Broncos’ Sean Payton: Trading to top of NFL draft ‘realistic’ as team pursues QB

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Broncos have been quiet about the quarterback position since releasing Russell Wilson more than two weeks ago.

No free-agent signings. No trades. No apparent urgency to add to the position as other quarterback transitions swirl around the league.

“We weren’t going to sign a quarterback just to sign one,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said Monday morning at the NFL league meetings. “We’ll be smart about our thoughts relative to who’s coming in and, most importantly, what the vision is for the player.”

Though Payton noted there are still quarterbacks on the free-agent or trade markets whom Denver could add as competition for current QB1 Jarrett Stidham, it’s clear the upcoming NFL Draft is at the center of the team’s plans. Payton, who is entering his second season as the Broncos’ head coach, doesn’t seem to view the potential price the team would have to pay to vault from its No. 12 position in the drafting order as a deterrent to landing a franchise quarterback.



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“I think that’s realistic,” Payton said when asked specifically whether the Broncos could trade into one of the top spots in the draft to select a quarterback. “What’s harder to predict, though, is what’s on the receiving end? I think it’s good to be (Cardinals general manager) Monti Ossenfort today. It’s hard to predict what that cost is, and yet I certainly wouldn’t say it’s unrealistic. We’ll pay close attention to it.”

Ossenfort’s Cardinals hold the No. 4 pick in next month’s draft. With Caleb Williams of USC expected to go to the Bears at No. 1, getting into the No. 4 spot — or higher — could theoretically give the Broncos a chance to select North Carolina’s Drake Maye, LSU’s Jayden Daniels or Michigan’s JJ McCarthy, depending on how the board shakes out.

The Broncos held a private workout with McCarthy last week, a day after his pro day at Michigan. The workout and subsequent meeting with the national champion quarterback, Payton said, lasted “four or five hours.”

“We sent him a bunch of information and made him throw all over again,” Payton said. “I think it’s all part of the process. I think it can help lead to at least a more efficient and effective decision.”

Coincidentally, new Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh addressed reporters one table away from where Payton held court. Harbaugh, who coached McCarthy and Michigan to a national title last season, was unsurprisingly effusive in his praise for the player. He called McCarthy’s pro day “the best I’ve ever seen.”

“He plays quarterback the best of all the quarterbacks (in the draft class),” Harbaugh said.

While it may be “realistic” for the Broncos to move up in the draft, that doesn’t mean it would be easy. Denver does not have a second-round pick in this year’s draft. They hold all their future first-round picks, but they gave up a combined three first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 as a result of trades to acquire Wilson and Payton. A move into the top five would almost certainly require Denver to part with multiple future first- or second-round picks, limiting how Denver can add top-end talent to a roster needing more juice at multiple positions.

The fact that Payton is leaving the option of making a significant trade up on the table speaks to the emphasis he and the organization are placing at quarterback — and for good reason. The Broncos have cycled through 13 quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired following the 2015 season. They are set to have their seventh different Week 1 starter in nine seasons since Manning ended his Hall of Fame career. The constant turnover at the game’s most important position is the biggest reason Denver has suffered through its worst stretch in franchise history, missing the playoffs eight straight seasons while posting losing records in seven straight campaigns — respective droughts eclipsed only by the New York Jets.

Payton this offseason has routinely expressed confidence in his ability and that of Denver’s front-office staff to properly evaluate the available quarterbacks in this draft class. The process has included traveling to multiple pro days and conducting private workouts. Official visits to Broncos headquarters will also be in store for a number of the prospects.

“We’ve got a pretty good plan in place,” Payton said. “We understand what we’re doing and we’re going to be smart about it.”



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While Payton didn’t outline Denver’s draft strategy in his 30-minute meeting with reporters, he suggested that trading up may be a necessary part of the process.

“A lot of times you’ll hear someone say, ‘Hey, they can move back and pick up one of these other (quarterbacks),’” he said. “The reality is one, maybe two of these guys will have a chance at success, and then you get those leap years where three or four do. So the key is, what’s the fit relative to your team? You pay attention to where you feel like where teams are at in their needs. There are, obviously, a few teams at the front of this draft with a quarterback need. That’s no secret. You kind of go from there.”

As Payton spoke in a ballroom at the sprawling JW Marriott Grande Lakes hotel, first-year New England Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo, who leads a team needing a long-term quarterback, said the team is open to calls about the No. 3 pick.

“Obviously, quarterback is definitely a priority,” Mayo said. “With that being said, we’re still open to any type of deals that come our way.”



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While nothing is particularly revelatory about what Mayo said, it underscored Payton’s idea that moving into a position to draft a quarterback is not impossible. There is still a month until the draft. While the Broncos could make a move to acquire a veteran quarterback before the event, they are clearly locked into the draft as a viable path forward. That means more waiting for a fan base desperate to see how the team will address the game’s most important position.

“I would rather the angst be now,” Payton said, “than in September or October.”

(Photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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