With the Denver Broncos starring down three consecutive losing seasons, GM John Elway is taking significant heat. With no owner and a Pat Bowlen Trust that can't seem to be 'trusted' to run the franchise, Elway is the face of the organization.
He deserves his share of the blame as general manager and President of Football Operations
Elway does deserve recognition for what he has done, namely orchestrating a team that fielded the highest scoring offense in NFL history and a Super Bowl berth to go along with building one of the best defenses in history and a Super Bowl title. However, those major successes are fading into the distance, since it has been four years since that Super Bowl title. Since then the Broncos have become a team with a record well below .500.
No GM is infallible and every one of them have made poor personnel decisions. Elway has his share as well, but this massive decline in team performance can be directly related to three major player personnel mistakes. Let's break them down.
Swing & Miss on Lynch
Hands down, Paxton Lynch is Elway’s biggest mistake. This draft selection was borne out of desperation. Peyton Manning had just retired and his heir apparent, Brock Osweiler, chose to defect to the Houston Texans in free agency leaving the Broncos with nothing in the cupboard.
Coming off a Super Bowl victory, Elway was in no position nor did he have the draft capital to move up and select one of the top-tier quarterbacks. That left Lynch in the back half of round one. Seen by many as a first-round-caliber talent, Lynch had all the physical tools.
But he failed to pan out because he didn’t want to put in the work. The Lynch failure doomed the Broncos at the quarterback position and Elway has been filling in with other team’s castoffs since, none of which have made an impact.
O-Line Misses in the Draft
Elway largely ignored the offensive line position when Manning was his quarterback. It is tough to blame him because Manning could make even an average offensive line look good, so Elway wisely selected other positions to get that Lombardi trophy. However, he knew Manning wasn’t going to play long and should have prepared more wisely.
With a good offensive line, the quarterback situation over the past four years would not be as dismal. Elway’s best offensive tackle selection was Orlando Franklin in 2011 (now retired). Since then he has selected third-rounder Michael Schofield, second-rounder Ty Sambrailo and first-rounder Garett Bolles. None of them have been the answer.
Elway has fared better on the interior line with Matt Paradis and Conner McGovern, but Phillip Blake and Vinston Painter never saw a down of regular season play with the Broncos. Refusing to invest premium draft capital into the offensive line until recently has stunted this team.
The Broncos have paid for it over the past four seasons. The team’s red-zone woes, along with other issues, are related to a poor offensive line. These misses have also forced Elway into mistakes in free agency.
Wasting Dollars on High-Risk/Injury-Prone Free Agents
Elway has taken risks on players with injury histories in free agency and the draft. Unfortunately, none of them have really panned out. Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson are two prime examples.
Both failed to perform and were often injured during their stint in Denver. His hand forced, Elway has taken a chance on another offensive tackle with injury concerns, Ja’Wuan James. Signed to a big contract this past offseason, James has played a total of 32 snaps.
Bryce Callahan is another mistake made this past offseason, putting the team in search of another starting cornerback. Ronald Leary is another example; loads of talent on the field, but struggles to stay on it.
Elway doesn’t just take chances on players with injury history in free agency, he does it in the draft, too. He took a chance on Jake Butt after he was injured in a bowl game. Butt has talent, however, injuries have derailed his career and forced Elway to use a fifth-round pick on Troy Fumagalli and top-tier draft capital for Noah Fant in round one.
Fumagalli is another draft example, as is Corey Nelson. The best ability is availability, as they say, and these risks have hurt the team tremendously.
There is good news. Elway seems to be learning from his mistakes. He has changed his draft philosophy and has had two very good drafts hauls over the past two offseasons.
Elway drafted Dalton Risner in 2019 and he looks to be a stalwart on the offensive line for the next decade. Drew Lock was also selected last season and he looks like the anti-Paxton Lynch.
If Lock puts in the work, hopefully, his physical gifts will translate onto the field. If If Elway can pull off another solid draft, this team can turn things around. Fans can only hope that this is an upward trend.