How Do You Solve a Problem Like Quarterback?
To call the media’s rhetoric harsh, in regard to John Elway’s attempts to solve the post-Peyton Manning quarterback situation in Denver, would be putting it mildly. Writers and experts throughout the league have taken great joy at pointing out how a Hall of Fame QB like Elway has failed at evaluating the position. It is certainly a fun hot-take, but it couldn’t be farther from accurate.
Elway had picked a successor to Manning while the All-Pro was still playing for the Denver Broncos, and when Brock Osweiler got his chance during the 2015 Super Bowl run, he held up admirably. He was at the helm for the Broncos when they beat both the Bengals and Patriots, victories that wound up earning the team home field advantage. In fact, The Brocket Launcher played so well that the Houston Texans threw a shockingly massive contract at the kid the very next year that Elway couldn’t match and that was the end of that story.
After Manning’s retirement and Osweiller’s departure, Elway played every card he could to fix the quarterback situation. In 2016 Elway drafted Paxton Lynch who was the best-rated QB available in the draft at Denver’s pick slot. NBC, CBS, NFL, and ESPN all had Lynch graded as a 1st round pick and Pro Football Focus also rated him as a potential franchise QB. Lynch failed, but after him, the only other QB from that class with any other success was Dak Prescott in the 4th round. I’ll happily listen to anyone who can point out to me that they were calling for Elway to pick Prescott in the 1st round over Lynch.
2017 was a new wave of possible starting QB’s, but at this point, it was too early to move on from Lynch and Trevor Siemian had shown potential as a starter, Elway had to let the situation play out. Denver picked #20 that year, the best QB who was drafted after that pick was CJ Beathard, so it’s not as if he passed on a better option there. The free agency in 2017 yielded names like Jay Cutler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mike Glennon, and Nick Foles. Again, this would have been Lynch’s second season and Siemian was coming off a year where he had an 18/10 TD/INT ratio which was far superior to Foles 23/20 ratio the three prior seasons.
When 2018 rolled around it was clear a new option had to be explored, the draft class had a wealth of young arms and Denver was picking at #5 overall. Elway was willing to take either Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield at #5, but neither wound up making it to him. When Bradley Chubb, a #1 overall talent, was still available it was an easy pick. He potentially could have reached on Josh Allen, Josh Rosen or Lamar Jackson, but none of those look like sure bets a year later, and Chubb had 12 sacks as a rookie. Elway addressed the position by signing Case Keenum as a free agent after Keenum’s successful campaign in Minnesota resulted in an NFC Championship birth. Aside from Keenum, the only other options were Kirk Cousins, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford. Cousins got an enormous contract that doesn’t look all that great a year later, Bridgewater only landed as a backup and didn’t look good in his lone start and, well, I’ll tell you about Bradford once I figure out what infirmary he’s in.
Case Keenum was what there was. Elway actually made a very smart offer to Keenum by making it enough money ($18m per year) to entice him as a starter, but also short enough (two years) that if it was a catastrophe they could move on fairly quickly. The first year was a rocky road with ups and downs. The season started rocky culminating in an epic blowout loss to the Jets, but over a six-game stretch against the best in the league, Keenum played his best football and Denver was in a position to make a playoff run. During the end of that span, the Broncos lost three starting offensive lineman, their top two tight ends and Emmanuel Sanders and the wheels came off in San Francisco. Could Keenum have been better? Absolutely. Was he plain awful? Not really. Keenum is a game manager and if Trent Dilfer, Kerry Collins, Brad Johnson, and Peyton Manning have taught us anything, game managers can win titles. All of that said, Keenum is not a long term solution.
Long story short for all of this, at every step, Elway and Denver took the best possible option available to them to try to fix the QB position. The problem is, none of the options were that great. So where does Elway go from here?
The 2019 draft is not exactly shaping up as a banner year for can’t miss franchise arms. The early leaders for first-round consideration are Dwayne Haskins and, uh, Dwayne Haskins. Some combination of Drew Lock, Daniel Jones and now Kyler Murray are surfacing in mock drafts depending whose you’re looking at and when, but none of them are being heralded as must-draft types. Denver has the #10 pick and Haskins won’t last that long, this could leave them to target a later round prospect like Will Grier (who I think will wind up flying up draft boards during workouts), Gardner Minshew or Ryan Finley. If Elway goes this route, it’s still not a guarantee that player will work out and it leaves Keenum in the driver seat for 2019.
The free agent pool is also a little dicey. Bridgewater and FitzMagic are back out there, as is Tyrod Taylor but none of those guys are upgrades over Keenum, let alone long term options. It’s possible Nick Foles could be made available given he is owed $20m as a backup, and rumor has it Joe Flacco will be cut as well as Blake Bortles. All three are well-known names and each has flashed upside, as well as the horrific downside. None of them are locks and all of them will command big contracts that might not be worth the investment. If a Bortles can be had on a team friendly deal with some easy outs after a year or two, it might be worth it but that seems unlikely.
As it all stands right now, the Broncos best option is to roll through 2019 with Keenum at the helm and draft a project QB later in the draft. this will allow them to focus on fixing the holes that can be properly addressed in the first round and free agency: cornerback and offensive line. I would leave open the possibility for both Will Grier and Kyler Murray to materialize as strong candidates for the #10 overall pick, the same can be said for Lock, but if those guys will be options at #10, it’s more likely someone will draft them earlier.