When the Denver Broncos hired new GM George Paton, the John Elway era came to a close, essentially. As president of football operations, Elway is still going to have some veto power going forward, but the onus for the tough task of building the Broncos’ roster now falls on Paton.
How much influence will Elway have on the roster decisions going forward? According to NFL insider James Palmer, Elway didn’t even know about Denver’s release of cornerback A.J. Bouye until after the decision had already been made and announced.
Elway will likely be consulted for many bigger decisions as he has experienced success as a GM, but this is Paton’s team now and going forward.
Even as Elway takes a backseat as the decision-maker for the Broncos, his fingerprints remain all over the roster. While the Broncos' success during Elway’s tenure in the personnel department has been largely linked to the time Peyton Manning played quarterback in Denver (crazy, a team is great when they have great quarterback play and bad when they don’t), this is not a roster devoid of talent.
Sure, the draft classes from 2013-16 left a lot to be desired and are a large reason for the Broncos’ struggles over the last five years, but the 2017 and 2021 counterparts seem to have put the team in the right direction despite its 5-11 finish in 2020. The Broncos could certainly be a strong bounce-back candidate next year, or as Paton put it when talking about why he accepted the position in Denver after years of declining other opportunities, “a sleeping giant.”
Recently Pro Football Focus’ lead draft analyst Mike Renner wrote two tandem pieces discussing all 32 teams’ best draft decisions as well as their biggest draft mistake over the last half-decade. Unfortunately for the Broncos, and likely the single biggest reason for the team’s utter ineptitude post-Peyton, the biggest blunder over the last five years is probably easy to predict.
Paxton Lynch. Chad Kelly. Drew Lock. I really don’t need to say much more. It’s the code John Elway could never quite crack.
All roads in Denver come back to the quarterback position. After having the good graces of having two of the top-10 greatest to ever play quarterback in Elway and Manning, it’s a little ironic that in an era where quarterback play is more valuable than ever, the team simply hasn't been able to figure it out under center. Certainly, there is still hope for Lock and I would argue that while the merit of him developing into a quality starter can still be debated and is yet to be determined, the process for drafting him was good.
Given that Denver was able to maneuver around the draft and not only land a toolsy quarterback at pick No. 42 overall, but Elway was also able to add capital that became young key contributors on the Broncos' roster as a result of the team’s trade from 10 to 20 in the 2019 draft. While Lock may never wind up the caliber of quarterback that is required to contend in a division with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and even Derek Carr, trading down, taking a swing on Lock is “good process” regardless of the results.
Lock has also outperformed most second-round quarterbacks historically given the position over the last decade is almost exclusively a 'first-round-or-bust proposition. Renner noted in his podcast the only viable starting quarterbacks selected outside of round 1 in the last decade are Carr, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Kirk Cousins.
It’s hard to fault Denver too much with taking a swing on Kelly as literally the last pick in the 2017 draft, but the bust that was the selection of Lynch is something this team simply hasn’t managed to live down quite yet. From bypassing the 2018 class (hello and goodbye, Mahomes and Deshaun Watson) to perhaps being a bit scared off by Josh Allen due to scouts profiling his traits so similarly to Lynch, Denver isn’t going to do bupkis until quarterback is answered.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as over recent drafts, Elway and his personnel department really started to stack some solid classes together. The benefits of those classes are still just seedlings rather than a sprawling garden, but the young players and talent are there.
There is, of course, an exception to Elway’s struggles drafting from 2013-16 and that is the team’s third-round pick in 2016 — Justin Simmons out of Boston College. The long-term status for Simmons in Denver has been secured after he signed his four-year, $61 million extension.
The return on the Simmons pick has been unquestionably incredible. Renner notes just how great of a selection Simmons was by Elway back in 2016.
The list of the safeties who came off the board before Simmons is an incredible mix: Karl Joseph, Keanu Neal, T.J. Green, Sean Davis, Vonn Bell, Kevin Byard, Darian Thompson. That’s seven guys, with Byard being the only one who can hold a candle to Simmons in terms of career production. The Broncos safety has earned coverage grades of 91.1 and 79.0 over the past two seasons, respectively.
The Elway front office era for the Broncos was without question hit-or-miss, but while the inconsistencies at quarterback will plague this team until the position performs better, the roster is in a much better position than where it was years ago. Every team has its hits and misses in the draft.
That’s just the nature of the guessing game that is the NFL draft.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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