Sean Payton Tips Hand on Broncos' Likely Lloyd Cushenberry III Replacement

The Denver Broncos are hosting an open competition for the starting center job and Alex Forsyth seems to be the early frontrunner.
Denver Broncos center Alex Forsyth (54) during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center.
Denver Broncos center Alex Forsyth (54) during organized team activities at Centura Health Training Center. / Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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The Denver Broncos allowed four-year starting center Lloyd Cushenberry III to depart in free agency this offseason, and he'd go on to sign a record-setting contract with the Tennesse Titans. Perhaps it was by design.

Despite Cushenberry turning in the best performance of his career in a contract year, the Broncos were never going to re-sign him, and not just because of the financial pickle the team found itself in as a result of the punitive Russell Wilson contract.

Forsyth was the final player taken in Sean Payton's first draft class in Denver, but he might rank higher in the head coach's heart. After all, Payton surprised everyone by paying Forsyth a huge compliment in January as Cushenberry was gearing up for his first taste of NFL free agency, perhaps forecasting the former Oregon stand-out's future role with the Broncos.

"Alex—we feel he’s a starter in this league at center," Payton said on January 9.

Since drafting Forsyth in the seventh round last year, Payton has paid Forsyth one compliment after another. He often mentions that Forsyth is one of the first in the building each day and among the last to leave, and Payton likes to talk about the center's football IQ and potential as a starter.

“We knew when we drafted him he was extremely intelligent," Payton said of Forsyth last week. "We knew we were drafting a highly intelligent player, and you could see that in his film. I think it’s a trait, certainly, that helps at center."

While the Broncos were scouting the quarterback class in the 2024 draft, Payton sought out Forsyth's opinion on Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, with whom he played and snapped to in 2022. Forsyth gave Payton a "responsible" and "thoughtful" answer on Nix, which seemingly translated to a resounding testimonial because the Broncos would go on to draft the quarterback at No. 12 overall.

"I think that it’s one of his strong suits," Payton said of Forsyth's football acumen. "It’s one of the reasons why I sat down with him a little bit to discuss Nix. I knew that I’d get a pretty intelligent answer, a responsible answer, a thoughtful answer. He has high, high football IQ.”

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Then the Broncos drafted Nix's No. 1 target at Oregon — Troy Franklin — showing an early commitment to the rookie quarterback's comfortability by adding another familiar face, along with Forsyth. In Nix's first year at Oregon, Forsyth snapped him the ball, while no other Duck received more passing targets than Franklin.

The Broncos could look to duplicate that history, at least in part, in Nix's first year as a pro by tapping Forsyth as the starting center. However, to win the starting job, Forsyth will have to vanquish 2022 sixth-rounder Luke Wattenberg in open competition this summer. Forsyth has been seen running with the first-team offense during OTAs, as has Nix, as the Broncos rotate different player combinations in and out.

"Both he and Luke [are intelligent]," Payton said of Forsyth. "I’ve told the coaches, and I think it’s important for you all to know: don’t read into any type of rotation now. I’m trying to get combinations of players."

Payton also did his level best to play down Nix's reps with the first-team offense, chalking it up to a "coincidence" that every time the Broncos have opened OTA practice to media scrutiny, the rookie has received first-team reps. Perhaps there's some truth to it, but it's not the whole truth.

"The quarterbacks are rotating ones, twos and threes," Payton said. "It’s just so happened that we’ve gone every third day, and you guys have seen Nix running with the ones. So that’s a little bit of a coincidence."

Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson have been rotating with all three offensive units, too, although Stidham opened OTAs as the first quarterback to run with the ones. Payton is taking a similar approach with regard to the centers, so both Forsyth and Wattenberg have garnered first-team reps as the Broncos look to officially replace Cushenberry in the starting lineup.

"The centers are doing the same thing," Payton said.

Payton strives to keep his true opinion on players, especially those competing for starting jobs, close to the vest. But sometimes things slip through that reveal more than perhaps Payton would like.

Payton's comments about Nix last week were a good example. Nix isn't just doing "well." He's doing very "well." He's not just throwing it "well"; he's throwing it extremely "well."

It might require viewing Payton's remarks through a Freudian lens, which requires us to make logical leaps and risks jumping to incorrect conclusions, but he used similar superlatives when discussing Forsyth. It's not a "high football IQ" — it's a "high, high football IQ."

Payton was weaned in the Bill Parcells School of NFL Coaching, with a major in Espionage/Coach-speak, so we have to not only take what we can get when he's at the podium, but also work a little harder to extract the true meaning of his remarks.

Suffice it to say, Payton is pleased with what he's seen from Nix so far. And the same can be said for Forsyth, who was a healthy scratch for his entire rookie season. Some fans wondered why the Broncos carried the seventh-round Forsyth on the 53-man roster all year if he was never going to play.

I think we have the answer now. Payton anticipated Cushenberry leaving in free agency, and he viewed Forsyth as a potential 2024 starter. No way, no how was Payton going to risk exposing Forsyth to the waiver wire by placing him on the practice squad.

And in the fullness of time, football serendipity has placed Forsyth's college quarterback on the Broncos roster by way of the first round of the draft. These aren't coincidences, even if Payton wants to portray Forsyth and Nix's first-team reps that way up to this point.

It would be an upset if either former Oregon stand-out wasn't the Broncos' day-one starter at their respective positions come September.

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Chad Jensen

CHAD JENSEN

Chad Jensen is the Founder of Mile High Huddle and creator of the wildly popular Mile High Huddle Podcast. Chad has been on the Denver Broncos beat since 2012 and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.