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The Denver Broncos’ Path to the Playoffs: Post-Combine Thoughts and Takeaways

When the Denver Broncos return from the NFL Scouting Combine, they will continue charting a path they hope will lead to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2016.

Before the next chapter of the offseason begins, though, let’s review some final Broncos thoughts and takeaways from Indianapolis:

The Broncos were never going to be in the mix for a top-tier quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft. They entered the offseason with no picks in the first or second rounds and had veteran quarterback Russell Wilson — and still have him, for now — on the roster. That didn’t keep coach Sean Payton and the Broncos’ personnel staff from diving in on last year’s class of quarterbacks. Even if there was no chance Denver would be drafting Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud or Anthony Richardson, creating their own opinion of the group served an important purpose.

“We want to look back at our own grades and evaluate how we saw those players,” Payton said.

Deciphering whether a team’s outlook ultimately matched a given quarterback’s performance is a critical step in honing the process of evaluating the sport’s most important position. And that work is especially important now as the Broncos enter a pre-draft process in which the chance of coming out of it with a top quarterback is more real. The Broncos, who hold the No. 12 pick, are out of range right now for a player like USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye or LSU’s Jayden Daniels. But a move into position to select one of those quarterbacks wouldn’t be unprecedented, even if it would be a seismic one.

Only three years ago, the San Francisco 49ers vaulted from No. 12 to No. 3, to draft Trey Lance. The move didn’t work as it relates to the player the 49ers targeted, but that won’t stop teams from trying again.

It’s why the biggest takeaway from the combine was that the Broncos are doing serious work on this class of passers, meeting with each of the top six or seven prospects in the class. The team is ready to move on from Wilson in the coming days. There is no long-term answer on the roster. So the Broncos used a significant portion of their allotted 15-minute draft interviews to get to know the quarterbacks in this class on a deeper level.

It might have been just the start of a process that will inform how Denver handles free agency and the draft, but Payton said early in the week that first impressions would be important.

“You just want to get around them as much as you can,’” Broncos general manager George Paton added. “I was fortunate to see a lot of these quarterbacks during the fall. That’s one step of the process. Then you have the all-star games and then you have the combine, and then you have pro days and maybe private workouts. So as much as you can, get around them and see what makes them tick.”

J.J. McCarthy, the Michigan quarterback who has been a popular mock draft pick for the Broncos, said Payton had an “energy” in the meetings that made the brief interaction the two sides had memorable.

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“It was just really great to be in that room with them and go through tape,” said McCarthy, the 21-year-old who went 27-1 as a starter with the Wolverines. “It was, honestly, a really fun time. It was a blessing to just pick their brains a little bit and have them just shoot me questions left and right. I really enjoyed it.”

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who led the Huskies to the national championship game in January, said Denver’s interview process was different from others he encountered at the combine.

“It was an interesting meeting, different from the others, but it was good,” Penix said. “They were tough. They put up a lot of bad plays (on the film board). But it’s good because, at the next level, it’s hard. It’s hard to win. I understand that. In ways, (Payton) was probably trying to see how I reacted to those bad plays and if I could take accountability and stuff like that. I’m always going to do that. I’m always going to put others before me and I’m going to be honest about everything.”

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If the Broncos are turning the screws during the getting-to-know-you portion of these interviews, they are only going to elevate the pressure as the process continues with the next stages Paton outlined. Perhaps the Broncos won’t end up drafting a quarterback in two months, but they are certainly doing the work of a team that plans to do just that.

“Sean talked about leadership. What’s the day-to-day like?” Paton said. “What do their teammates feel about them? You can evaluate the arm strength, the accuracy, the athleticism, being able to process is a little more difficult. But I think the more you can get around them, the better decisions you’ll make.”

Broncos counting on second-year leaps

The Broncos didn’t talk at the combine like they expect center Lloyd Cushenberry III, who is about to hit unrestricted free agency, to be back with the team next season. Paton didn’t dismiss the idea of getting a deal done with the veteran who started each of the last four seasons at center for Denver, but he also turned attention to “what’s behind Lloyd.”

Lloyd Cushenberry III has started 57 games in his four seasons with the Broncos. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

“We feel good about (Luke) Wattenberg. We feel really good about (Alex) Forsyth,” Paton said of centers the Broncos drafted late in the 2022 and 2023 drafts. “We feel like there’s depth. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to sign Lloyd. We’d love to sign him, but we do feel like that’s a position we do have the depth and one of those guys could be a starter eventually.”

The Broncos only have six picks in this year’s draft and will have limited cap space by the time the new league year opens in less than two weeks. They have 12 of their own players, including Cushenberry, who are about to hit unrestricted free agency and can’t afford to bring them all or even most of them back. So it should come as no surprise the Broncos are already signaling that a big portion of their plan for improvement in 2024 will be preparing players who have seen the field infrequently to this point for much bigger roles.

Still, the plan requires a bit of blind faith, at least from outside observers, given how little was seen from the class last season.

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Can Forsyth, a seventh-round pick out of Oregon last year, seamlessly step into a starting center role after spending all of last season on the scout team? Can Riley Moss, the third-round pick in 2023 whose contributions were largely limited to special teams, become a permanent solution at the starting cornerback spot opposite Pat Surtain II? Can Drew Sanders, the third-round pick who began his rookie season as an inside linebacker, become a permanent contributor on the edge after moving there midway through last season? Will Marvin Mims Jr., who earned a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie for his work as a returner, find a bigger role as a receiver in his second year?

“I really think the only thing that really stopped his progress as a receiver was us and trying to find roles,” Payton said at the combine. “He’s playing the same position as Jerry (Jeudy). I think you’re going to see a lot of growth with this player. He’s tough, he can run and we’re certainly excited that we have him. I think the key is for us — and I say us as coaches in game planning — is evolving. Every time we’ve kind of put his name on a certain play, he hasn’t disappointed. That doesn’t mean the ball always went to him, but the point I’m making is I think his progress was hampered a little bit more with the depth in the room, in what we were able to do and sometimes trying to balance that out. I think we’ll see that expand.”

The way the Broncos are mapping out their offseason, evolution with their second-year players will be critical to their hope of competing in the AFC West.

Big financial decisions loom

The choice of whether to pick up Surtain’s fifth-year option of $19.8 million before the deadline in early May will be “one of the easiest decisions we make,” Paton said this week.

Surtain, the No. 9 pick by the Broncos in the 2021 draft, has already been named to the Pro Bowl twice and was a first-team All-Pro in 2022. Paton said the star cornerback “is going to be here,” which means the option figure, which represents a fully guaranteed salary in 2025, could simply be the placeholder for an eventual long-term deal. Discussions in that department, Payton said, are still a way off given that Denver is focusing on cementing its free-agent plan and will then be turning to the draft, but it is a big-ticket item on the horizon.

The more pressing questions center on how the Broncos will become cap-compliant by the start of free agency’s so-called soft opening March 11, when teams can begin negotiating contracts with the agents of outside players. Denver is $16.4 million over the salary cap, according to a projection by Over the Cap. They not only need to close that gap but also account for the additional space needed to sign free agents and then a draft class. Payton said the Broncos are due to have meetings with ownership Tuesday and Wednesday, the final step in cementing the offseason spending blueprint. From there, a wave of cuts, contract restructures, trades and other financial maneuvers will begin.

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Paton gave a window into how the Broncos will decide which contracts will be worth restructuring, a process that not only provides immediate salary-cap relief but also extends the future financial commitment with a player.

“You just look at the contracts we have,” Paton said. “In the players, some of the veterans we have make more sense than others. You don’t want to mortgage the future, so some you don’t have to mortgage as much. Really, it’s the player, it’s the youth, do you feel like they’re going to be there a while? Those are the ones maybe you go to, and I’m not sure we’re going to do that or not, but we do have that flexibility.”

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Wide receiver Tim Patrick, who missed each of the past two years with injuries, will be a source of cost savings because he has a $15.6 million cap hit scheduled next year with no guaranteed money, and the Broncos would save $9.5 million by releasing him. The Broncos could instead come to terms with Patrick on a new deal that pays closer to the veteran minimum, but either way, significant cap savings will result from a change to the veteran’s contract. Other veterans with eight-figure cap figures in 2024 and no guaranteed money left include defensive tackle D.J. Jones, safety Justin Simmons and left tackle Garett Bolles. Whether it’s through extensions, trades or restructures, those veteran contracts could also be prime avenues for the Broncos to create more immediate cap space.

There are always some surprise transactions before a new league year begins. Consider the Broncos a team to monitor in that department.

(Top photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

2024-03-02 18:56:43
#Sean #Paytons #quarterback #pursuit #Broncos #takeaways #NFL #combine

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