If Denver Broncos' GM George Paton has done anything up to this point, it's that he's kept everyone guessing on his true intentions at the most important position on the field. At both the local and national level, all the bonafide insiders have forecasted a tectonic quarterback acquisition for the Broncos this offseason.
The message? Drew Lock was nowhere good enough to justify entering 2021 as the unquestioned, no-doubt-about-it starter under center.
Plus, in many ways, Lock lost his most ardent supporter in the GM chair when John Elway relinquished the position to "move up" to focus solely on being Denver's president of football operations. That doesn't mean Elway lost all influence on the personnel decisions of this team — far from it — but he's not the man whose finger is constantly poised on the trigger of every and any roster move.
That finger now belongs to Paton and the first-year GM wasted little time subverting media expectations when free agency opened back in mid-March. All the available veterans signed around the NFL one-by-one as Paton held pat and didn't make a move.
Sure, there were rumors galore but nothing tangible. Paton stood pat, saying during the introductory press conference for free-agent acquisitions Ronald Darby and Mike Boone, "We like Drew Lock. We have a plan in place and there’s free agency, there’s the draft, there’s trades, there’s a lot of ways to acquire a quarterback. Fortunately, we have a quarterback here and we have a nice quarterback room. We do want to bring in competition. We are not going to force it."
Paton concluded by emphasizing that he'd continue to "monitor" all three avenues of the market. Nothing has happened since at UCHealth Training Center by way of the quarterback position, with the exception of Lock showing up daily at the facility to work.
Meanwhile, Paton watched as the San Francisco 49ers maneuvered up the draft board in a trade with the Miami Dolphins to secure the No. 3 overall pick. With Jacksonville and New York projected to each take a QB at picks No. 1 and 2, all signs point to the first three selections in this coming draft being signal-callers.
That top-5 list of QBs has dwindled fast for any team in the market to acquire one, including Paton's Broncos. There's hope yet, though, as the Atlanta Falcons hold pick No. 4 and ostensibly have a franchise QB in Matt Ryan and could be amenable to a trade-back if the right offer crossed the desk of new GM Terry Fontenot.
Paton would have to trade to No. 4 in order to guarantee a QB, though, as the Carolina Panthers at No. 8 are expected to take a signal-caller, with QB-needy teams like the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 12), Minnesota Vikings (No. 14), and New England Patriots (No. 15) poised as viable threats to leap-frog the Broncos. Again, it's all about No. 4 if Paton truly covets a QB in the top-10 this year.
The question is, after all his Pro Day trips to scout BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance, and Ohio State's Justin Fields, has Paton fallen in love with a quarterback in this class? NFL Network's Broncos insider James Palmer recently provided some context to the possible answer, revealing along the way that a trade-up is still very much on the table for Paton, even as the opportunity to do so dwindles.
"They do feel like they have someone in Drew Lock that is going to be better than he was his first season-and-a-half in the NFL to where they're not forcing anything," Palmer recently told anchor Andrew Siciliano. "But, again, as we talked about, these pro days, George Paton's going to go out there and make sure he knows everything about these top-5 quarterbacks to put him in a position to where, I do believe if the right one is there, he will trade up to get one that he has fallen in love with. But he has to make sure that he has fallen in love with one of them, so they're doing all their due diligence there. They are in play to possibly move up for a quarterback."
Maybe Paton has done all his research, and similarly to the Sam Darnold issue, has concluded that none of the QBs reasonably expected to be within reach at pick No. 4 represents enough of an upgrade over Lock to justify the capital the Broncos would have to relinquish to move up. If so, that wouldn't necessarily preclude Paton from taking one at pick No. 9, if, indeed, one signal-caller unexpectedly tumbles down the board similarly to Patrick Mahomes (ever so slightly) in 2017.
Taking one at No. 9 wouldn't require Paton to give up anything other than the pick itself.
"They'll see how the market falls in maybe getting one at pick 9," Palmer continued. "They do want to make sure they upgrade this quarterback position. If it doesn't happen in the draft—and I've mentioned that they've slow-played here in free agency—don't be surprised if they do it after the draft. Maybe not a Sam Darnold but if Teddy Bridgewater becomes available, or say the market changes on Jimmy Garoppolo—they'll still be looking for an addition to that quarterback room if it doesn't happen by the time the draft rolls around."
Even Palmer acknowledges that Darnold seems like a dim possibility at this point. Bridgewater might offer some fail-safe value but as an upgrade over Lock? There's no empirical evidence to suggest that, especially after Lock torched Bridgewater's Panthers in Week 14 this past season to the tune of 280 passing yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions, while the Broncos' secondary was the veritable walking wounded, starting a rookie at cornerback and missing two starters.
Fans and some media are still trying to make heads or tails over Paton's inactivity in free agency. As Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, and most available veterans signed elsewhere, you could almost hear the handwringing in the Mile High City.
"They are still looking to improve that quarterback room," Palmer said. "But why haven't they done it yet on the veteran market? Well, let's take a look at how George Paton has gone through free agency. He's been very patient in the way he's gone about it and at the same time, talking to people inside the building—'We don't want to force it. We do feel like we're fortunate we have a quarterback in Drew Lock.' I think this shows you, as they've not really gone out there on Ryan Fitzpatrick, they were lukewarm on Andy Dalton."
The only thing we know with relative confidence is that Paton was in on the Matthew Stafford trade before he was dealt to the L.A. Rams. However, the Detroit Lions wanted Lock as a part of that deal and that, perhaps combined with other factors, was a bridge too far.
We'll know soon enough how Paton truly views Lock and the quarterback position. But as we inch ever close to the draft and the first, second, and third waves of free agency recede back into the Gulf of the NFL, it's looking increasingly likely that Paton intends to run it back with Lock in 2021.
And that could have been his plan for the Broncos all along.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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