approached us numerous times about settlement - ProFootballTalk

“In a recent interview, Mr. Buzbee stated that ‘a settlement is not happening,” Hardin said. “We certainly agree that there are currently no settlement negotiations being conducted. While we have never approached Mr. Buzbee about a settlement, he has approached us on numerous occasions in the past about the possibility of a settlement. We have made clear all along that there would be no settlement unless the terms are made public and all participants are allowed to speak in their own defense at all times. We want none of the participants — the plaintiffs or Mr. Watson — muzzled by a settlement agreement. Mr. Buzbee does not feel the same.”

Tony Buzbee disputes claim that he approached Deshaun Watson’s camp regarding settlement - ProFootballTalk

In response to the claim from Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, that attorney Tony Buzbee initiated the process (repeatedly) of trying to resolve the 22 cases filed by his clients, Buszbee returned to social media to respond. “Not that many care about it anymore,” Buzbee said on Instagram. “But there is a thing called ‘justice.’ And we will find it. Contrary to what Mr. Rusty says, we haven’t ‘approached them to settle,’ ever. When they approached us they insisted we sign this. We obviously didn’t reach out to them; they begged us via the Texans to mediate. We hold the cards. The truth sometimes or most of the time hurts!!!! We approached them?!? My ass.”