Kosmider: All signs point to Broncos grabbing QB in draft — but now or in 2025?


The biggest Broncos winner during the first week of free agency is … Jarrett Stidham?

Take a peek around the landscape of remaining available quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo turns 33 this season and led the league in interceptions when he was benched by the Raiders midway through last season. He’ll also serve a two-game suspension to begin 2024 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Ryan Tannehill will be 36 when the season begins and threw only four touchdowns against seven interceptions during his eight starts in Tennessee last season.

Sam Howell? Zach Wilson? They are young players with possible upside who could be acquired by trade, but neither would arrive as an anointed starter. It all means Stidham, at least at this juncture in the offseason, is the frontrunner to be Denver’s Week 1 starter, which would be a first for him since entering the NFL as a fourth-round pick in 2019. No matter how free agency plays out from here, Stidham will be well-positioned to succeed in a training camp battle.

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Jarrett Stidham got an audition to be the Broncos’ starting quarterback in the final two games last season. (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

“I want to be on the field every snap of next year, if possible,” Stidham said after starting the final two games of the 2023 season as the replacement for a benched and since-released Russell Wilson.

Stidham could be an acceptable short-term answer for a Broncos team in flux, a player familiar with Sean Payton’s offensive scheme and how Denver’s coach wants to evolve it. Through release, trade or exits in free agency, Denver has already parted with five key starters from last year’s 8-9 team — Wilson, safety Justin Simmons, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, center Lloyd Cushenberry and inside linebacker Jerry Jeudy — and appear ready to move on from several other key contributors. The Broncos want to compete this season, but they are also clearing room to build a foundation with more young talent. That points to 2025 and beyond as a more realistic timeline for Denver to contend.

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That’s only true, of course, if the Broncos can find their answer at quarterback, and all signs point toward the draft being Denver’s preferred path to finding one. But will the Broncos be able to chart that course this year?

The Broncos have the No. 12 pick in the upcoming draft, which could see as many as five or even six quarterbacks going in the first round. That doesn’t mean there are five or six who Payton and general manager George Paton are comfortable drafting with their top choice, but are there two — even three? — the duo would be willing to select, either with their selection at No. 12 or after a trade?

The answer is likely yes, but figuring out who they want is only the first part of a tricky puzzle for the Broncos in this year’s draft. The teams holding the top three picks — Bears, Commanders and Patriots, in order — all need long-term answers at quarterback. The last time all three of a draft’s top picks were used on quarterbacks was in 2021, and two of those — Zach Wilson (No. 2) and Trey Lance (No. 3) — can already safely be declared busts. If quarterbacks go 1-2-3 again in 2024, the chances that all three — likely Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels — would become bonafide franchise answers are slim, but that won’t prevent those teams from turning in their cards with a QB’s name on it anyway.

If Payton’s guy is among the aforementioned top three, would Denver be willing to pay the steep price to move up? We have a good idea of the cost given that the 49ers hopped from the same No. 12 spot to No. 3 to select Lance, giving up two additional first-round picks (2022 and 2023) and a third-round pick (2022) in the process. Those are all picks Denver has at its disposal, but if the Broncos were to trade their top picks in 2025 and 2026, it would mean they would make only two first-round picks in six seasons (2021 to 2026), which could be a tough sell for a team that is already lagging from an overall talent perspective.

If Payton’s guy is J.J. McCarthy, the quarterback who helped guide the University of Michigan to a national championship last season, the compensation required in a trade could be easier to stomach. Perhaps the Broncos could jump to No. 8 — the Falcons should be willing to move now that they have Kirk Cousins — for their third-round pick in this year’s draft and a second-rounder in 2025. But Denver likely wouldn’t be without competition in that pursuit. The Giants at No. 6 could view McCarthy as a replacement for Daniel Jones, whom the team could realistically move on from next offseason. And in a battle to trade up, the Vikings (No. 11) and Raiders (No. 13) could also be highly motivated to deal for the right to draft McCarthy. It doesn’t mean the Broncos couldn’t win in this hypothetical battle, but it likely won’t be as easy as just deciding they like McCarthy and then drafting him.

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There are other scenarios. The Broncos could take Bo Nix out of Oregon at No. 12 or even trade back and then select him or Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. They could draft a developmental prospect like Spencer Rattler of South Carolina or Michael Pratt of Tulane and evaluate them as they work behind Stidham in 2024.

But as the draft draws closer, a case could be made that Payton might be better off continuing to build his roster and waiting for 2025 to select his quarterback of the future. Denver will enter next offseason, as it stands now, with its full complement of draft picks, plus a pair of likely compensatory picks after Cushenberry and Jewell signed elsewhere in free agency. They could be close to the top of the league in available cap space after choosing to take on the larger chunk of Wilson’s record $85 million dead-money hit this season. In theory, they could be well-equipped to create better support around a quarterback joining the team in 2025 than they can for one who would join this upcoming season’s team.

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It’s too early to say whether Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders, Georgia’s Carson Beck, Texas’ Quinn Ewers or some other prospects constitute a stronger class than the one about to join the league this year. Few thought Daniels and McCarthy would be in the mix as top-10 picks this time a year ago, so any declarations that next year’s crop of QBs “isn’t good” is premature. There will be options. And passing on a quarterback in this year’s draft, and maintaining the capital that would otherwise be surrendered in a trade, could help the Broncos continue to build a roster that is in stark need of more young, fast, smart players. If you don’t join a quarterback derby, you can certainly benefit from it. In a world where four quarterbacks get selected before Denver’s choice at No. 12, they’ll have a great opportunity to add a cornerstone player at offensive tackle, edge rusher, cornerback, tight end or wide receiver.

The Broncos will have to hit with a drafted quarterback at some point. It’s the most realistic path out of the NFL purgatory they’ve lived in for most of the last decade. Perhaps they can thread a needle in April, find their guy and begin the difficult task of building around him. But if the price is too high next month, a year of patience could be the play.

Payton said one year ago he believed Stidham could be a viable starter in the NFL. It’s looking more like there could be a chance to find out.

(Top photo of, from left, Bo Nix, Michael Penix Jr. and J.J. McCarthy: Kirby Lee / USA Today)





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