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What should the Broncos do now that Aaron Rodgers is staying with the Packers?

Tier ranking the Broncos’ realistic alternatives to Aaron Rodgers

NFL: Combine
Paton’s looking at a long list of bad options.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that it’s clear Aaron Rodgers will stay with the Green Bay Packers, the Denver Broncos dreams at a Super Bowl in 2022 is on life support. Back in November when it became clear Denver’s playoff hopes were dead in the water, I took an early look at the Broncos options at quarterback this offseason. It was pretty grim, and things have only become more bleak since. With free agency a week away I thought it time to dust off my old post where I shared my thoughts on Paton’s realistic alternatives to Rodgers.

While I don’t expect you to agree with all or even most of my opinions on the matter, I hope you can see there is plenty the Broncos can do. Most of the options are bad, but I still look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below.

Not ranked - Deshaun Watson

There remains the possibility Watson never plays in the NFL again, but if he does the Texans will have suitors for his services. If he does, it’s still hard to imagine the Broncos make a move for the three-time Pro Bowler while he continues to face 22 allegations of sexual misconduct on this side of an ownership transition. Still, it’s hard to ignore that while Joe Ellis said the Broncos were not interested in Deshaun Watson there’s been persistent reports suggesting the contrary.

Tier 5 - Another year in QB purgatory

Drew Lock

There are those who remain convinced all of Lock’s issues fall at the hands of Pat Shurmur, Vic Fangio, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, the offensive line, etc. The rest of us see a quarterback who lost a competition to Teddy Bridgewater, looked like he did not prepare to play while he was a backup, and threw one touchdown in three starts in his third season. At this point hoping Lock can turn into one of the 32 best starting quarterbacks in the league is praying he can become one of the biggest historical outlier in NFL history.

The good news is, there’s always ____ in free agency. Right?

Outside of just a couple names I’ll touch on just a little further down this list, the veteran market looks barren for teams chasing a starting caliber quarterback. What follows is a quick list of the five most appealing options of a dreadful bunch.

  • Marcus Mariota - Played in LaFleur’s offense in 2019. Been a backup since week 6 of 2020.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick - Threw six passes in 2021 due to injury and turns 40 in November.
  • Andy Dalton - Threw more picks than touchdowns on the Chicago Bears.
  • Tyrod Taylor - He’s thrown 271 passes since 2017.
  • Jacoby Brissett - Threw five touchdowns and four picks in five starts in 2021.

Odds are none of the options above look like nothing more than a short term bridge option at best. I think it’s safe to assume if the Broncos head into the draft with any of the following atop the depth chart, Paton is dead set on drafting a rookie from what currently looks like the weakest quarterback class since 2013.

Tier 4 - Hopes and prayers for better days ahead

Jimmy Garoppolo

Any argument for Jimmy G lives and dies on QB Wins, a statistic casual fans and lazy NFL analysts tend to accept as gospel while the rest of us laugh. Counting playoffs, Garoppolo’s gone 35-16 since he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. In the two seasons he played in more than six games, the Niners made the playoffs and some would say they were a Wasp away from winning a Super Bowl in 2019.

Do even a little bit of digging and the red flags pop up like fireworks.

Garoppolo’s a significant injury risk who’s missed 25 of 71 games over the last four seasons, more than a third of San Francisco’s schedule over that time. In addition to missing time, he also played through a fracture and tear in the thumb on his throwing hand in 2021. At 30-years-old Garropolo’s still in his athletic prime, but injury rates tend to increase as players pass their third decade around the sun.

Beyond the medical risk, there is legitimate questions about what Garoppolo is going to look like outside the friendly confines of the Niner’s offense. Kyle Shanahan has long had a reputation as one of the best play callers in the NFL, while George Kittle and Deebo Samuel are elite mismatch weapons who can adjust to off target throws and make magic after the catch. I’m optimistic about Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos’ supporting cast, but Garoppolo’s best production is probably behind him.

Cost must also be a consideration. Unlike the rest of the veteran names in this tier, Garoppolo’s under contract for another year with a $26,950,000 cap number. While he currently has a no-trade clause that allows him to have some control over where he winds up, that expires on March 16th. If the Niners sit tight for a month they could benefit from a bidding war.

Teddy Bridgewater

There’s a vocal segment of Broncos Country that might storm Dove Valley if George Paton re-signed Bridgewater, so I doubt it happens. With that said I do think he could serve as perhaps the best intermediary option in front of the second year general manager.

It won’t cost any draft capital to retain him, and because he spent the ‘21 campaign with the Broncos he’s a familiar face in the locker room. All reports suggest Bridgewater’s the kind of A+ character guy who would help a rookie prepare for life in the league, and his game and demeanor could make him one of the better backups in football. The fact he can be re-signed before free agency also means he could be the first of multiple moves to shore up the quarterback room if Paton and Bridgewater’s camp can come to terms on a contract.

Bridgewater’s limitations are well documented. His injury history is also no joke, and the way his 2021 season came to an end with a scary concussion raises significant questions about his health going forward. But if Paton’s left waiting on a better alternative, he could do a lot worse.

Jameis Winston

All things considered, the first pick of the 2015 draft had himself a pretty decent seven game run with the capped out New Orleans Saints last year. He threw 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions with one of the weakest receiving corps. in the league around him. At 28-years-old there’s reason to believe Winston is only just hitting the prime of his athletic prowess and could be a decent short term option with some upside.

There is pretty significant risk around Winston. His 2021 came to an end on Halloween because he suffered a torn ACL and MCL damage in his left knee. It usually takes between eight and 10 months to recover from a torn ACL, and the timeline could be impacted by the severity of the MCL damage. While 2021 was the first time Winston missed time because of injury, he’s also played through a variety of ailments such as a meniscus tear, a thumb fracture, and A/C joint sprains. In addition to the injury questions Winston was suspended three games in 2019 for allegedly groping an Uber driver, a ban the quarterback didn’t appeal as part of “negotiated settlement.” On top of all that, there’s the fact that Winston has not played in an offense like the one Nathaniel Hackett plans to run with the Broncos.

On top of all that, there’s a pretty decent chance Winston has a list of suitors in free agency if the Saints do not re-sign him, because the free agent crop is so weak.

Tier 3 - The 2022 QB Class

There’s no way to sugar coat the fact that this quarterback class is the worst I’ve studied since I began working at Mile High Report. There isn’t a single member of this class I’d advocate for in the first round, and I don’t think I’m alone. Pro Football Focus’ Trevor Sikkema does not believe a single member of the class is ready to play this year, while the Athletic’s Dane Brugler has doubts any passer from the group will ever emerge as a top 15 quarterback in the league.

The good news is there’s so many contenders for the top of this class that it becomes easy to fool yourself one is more appealing than the others. Unfortunately none stand out as a dramatic upgrade over Drew Lock in 2022. Realistically, if Paton elects to chase a passer in the draft he probably signs one of the options above to try and give them a stop gap starter to learn behind. With all that in mind, it’s hard to get excited about this crop when you also consider the opportunity cost of taking one in the first or second round of the draft.

I hope that by presenting the class at this spot in the tier it’s obvious that I do prefer a swing on one of them over a long term commitment to the veterans further up this list. With that said I’m ambivalent about the prospects. I’m personally opposed to taking one of them with the ninth overall pick and believe it’d look desperate after passing on two significantly better prospects in 2021.

Sam Howell

A three year starter at North Carolina, Howell’s passing numbers declined across the board his final season at Chapel Hill. Don’t let that cause you to write him off though, he lost his top two backs and receivers to the NFL. Before it’s all said and done I expect Howell to emerge as a viable option for the Broncos new offense because his skillset projects into the system. He’s a good athlete with a pretty good arm who faces questions about his poise and decision making.

Matt Corral

The only contender for QB1 in this class that did not participate in the Senior Bowl, Corral’s joining the NFL after a career in Lane Kiffin’s offense at Ole Miss. 76% of his production last season came via screens, RPOs, or play action, which is unlikely to continue at the NFL level. He displays solid arm strength with good ball placement, though I think he needs to improve at throwing with anticipation. He goes through periods where he’s completely oblivious to pressure.

Kenny Pickett

Seemingly the most pro-ready after a breakout senior season at Pittsburgh where he threw for more than 13 touchdowns for the first time in his collegiate career. There are questions about hands that are reportedly below the NFL benchmark for a quarterback, Pickett’s going to enter his first training camp as 24-years-old rookie with below average arm strength.

Desmond Ridder

While he’s unlikely to get drafted first, Ridder checks a lot of boxes you hope to see from a QB1 in a draft class. He was a four year starter at Cincinnati who improved every year as he led the Bearcats to a 41-6 record, capping it by becoming the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. He’s a good athlete with good arm talent who looks to win from the pocket, and his mechanics showed marked improvement between his junior and senior seasons. Ridder’s not the most accurate passer on the play to play basis, and his ball placement needs to improve to become a reliable starting passer in the NFL.

Carson Strong

Strong’s stock depends on what NFL teams think of his right knee, which has gone under a surgical knife on two occasions. Without knowing any answers there it’s hard to say where he lands. He has the best pure arm in this class, but he’s also a pure pocket passer and there’s some questions about how he’ll fair outside of structure in the NFL.

Malik Willis

It’s easy to watch Willis’ highlight reel at Liberty and convince yourself he can become something resembling Michael Vick in the league: a rocket armed scrambling quarterback with the elusiveness to embarrass would-be tacklers. Watch his film for any length of time and it becomes impossible to overlook the glaring rough edges to his game. He’s a see-it, throw-it passer with shaky mechanics who needs to dramatically improve his play from the pocket.

Tier 2 - Kissing Cousins

Kirk Cousins

Only one veteran quarterback would find more familiar faces amongst Nathaniel Hackett’s coaching staff than Cousins. Paton was the Minnesota Vikings’ assistant general manager when they signed Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract in 2018 as well as when they handed him a two-year extension worth $66 million in 2020. Denver’s new quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak and assistant offensive line coach Ben Steele also worked on the Vikings coaching staff last year. Denver’s also expected to hire Dom Capers as a defensive assistant after he served in a similar role in Minnesota and Detroit the last couple of seasons.

Cousins is not a quarterback who can carry a lackluster supporting cast, despite his gaudy numbers. He’d still represent a significant upgrade over anyone the Broncos have had under center since Peyton Manning. That is, if he’s available.

Paton joined the Broncos a year before Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer were ousted for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell, who sound as if they’ll give Cousins a season in the new offense. It’s far too early to completely rule out the possibility, though. Minnesota is currently $15.335 million over the projected 2022 cap and the 33-year-old Cousins carries a $45 million cap hit in the final season of his contract. Trading him would provide the Vikings $10 million in cap space as well as draft capital in the top 100 picks to jump start a new era.

Tier 1 - The future Hall of Famer

Russell Wilson

The debate about Wilson vs. Rodgers took on new life after Jordan Schultz reported the nine-time Pro Bowler would consider waiving his no-trade clause for the Broncos, despite the fact it’s never been confirmed. Now he looks like “plan cope” for fans who refuse to accept the fact there’s no real sign he’ll be moved this offseason.

After tensions mounted following the Seattle Seahawks’ disappointing 2020 season, Wilson’s agent Mark Rodgers told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that his client was not forcing his way out of the Pacific Northwest, but that there were four teams Wilson would waive his no trade clause for: the Chicago Bears, Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, and New Orleans Saints.

For the Broncos to acquire Wilson now two things will have to prove true:

  1. The quarterback will need to be open to such a move.
  2. Paton will need to provide such a boon that the 70-year-old Pete Carroll can’t say no.

As of now the Seahawks have given no indication they’re open to trading their franchise quarterback. In fact, the Washington Post’s Nicki Jhabvala reported from the Combine that the Washington Commanders offered the Seahawks a “competitive” offer for Wilson. The talks went nowhere. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport has suggested Seattle will be reluctant to do move Wilson without a potential starting passer in return, and has also reported that Wilson has not made it clear the Seahawks need to move him.

Unless something changes, Wilson isn’t really available.