ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos weren’t even 48 hours into their offseason before John Elway quickly and efficiently outlined the team’s top priority to dig out from a 5-11 finish.
That the Broncos want, and need, a solution at quarterback -- “I think there is no doubt we have to get better at that position," Elway said. “For us to have a chance to get better, we have to get better at that position."
It just so happens the Broncos have the No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft, a year that also happens to feature a collection of quarterbacks that the league’s evaluators haven’t seen in some time.
This is the second of a one-a-day look at how the top quarterbacks could fit with the Broncos.
Thursday: USC quarterback Sam Darnold.
Friday: Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.
In a nutshell: Darnold is a rare player because of his frame, arm strength and athleticism at the position. He’ll also be the youngest of the top prospects at the position, given he’ll turn just 21 three weeks before his first NFL training camp opens. He was a two-year starter for the Trojans -- he played in 27 games overall -- and threw 57 touchdowns in those 27 games (2.1 per game). Go ahead and wrap your head around this as well, but when he finished with 4,143 yards passing this season he became the first quarterback in USC’s history to top 4,000 yards and he was 20.
Why he fits: With a limited body of work given he enters the draft process having just played his final college season as a redshirt sophomore, he is also a player who has accomplished plenty, yet still just might be an untapped wealth of football awesomeness. He has a relaxed, what-me-worry, big-moment swagger about him and, by all accounts, is grounded and understands the ebb and flow of the position as well as how to handle the scrutiny of the job. He has the athleticism to play under center, handle play-action and work out of the shotgun, so offensive coordinators can get most of what they want from him.
The work to be done: He has an innate ability to adjust his delivery for his situation --
including short and compact at times when he’s in a crowded pocket -- and consistently keeps his eyes downfield. But when he has time and room he has a big windup. That could be an issue in terms of delivering the ball on time in the league if that is really his comfort zone rather than simply a condition of having been more self-taught than some prospects who have made the camp rounds since their preteen years. Like many of the gifted behind center, he will force throws at bad times or take a sack that costs his team some field position in the hope he can create a play. Put some improved red zone decision-making down on the things-to-do list for him.
The plan for him would be: Given his youth and the need to tighten up some of his mechanics, Darnold probably would present a team like the Broncos with a dilemma. Because the Broncos have never really approached a down season with anything other than as quick a rebound as they could muster. However, Elway hinted after this past season at the possibility of a little slower ramp up in exchange for long-term benefit: “I don’t want to raise the expectation level by saying, ‘Yes, automatically we’re going to get back there.'" But a player of Darnold’s potential, coupled with some fundamental work to be done, probably would force them to decide whether to simply play Darnold through the rough spots of a rookie starter, given his demeanor and talent, or let him learn a season and then play him as a slightly more finished product. The Broncos also would have to put a far better offensive line in front of him than they had last season or Darnold's developmental curve would be impacted.
Will it happen?: One of the biggest mistakes some folks can make about the draft is not to remember, always, that it’s about pro potential and that will always outweigh college production. So despite some rougher edges as a player than some of his peers in the draft, Darnold, like Josh Rosen, is a top-of-the-board prospect whom the Broncos probably would have to move up to get. That’s an all-in decision that would affect the next two or three drafts because they'll have to surrender plenty of picks to move up from No. 5.