Answering if Broncos Should Take Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence if They Land No. 1 Overall Draft Pick
The Denver Broncos are 1-3 to open the season and, by some measures, have been projected to finish with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
With a win over the New York Jets, the Broncos are now less likely to finish with the first overall pick. But if the first pick in the draft were to become reality, what would the Broncos do at that point?
The Broncos still have Drew Lock on the roster, but he's currently injured and has played just six full games. The Broncos also appear to have a solid backup option in Brett Rypien.
So what happens if Denver gets the No. 1 overall pick? Could they afford to pass up on Trevor Lawrence, considered one of the best QB prospects in years? And if the Broncos don't finish with the No. 1 overall pick, do they still need to think about taking a quarterback early?
I'm going to examine this issue in a two-part series. The first part will examine what the Broncos should do if they finish with the No. 1 overall pick, and the second part will cover what they should do if they don't finish as the worst team in football.
The reason I'm breaking the No. 1 overall pick discussion into separate conversations is because there's a lot to cover. Let's go over the evidence about teams who have finished with the No. 1 overall pick.
Looking Back at Past Drafts
I went all the way back to 1990 to see what teams did when they finished with the No. 1 overall pick. A quarterback was selected No. 1 overall in 19 of the 31 drafts held since 1990.
There have been a few instances in which a team selected a quarterback No. 1 overall, after drafting a quarterback the year before, but in all cases, they came in the years since the rookie pay scale was implemented.
Before the 2011 draft, a team that took a quarterback No. 1 overall did not take a quarterback in the first two rounds the prior year. From 2011 on, it happened three times: Cam Newton to the Panthers in 2011 (who took Jimmy Clausen in the second round in 2020), Baker Mayfield to the Browns in 2018 (who took DeShone Kizer in the second round in 2017) and Kyler Murray to the Cardinals in 2019 (who took Josh Rosen in the first round in 2018).
The rookie pay scale is a big reason why these teams went after a quarterback, when they already had a young prospect with just one year under his belt. Regime changes are another reason: The Panthers had a new head coach and general manager, the Browns had a new GM and the Cardinals had a new head coach.
Before the rookie pay scale came along, giving up on a QB after one year didn't happen often, because teams spent more money on first-round contracts. Thus, a team was looking to get more of a return on its investment, whereas, under the post-2011 rookie pay scale, drafted QBs got contracts that were more in line with those of good backups and reflective of their lack of NFL production.
With the rookie pay scale in place, there's less of a reason to keep rolling with a young QB if you have doubts about him. Better to get another QB if one is available who has a much higher ceiling.
Why Do Teams Pass on QBs at No. 1 Overall?
So what about those teams who passed on quarterbacks at No. 1 overall? It helps to understand their situations. In some cases, it's understandable, but in a few cases, it's harder to defend.
Let's go over those years in which teams passed on QBs at No. 1 overall.
1991: The Dallas Cowboys took DT Russell Maryland overall. They already had Troy Aikman at quarterback — but they finished 7-9 overall in 1990. So how did they wind up with the No. 1 overall pick?
Answer: The Herschel Walker trade, a trade that may never happen again the way it was framed by Jimmy Johnson. He got additional draft picks from the Minnesota Vikings because he cut players acquired in the trade.
It so happened that the Cowboys got a lot of picks from the Vikings after they cut players, thus they traded up with the Patriots to get the No. 1 overall pick.
1992: The Colts drafted defensive lineman Steve Entman, because they were still trying to figure out if Jeff George — who they took in 1990 after trading for the No. 1 overall pick — was the guy or not.
In doing so, the Colts passed on the 1992 draft class, which included Tommy Maddox, Matt Blundin, Tony Sacca, and the QB we'll get to in our next examples.
1994 and 1995: These are combined because the Cincinnati Bengals drafted No. 1 overall in back-to-back years. They had selected David Klingler in the first round of the 1992 Draft.
In 1994, they still had hopes Klingler would be the guy and passed on the likes of Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer to select defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson.
While that move was defensible, it's harder to defend their 1995 move. Klingler was clearly not the guy and the Bengals were starting Jeff Blake. The Bengals, though, liked running back Ki-Jana Carter and took him — passing up on Steve McNair, who was taken No. 3 overall by the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) and went on to have a fine NFL career that included a trip to the Super Bowl.
1996: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers still had Dilfer on the roster when they selected wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson No. 1 overall. They weren't wrong to not take a quarterback, because it was a weak class with no QBs taken in the first round and Tony Banks being the only QB taken in the second round.
1997: The St. Louis Rams selected offensive tackle Orlando Pace No. 1 overall. He's a Hall of Famer, so the Rams did pretty well.
And when you consider the only quarterback taken in the first round was Jim Druckenmiller, it's understandable why the Rams passed, even though their starter at the time was Banks, their second-round pick from the year before.
However, they perhaps should have considered a quarterback who fell to them in the second round but passed on. You've probably heard of him: Jake Plummer, who went to the Cardinals four picks later.
2000: The Cleveland Browns — the version that was an expansion team in 1999 — were still figuring out if Tim Couch, who was selected No. 1 overall the year before, was the guy. Thus, it makes sense why they took defensive lineman Courtney Brown (who later became a Bronco) instead.
Also, it wasn't a strong QB class, though first-round pick Chad Pennington, taken by the Jets, had a solid career.
2006: I think most of you remember how the Houston Texans were encouraged to take Vince Young No. 1 overall, but they passed on him for edge rusher Mario Williams. Neither Young nor Matt Leinart, the first two QBs off the board, turned into a franchise guy.
But it would have been interesting to see what might have happened had the Texans taken Jay Cutler No. 1 overall. Though not an elite player, Cutler was a guy you could build around, even if neither the Broncos nor the Bears did a good job of doing that.
2008: The Miami Dolphins needed a quarterback after Trent Green, John Beck, and Cleo Lemon all failed to prove to be the guy to build around. Instead, the Dolphins took offensive tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 overall pick.
Long had a fine NFL career, but the Dolphins passed on Matt Ryan, who went to the Atlanta Falcons at No. 3 overall. Ryan may not be elite, but he's gotten the Falcons to the playoffs multiple times and has proven you can win with him if you build the team around him and coach it well.
2013: This was the first year under the new rookie pay scale that a quarterback wasn't taken No. 1 overall. The Kansas City Chiefs, who acquired Alex Smith in a trade with the Niners, opted to draft offensive tackle Eric Fisher with the first pick.
In this case, the Chiefs weren't wrong to pass on the quarterback class, considered one of the weakest classes in years. EJ Manuel went off the board to the Bills in the first round and never panned out, and neither did Geno Smith, who fell into the second round and was taken by the Jets.
2014: The following year, the Houston Texans drafted No. 1 overall and, despite an aging Matt Schaub and an underwhelming Case Keenum starting the year before, passed on a quarterback and selected edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney.
But the Texans weren't wrong to do so, because first-round picks Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel didn't pan out. They might have been looking at Teddy Bridgewater in the second round, but the Vikings traded up to take him at the end of the first round.
You could probably argue that the Texans should have taken a chance on Derek Carr in the second round, but the point remains that the Texans made the right call at No. 1 overall to pass on a QB.
2017: This year presented a quandary for the Browns: Do you take edge rusher Myles Garrett No. 1 overall or get one of the top QB prospects?
The Browns went with Garrett and had the 12th overall selection, reportedly with their sights set on Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs traded up and took him, then the Browns passed on Deshaun Watson and traded down with the Texans, who took Watson.
I don't think the Browns were wrong to take Garrett, but they were wrong to not do whatever it took to get Mahomes if he was their guy. If they really wanted Mahomes, they should have been aggressive in trading back up the board, rather than hoping he fell to them at No. 12.
What it Means for Denver
In most years when teams passed on quarterbacks, it wasn't a strong QB class. Thus, the evidence shows that if the QB class isn't good, a team finishing No. 1 overall should look elsewhere.
However, the 2021 draft class isn't a weak overall class and the top prospect, the aforementioned Clemson star QB Trevor Lawrence, has been compared to the likes of John Elway, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck, as opposed to the likes of Banks, Druckenmiller, Manuel, or Bortles.
Broncos fans, of course, know all there is to know about Elway and Manning. Luck's career was brief but he played at a high level most years. I know plenty of Broncos fans had their sights on Luck in 2011 when the team was rebuilding.
Given that Lawrence is in such select company among prospects, taking him No. 1 overall is a no-brainer, to the point that if the Broncos get the No. 1 overall pick, they have to take him.
You simply can't afford to pass up on a prospect like Lawrence at No. 1 overall. Furthermore, if the Broncos finish with the No. 1 overall pick, you know Drew Lock isn't your guy, no matter how many games he plays.
So what happens if the Broncos don't get the No. 1 overall pick? There are scenarios in which the Broncos must build around Lock and scenarios in which they may need to consider another QB.
We'll examine those scenarios in the next part.