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What is next for the Denver Broncos with Aaron Rodgers out of the picture?

Andrew Mason Avatar
March 8, 2022

It’s on to Plan B.

And then Plan C beyond that …

Aaron Rodgers’ decision to stay with the Green Bay Packers and sign what was reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport for a record-breaking potential $200-million outlay over four years ends 314 days of speculation, hearsay and hope in Broncos Country that the four-time MVP would plant his flag in Denver for the final stage of his career, just as Peyton Manning did a decade ago.

So …

Plan B: Another top-level veteran.

The rumblings around Russell Wilson exist, and while the Seattle Seahawks continue to publicly hold fast to their quarterback, trade winds continue to gust. Last week, Rapoport reported that the Washington Commanders made a “strong offer” to the Seahawks for Wilson that included multiple first-round choices.

Washington, like the Broncos, is actively seeking a quarterback upgrade. And like the Broncos, the Commanders were briefly in on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes in January 2021.

“Last year some things happened, you know, we were trying to get into that, and we lost out to the Rams,” Rivera said at the Combine. “Now this year we are being very proactive, looking, searching, doing things — we are trying to truly cover every base.”

The Commanders made sense for Wilson if he wanted a homecoming; Wilson was born and raised in Richmond, Va., which is firmly in the Commanders’ orbit, just 126 miles from the team’s facility in Ashburn, Va. However, in a recent appearance on NBC’s Today, he stressed that he was not tied to the East Coast.

“I’m from Richmond, I know what you mean, I got people hitting me up every day, all my friends and all that from the East Coast but Seattle’s the place I’m at right now and I love it,” he said.

The Broncos’ collection of pass catchers could intrigue Wilson. So could their offensive scheme, as the Seahawks run an offshoot of the Shanahan-Kubiak offense under coordinator Shane Waldron, who joined Seattle after four years on the Rams staff under Sean McVay. With the Broncos using the same nomenclature and general philosophy, a transition for Wilson would be smooth.

Then there is Deshaun Watson. Do not expect any Broncos interest in him to crystallize until his legal issues — which include 22 civil suits filed against him for sexual misconduct — have some kind of resolution.

Kyler Murray also could be in play. The two-time Pro Bowler would like a new contract prior to the NFL Draft, and the buzz at the Combine was that the discord between Murray and the Arizona Cardinals could get worse before it gets better.

Veteran options like Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan appear to be on the back burner at the moment. Both have contracts and cap figures that make them difficult to trade, and it appears more likely that Minnesota will take one more year to let McVay acolyte Kevin O’Connell try to maximize Cousins before moving on.

Atlanta appears to be in the mix to draft a quarterback this year, but Ryan buys them time, his contract and $48 million cap hit makes him virtually untradeable this year and he is regarded as the most important player in Falcons history; trading him while he still has gas in the tank might be a bridge too far for owner Arthur Blank.

Plans C, D and maybe a few other letters: Mid-tier bridge to a young QB

And this is the one most Broncos fans don’t want to hear. But it is very much in play, with speculative chatter around Buffalo’s Mitchell Trubisky and Las Vegas’ Marcus Mariota being loudest at the Combine last week.

Indianapolis’ Carson Wentz was also speculated to be in play for teams via trade; every indication on the Combine grapevine last week was that the Colts wanted to move on — which, given Colts coach Frank Reich’s background with Wentz in Philadelphia, could be considered alarming given that the split is so quick after acquiring him last year.

Both were backups last year, with Mariota now having worked as a reserve since six weeks into the 2019 campaign, when he was benched in the Tennessee Titans’ loss at Denver in favor of Ryan Tannehill.

Since 2017 — Trubisky’s rookie season — here’s how some of their metrics compare with Drew Lock, per rbsdm.com (among 69 quarterbacks with at least 320 plays):


  • Mariota: 0.072, 31st of 69
  • Trubisky: 0.047, 38th of 69
  • Lock: 0.017, 41st of 69

Completion percentage over expected rate:

  • Mariota: plus-0.8, 25th of 69
  • Trubisky: minus-1.1, 42nd of 69
  • Lock: minus-4.1, 58th of 69

By the numbers, Mariota and Trubisky are better than Lock — but perhaps not to a difference-making degree. Lock’s cap number is a budget-friendly $2,230,716, and from a team-wide building perspective, that could make one more year logical. But given general manager George Paton’s repeated statements about getting better at the quarterback position, that would seem to preclude having status quo be a primary plan — whether it is Lock or bringing back Teddy Bridgewater.

But if the Broncos do select a quarterback early in next month’s draft, their choice could be governed by which quarterback is viewed as the best bridge or mentor.

That could be Mariota, given that he has spent recent years in similar schemes — in Las Vegas’ West Coast nomenclature in 2020 and 2021, with a season under current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur in 2018 when he served as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. The LaFleur-Mariota connection — along with the Broncos’ hire of LaFleur’s offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett — could bring Mariota into focus as a bridge.

So … a bridge to what?

That’s what Paton has been working on with his in-person study of the quarterbacks in this year’s Round 1 discussion, as well as meetings with them at both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. Through Senior Bowl practices and in-person viewing of the Liberty-Mississippi and North Carolina-Pitt games last season, Paton has now seen Matt Corral, Malik Willis, Sam Howell, Kenny Pickett, Carson Strong and Desmond Ridder with his own eyes, with the Broncos having interviewed all of them.

Corral, Pickett and Willis would likely require the Broncos standing pat at No. 9 and taking a quarterback, moving up slightly or moving down not more than three-to-four picks. But Ridder, Howell and Strong could likely be had late in Round 1 — likely by packaging two Day 2 picks — or on Day 2. Paton was a part of the Vikings’ management team that traded back into Round 1 in 2014 to get Bridgewater and secure a fifth-year option.

The Broncos did speak with Western Michigan quarterback Kaleb Eleby at the Combine, and there is a significant staff connection, as tight-ends coach Jake Moreland was Western Michigan’s offensive coordinator for four seasons (2017-20) before serving as the New York Jets’ offensive-line coach this past year. Eleby is likely to be a Day 3 pick, and unless he is a prodigious outlier among quarterbacks in that draft range, would not prevent the Broncos from targeting a passer early in next year’s class.

If this is the case, the Broncos would then cast their line into a pond that not only includes potential No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks Bryce Young of Alabama and C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, but quarterbacks such as Fresno State’s Jake Haener — who will play under Rodgers’ college mentor, Jeff Tedford, this season — BYU’s Jaren Hall, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei and Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec likely to enter the conversation.

Given that the Broncos are highly unlikely to finish with a record worthy of the No. 1 or 2 overall pick, effectively, the Broncos could be deciding between QB1 this year and who they think is QB3 next year.

This isn’t where they hoped to be, of course. Rodgers was the dream. But they were — and are — prepared for other directions.

Ten years ago, John Elway famously said, “There is no Plan B.”

That isn’t the case now.


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