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Up? Down? Flexibility is the watchword for George Paton and the Broncos as they prepare for draft

Andrew Mason Avatar
April 22, 2022

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — George Paton and his personnel staff could be excused for engaging in extended thumb-twiddling on April 28 — the first night of the three-day 2022 NFL Draft.

His team is not scheduled to be on the clock until the No. 64 overall pick, deep into the Friday-night Day 2 draft session. While Paton did not dismiss the notion of trading back into the first round, he acknowledged that it was unlikely.

So, Paton, who has often expressed his deep love of the draft process — a sentiment he reiterated in various forms Friday — will have to be patient.

No problem.

“It’s a blessing,” Paton said Friday at a press conference held in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse at Broncos headquarters. “We love having the first-round picks. We love having the early second, but we also love having a franchise quarterback that sets the tone every day in the building. I come in here, he’s in here working. There’s a reason he’s great. It’s because of the work he puts into it. And all the players — the entire organization — are watching. And, so, there’s no pain in that.

“And that first day, we’ll watch Russell Wilson highlights.”

Wilson is involved — to some degree — in the Broncos’ draft planning, Paton added.

“I talk to Russ daily. Kind of tell him our plan, and what we’re looking for, and our needs,” Paton said, “and Russ is — he’s a football junkie, and he’ll want to know what players we’re looking at, and I’ll tell him, and he’ll watch them and give me his opinion, and he’s a great resource, and it’s just good having him around.”

So late is the Broncos’ entry into the process of the draft days that Paton does not yet know whether he will have a trade-friendly landscape at his disposal when the Broncos’ pick nears.

“You don’t get that sense now, because we’re out of the mix,” he said. “Most of the calls are in the first round. Now, we’re making calls and telling teams what we’d like to do, and then, when we get to that second day, we’ll be on the phone calling every team. We’ll have an idea of what we want to do that second day, especially as it starts dropping to the mid-rounds.”

And the number of available players who are high on their draft board will matter. Last year, the Broncos effectively turned one third-round pick into two by a pair of trade-downs; those swaps netted Quinn Meinerz and Baron Browning, both of whom started throughout the second half of the 2021 season.

“Let’s say there’s 10 picks from when you’re picking and you still have four players; you’ll probably get one. More likely to stay. But we’ll always have the flexibility to move back,” Paton said. “So, it’s hard to determine when we’re picking at 64, but I think you can always move back if you want.”

“Flexibility” was the watchword Friday. Move up, move down, stay put … everything is in play because of the work Paton and his staff did on the roster, starting with the trade for Wilson and proceeding from there. Because the Broncos have a viable lineup heading into the draft, pressing needs are minimal.

“I talk about flexibility all the time, but we can take the best player,” Paton said. “We can move up. We can move down. So, I really think we’re in a good spot heading into the draft.”

Another consideration is accumulating picks for the 2023 NFL Draft — in which the Broncos are not currently set to go on the clock until the third round. But the depth of this year’s draft will matter, as well — as Paton and assistant general manager Darren Mougey noted that the back end of the draft is stronger this year than it was in 2021, when the ability to play an extra year because of the COVID-19 pandemic led many prospects who would have fit into the later rounds and the undrafted pool to return for an additional year.

“I think it will be a deeper later-round class than it was last year,” Paton said. “The free-agent class will be a lot deeper. Last year’s free-agent class — I mean, we were done in about five minutes, it just wasn’t as deep — so, I expect there to be a deeper class in the later rounds and college free-agency.”

This was part of the Broncos’ planning for the past 12 months.

“We did kind of anticipate that — after last year’s class being smaller, knowing there would almost be like a double class this year, we had talks after the draft last year … how should we address this?” Mougey said, noting that Roman Phifer, a personnel executive, was sent out on the road during the 2021 campaign to help provide extra reports with more players in the pool.

“We sent him out exclusively on the road all fall, just as an extra set of eyes, because the class was bigger this year. There are more draft prospects in this. And we feel really good about that plan. We had some in-house guys get out too. So, we had a lot of eyes out there,” Mougey said.

“I was looking the other day — we had nine reports on one player. So, we feel good about our plan, and we feel good about where we are today.”

Other items of note:

ELWAY IS STILL IN THE BUILDING

John Elway doesn’t have the his former title of president of football operations; his time as a full-time, Broncos employee ended just as the Scouting Combine began in February. He jets around at his leisure; in March, he briefly returned from his Palm Desert, Calif. residence to Denver for Wilson’s introductory press conference, but then like a desert breeze, he returned quickly after Wilson held up his No. 3 jersey.

But Elway has been around Broncos headquarters in recent weeks, attending draft meetings.

“John sits in our meetings. He doesn’t say much. He listens,” Paton said. “John’s got a great football mind, as you all know, and he’s been really important to me through this — this has been kind of a tough offseason, a lot of change, and some of the big decisions, but John’s been really important to me.”

When asked, Mougey did not want to compare Elway and Paton.

“I’ve learned so much from both. I just feel fortunate to have been around both, and continue to be around both,” he said. “I still have great conversations with John in between meetings, bounce ideas off (him).”

BRADLEY CHUBB AND THE PREVALENCE OF EDGE RUSHERS IN THE 2022 DRAFT

When asked where the draft was deepest, Paton pointed to the edge-rusher crop. And while there is no imminent deal for Chubb — who is playing on the fifth-year option this year — Paton reiterated that he would like Chubb to return, and that the examination of edge rushers in the draft was “separate” from the team’s outlook for Chubb.

“I hope Bradley’s here a long time,” Paton said. “I know he’s going into the last year of his deal. I told you how much I appreciate Bradley, how he’s come back from the injuries. This is the first offseason he hasn’t had to rehab. He’s out there working. Really high on him as a person. The passion, the grit, the physicalness, you just can’t have enough pass rushers.

“If we take a pass rusher, it has nothing to do with Bradley — we can’t have enough. Randy Gregory, Malik Reed, Jonathon Cooper, that’s how you win, when you get a wave of rushers, and you have an offense that can score points, you get leads, and then you throw this pass rush at ‘em. You look at the Rams, you look at the teams that have had success over the years. Indianapolis with Peyton, Denver with Peyton. Just, you get the lead, you have the pass rushers, you let ‘em go. I think that’s a formula — and you just can’t have enough of those players, whether it’s inside rushers or edge.”

SPECIAL TEAMS REMAINS AN EMPHASIS

This is no surprise, of course. Paton reiterated at the NFL Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Fla. on March 27 that the Broncos’ third-day haul would be focused on players who could contribute on special teams, just as it was last year.

Of course, one player who arises in any special-teams conversation in this year’s draft is San Diego State punter Matt Araiza, who posted a colossal 51.2-year average last year. Mougey, a San Diego State alumnus, doesn’t have to be asked twice about the cannon-footed Aztec product.

“I bang the table for every San Diego State player. It’s a running joke in the draft meetings,” Mougey said. “Every time one comes up, I’m just, ‘Run ‘em up, run ‘em up, you’ve got my vote.’”

But special teams doesn’t stop at the kicking specialists. Mougey added that the Broncos would like to add a “dynamic” returner.

“And not only returners — we’re looking for guys that can play special teams,” Paton said. “As you all know, we weren’t very good last year. That falls on us, on the personnel side. We need better special teamers … if they;’re not starting (on offense or defense), they need to play special teams.”

KJ HAMLER UPDATE

Paton did not want to put a timeline on the third-year wide receiver’s expected return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, although he did say Hamler was “well ahead of schedule.”

“No one fights, no one works, no one has more passion, and the fact that I saw him running routes last month at Russell’s [house in San Diego] — because I know he’s doing well, I know the surgery went great, but then I saw him running routes, and you see him today, he’s out there, very impressive, and a player like KJ, Russell throws one of the better deep balls in the NFL, so, to have a guy that can stretch the field, I like KJ, I like Courtland, like Jeudy, I think it’s only going to benefit our team and Russ.”

Paton did not want to put a timeline on the third-year wide receiver’s expected return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, although he did say Hamler was “well ahead of schedule.”

“No one fights, no one works, no one has more passion, and the fact that I saw him running routes last month at Russell’s [house in San Diego] — because I know he’s doing well, I know the surgery went great, but then I saw him running routes, and you see him today, he’s out there, very impressive, and a player like KJ, Russell throws one of the better deep balls in the NFL, so, to have a guy that can stretch the field, I like KJ, I like Courtland (Sutton), like (Jerry) Jeudy, I think it’s only going to benefit our team and Russ.”

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