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Broncos, Sean Payton Linked to Steelers QB Mason Rudolph by Ex-NFL GM

Denver Broncos fans don't want to see another 'stopgap' quarterback under center.
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The Denver Broncos are expected to be very much in the quarterback market in 2024. With the anticipated release of veteran Russell Wilson, the Broncos will once again be wandering the QB desert.

Jarrett Stidham is under contract on a deal set to pay him $5 million in 2024. But head coach Sean Payton could gravitate to veteran alternatives on the free-agent market. 

Earlier this week, former Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley floated Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph as a free-agent name to watch for the Broncos during an appearance on 93.7 The FAN's Paul Alexander Show in Pittsburgh. 

"Think about this, Sean Payton doesn't need a mobile quarterback," Whaley told host Paul Alexander. "That type of offense, timing, precise accuracy type thing, every once in and while, a calculated deep shot, it kind of fits what he does. This guy [Rudolph] will be a legitimate stop gap, the way he's playing right now. " 

Rudolph was Pittsburgh's third-round pick back in 2018 out of Oklahoma State. He was the sixth quarterback drafted that year, following the likes of Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson.

The 6-foot-5, 235-pound signal-caller started 13 games in Pittsburgh, going 8-4-1. Rudolph won all three games the Steelers asked him to start down the stretch this season. He's set to start on Sunday vs. the Bills in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs, so depending on how the Steelers do, Rudolph has the chance to build his value around the NFL.

For his career, the 28-year-old Rudolph has a 63.5 completion percentage with 3,085 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. Starting off as Pittsburgh's third-string QB this season behind Pickett and Mitchell Trubisky, Rudolph tossed three touchdowns in 2023 and finished the campaign with zero interceptions. 

After watching Pickett's painful attempts at quarterbacking a low-production offense and Trubisky losing both of his starts this season amid too many turnovers, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin turned the keys over to Rudolph in late December. 

So far, Rudolph has made his coach look good, and it's possible the Steelers opt to try retaining the QB as their own 'stopgap,' especially with Pickett, the 2022 first-rounder, failing to fully launch, despite his 14-10 record as a starter. The more Rudolph increases his value, the less likely the Broncos would be to pursue him, due to the current projections of the team being $30 million over the salary cap for 2024. 

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) passes the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 27-15.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) passes the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 27-15.

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However, a 'legitimate stopgap' isn't what Broncos Country is hoping for in the next quarterback to start for the team. Long have the Broncos tried to make do with the QB leavings of other teams, going from one reclamation project to another. 

Remember, there's no such thing as a 'free-agent franchise quarterback.' NFL teams don't allow true franchise signal-callers to hit the free-agent market. All-time quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are the exceptions that prove the rule. 

It would seem that Whaley is acknowledging this NFL fact on some level by categorizing Rudolph as a stopgap quarterback. However, the former Bills GM isn't wrong in his description of the ideal Payton quarterback. 

Think back to the heights of the New Orleans Saints offense with Drew Brees under center. Brees was a dynamic quarterback, sure, but it was all done from the pocket. Brees was a game manager in the truest, best sense and was infuriatingly robotic at times. Infuriating for opponents, that is. 

Payton could always count on the ball to come out on time with Brees. The offense stayed on schedule as Brees worked from the pocket to dissect defenses with highly accurate short-area passes, only to lull opponents to sleep with those strategic vertical shots, as Whaley mentioned. 

Wilson is literally the antithesis of Brees. The ball rarely comes out on time and Wilson's accuracy isn't top-notch on short-area throws. He misses a lot pre-snap, which leads to undue pressure, which leads to him bailing the pocket almost as soon as he reaches the back foot of his drop, which often leads to calamity. 

Such backyard quarterbacks can also work miracles when the play breaks down. Wilson most certainly still has that propensity, and his deep-ball accuracy is among the best in the NFL. But he's simply not the Payton prototype. 

To be clear, I'm not asserting that Rudolph would be an ideal Payton fit. But he does fit the prototype much closer than Wilson. 

Holding the No. 12 overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft, Payton could opt to find and target his guy and maneuver to secure a quarterback of the future. Then again, one of the critiques of Payton is that he's never 'drafted and developed' a quarterback. 

If Payton has never developed a quarterback he drafted, it's because he hasn't had to. Payton had a future Hall-of-Famer in Brees for 14 of the 15 years he spent with the Saints. 

Brees was recruited and signed by Payton in 2006, shortly after he'd accepted the head-coaching job — his first. The rest, as they say, is history. 

In Denver, Payton inherited a seemingly broken Wilson. Despite Wilson being a nine-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl champion, Payton reportedly had his concerns about taking the veteran on as his QB, but was so impressed and confident in the Broncos' new ownership situation and front office that he was willing to give a Russ marriage a chance. 

After Wilson was benched ahead of Week 17, we can only assume that Payton found irreconcilable differences with the QB. And considering Stidham's underwhelming performance in the two starts he received to end the season, Payton is assuredly on the prowl for a quarterback in his image. 

Hopefully, that quarterback is procured through the draft, and the Broncos find and develop their future franchise guy the old-fashioned way. But if Payton is concerned that the No. 12 pick will leave the Broncos on the outside looking in relative to the sure-fire QB prospects in the 2024 class, he'll have to make the early decision to target a veteran. 

Perhaps Rudolph could be that veteran. Time will tell. For now, Payton and GM George Paton are in the process of taking a couple of weeks away from Broncos HQ before planning to reconvene and start hashing out their big roster decisions and plans for 2024. 

The NFL's free-agent window will open with the 'legal tampering window' on March 11 — a month-and-a-half before the NFL draft kicks off on April 25. The Broncos will need a clear plan of attack at quarterback long well ahead of March 11 so that Payton and Paton can make the most of their window. 

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