Projecting How Rick Spielman's QB Approach Might Predict What George Paton Will Do

Paton worked under Spielman for many years while with the Vikings. How might Spielman have influenced Paton's approach?
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We've heard what new Broncos general manager George Paton has had to say about the team for whom he now oversees personnel.

"Sleeping giant." "Aggressive, not reckless." "This is the job I really wanted." "They have everything here to win."

We like to boil down what NFL players, coaches and executives say into juicy sound bites. Therefore, you hear Paton talking up the Broncos and what he thinks of their potential, you look at the roster, you look at the moves he's made thus far and you might think "we are a quarterback away from a Super Bowl!"

The problem I see is that it's putting the cart before the horse. It's acting like Paton's already done all the work that needs to be done to get the Broncos back up to speed, and all he needs is a quarterback.

But is that what he's thinking? More importantly, is he prepared to go "all in" for that quarterback?

Perhaps we can learn something from the man he worked under for many years, Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman.

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Spielman's Early Years

The Vikings didn't have a clear answer at quarterback when Spielman took over in 2006. Brad Johnson had played well in the past, but he was aging.

Spielman's first move was to trade up for a quarterback: a move up in the second round in the 2006 Draft for Tarvaris Jackson. Such moves up the second round don't happen often for QBs, but Spielman took a chance here.

Jackson didn't pan out, leaving Spielman to bring in another aging veteran, Gus Frerotte, in 2008. In the meantime, he wasn't stockpiling the draft picks. He tended to trade up, or trade them away, more often than he traded down.

Among Spielman's bold moves was a blockbuster trade for Jared Allen in 2008. He sent the 17th overall pick, two thirds and a sixth, and got a 2009 sixth back, for the top-tier pass rusher. It certainly helped get the Vikings to the playoffs in 2008.

Then came 2009, when fortune smiled upon Spielman and Brett Favre became available in free agency. Favre, who had retired early in 2009, but was released from his contract with the Jets, came out of retirement to join the Vikings.

The Vikings reached the NFC title game in 2009, but Favre was injured against the Saints, a storyline that turned into the so-called Bountygate scandal. Favre was never the same after that, and a trade during the 2010 season for Randy Moss for a 2011 third didn't help.

Head coach Brad Childress was fired and replaced by Leslie Frazier midway through the 2010 season. Favre retired after the season. It was clear that Spielman needed to reassess where the direction of the team.

A Shift in Philosophy

In 2011, Spielman took a chance on Christian Ponder, in which the thinking may have been about getting a quarterback under a cost-controlled contract that the rookie pay scale (implemented when the CBA was approved later that year) made possible.

Still, there were some who thought Ponder might be at least an adequate starter, so it made a little sense to take him when he was available with the 12th overall pick.

Though Ponder didn't work out, Spielman tried again when he traded up for Teddy Bridgewater in 2013. That move started out better, but a serious injury Bridgewater suffered in the 2015 training camp prompted Spielman to send a 2016 first for Sam Bradford.

Though that move didn't work, Spielman had changed course in other ways. He was more concerned about trading down in drafts whenever possible, and only trading up when he had accumulated draft capital.

Of particular note is that Spielman frequently trades down in the third round. Since 2014, Spielman has traded down 10 times in the third round, accumulating more picks in either later rounds or future years.

And the Bradford trade aside, Spielman hasn't gone "all in" on a player in a trade, but he has received a lot in return from teams who went "all in" on one of the Vikings players. He got a 2013 first, seventh and 2014 third in a 2013 trade for Percy Harvin, then got a 2020 first, fifth, sixth and 2021 fourth in a 2020 trade for Stefon Diggs.

Since 2013, Spielman made at least 10 selections in six out of eight drafts. The Vikings have 10 picks in the 2021 Draft, so Spielman could make 10 selections again, unless he trades up.

And though there are questions as to whether or not their current QB, Kirk Cousins, is the guy to build around, Spielman is a believer in building through the draft, particularly when it comes to stockpiling picks.

His trades up the board since the Brad Childress era ended have happened when Spielman accumulated draft capital. That gave him picks he could afford to lose when he made a move up the board.

What It All Means

Spielman didn't necessarily start out as a guy who was patient, and he looked to make bold moves to get the Vikings to the playoffs. He also entered a situation in which he was fortunate to get a veteran QB who could take the team to the next level.

However, that QB was gone after two seasons and Spielman had to reassess. He changed his philosophy a bit, focusing more on stockpiling picks and, while he never ruled out a trade up for a QB, he did it when he had the picks stockpiled.

When the Vikings moved up for Bridgewater in 2013, they made 10 total selections. That ensured Spielman had the players who could potentially help either as starters or depth players, to build the roster around Bridgewater.

Even though he was unable to find an elite QB, Spielman kept stockpiling the picks and looking for players who could help. He has explored free agency, but hasn't used that as a replacement for the draft (and, furthermore, multiple big-ticket signings haven't worked out well for the Vikings, while their value signings have been better).

So, since the Childress era, I'd say that Spielman has followed the approach of "try to find our QB, but if we don't have our QB, build like we have him, anyway."

While it may be frustrating for Vikings fans to endure a few seasons of mediocrity, they have gotten their fair share of playoff trips. Since 2006, the Vikings have gone to the playoffs six times and reached the NFC title game twice. They've also had more stability at the head coaching position: Childress lasted five seasons, Frazier lasted three and current head coach Mike Zimmer enters his eighth.

How Paton May Approach Things

George Paton

If Paton is going to implement the philosophy Spielman has demonstrated in more recent seasons, he's not going to stop looking for a QB, but he's going to pick his spots.

The Broncos enter the 2021 Draft with nine total selections, three of them in the seventh round. That's not a low amount, but it's not an amount that suggests Paton is going to make a bold move to trade up in the first round, regardless of what one thinks about the roster or the talent of the 2021 QB draft class.

That doesn't mean Paton won't take a QB in the first round. It's more likely, though, that he'll wait to see if one falls him at No. 9 overall that everyone is comfortable with taking. As much hype as there is around the 2021 Draft class, you can't rule out a QB sliding down the board.

And while I won't say that one of the top four QBs will slide down the board like, say, Bridgewater did in 2013, I won't rule out the possibility of a QB not going in the top three sliding down. Just because draft analysts rank a QB high on their lists, doesn't mean teams rank him that high.

Regardless, I believe Paton will be patient when it comes to selecting a QB, rather than falling for the hype some may believe about the Broncos being a QB away from being a Super Bowl contender. He'll only trade up if somebody the Broncos love — and not simply like — is there after the first three picks.

Sure, you can argue that a top QB in the draft class is a potential upgrade over Drew Lock. But to argue that the Broncos become a Super Bowl contender when they have missed the playoffs back-to-back years and we don't yet know how any 2021 acquisitions or players returning from injury will fare? I believe that's jumping to conclusions.

If one of the top QB prospects isn't there at No. 9 overall, it won't surprise me if Paton trades down. Furthermore, if Paton is going to do anything like Spielman, I'd say the safe bet is that Paton will trade down in the third round, because Spielman has done this so often.

I also believe Paton is likely to give head coach Vic Fangio more than just 2021, unless the Broncos are so bad they finish with a record that puts them in the top five of the 2022 Draft. Otherwise, I believe Paton wants stability at the head coaching position.

Keep in mind the Broncos haven't had much stability under previous GM John Elway. John Fox had the longest tenure at four seasons, with Gary Kubiak and Vance Joseph each lasting two, and Fangio with just two seasons under Elway.

Conclusion

But back to the quarterback: If Paton is able to get draft capital stockpiled, he can always look at QBs in future classes, should Drew Lock go into 2021 as the starter but fail to improve.

Don't worry about comparing the talent level of one class to another. History has shown there is no rhyme or reason to how many QB prospects were considered worth a first-round pick, versus how many turned into quality starters. What matters is finding your guy, no matter the year it may be.

If Paton decides 2021 isn't that year, even if lots of draft analysts are touting the class as one of the best ever, then there will always be another year — and it could be a year in which analysts says it's not a great overall class, but there's one who goes off the board in the first round — and not necessarily No. 1 overall — who turns out to be the right guy for the Broncos.

The one thing I believe you can count on is this: Paton will go get the QB when he and the coaching staff believe they have their guy. But if he doesn't believe this is the year, he'll build as if the Broncos already have their guy.

Be sure to check out Part I, Part II and Part III of our QB series. 


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