ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway doesn’t like what-if questions.
But Sunday in MetLife Stadium, there might just be a 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound hypothetical slinging the ball around for the Jets. Because New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, if but for a phone call here, a text there or even a simple “yes’’ could have been Case Keenum’s backup for the Denver Broncos at the moment and an almost daily topic of when-will-Sam-play conversation in the Rocky Mountain region.
Because while Elway has never said so publicly, many in the league and many close to him believe Darnold was his quarterback of choice in this past April’s draft, with current Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield a close second.
“It was cool to be able to meet those guys, and especially to meet John Elway and kind of understand his perspective on football and life, what he dealt with as a rookie and all of that stuff,” Darnold said this week. “So, it was cool to be able to talk to him about that ... during the draft I just kind of hung out with them for a little bit, talked some ball and was able to throw it in front of them as well.”
In the end, the Broncos were more than happy to use their No. 5 pick to select the guy they considered to be the best defensive player in the draft and a future Pro Bowl selection -- outside linebacker Bradley Chubb -- but Darnold was vetted early and often by the team before Denver turned Chubb’s name in on draft day.
Elway and senior personnel advisor Gary Kubiak, one of the most important voices within the Broncos’ current structure, went to see Darnold and USC face Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl and had an early April individual workout with Darnold in Los Angeles.
"He’s a really, really good athlete, at the workout the things he could do physically were really impressive,” said Broncos coach Vance Joseph this week. " ... [But] as a guy? Oh my God, he was a great person. You know, very intelligent. He was one of the guys on the team, he wasn’t alone, he was elitest. He was a good person, his teammates loved him. You spend five minutes with the guy, he’s my kind of guy.”
The Broncos had signed Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal in the first day of free agency in March, but Elway was adamant that wouldn’t impact his willingness to take a quarterback in April with any pick the team had. In fact, Keenum’s arrival was looked on as a bonus because he could mentor a young player as Alex Smith had done for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017 when the Chiefs selected Patrick Mahomes in the first round.
But the football planets simply didn’t align. As Elway has said: “You try to cover every way you think [the draft is] going to go so you don’t get caught not knowing what you want to do. And then you wait and see what happens.”
And in all of their pre-draft work, the Broncos didn’t really believe either Mayfield or Darnold would make it to the No. 5 pick. The Cleveland Browns quickly confirmed that when they toppled the first quarterback domino, selecting Mayfield No. 1 overall.
Most in the league felt the Browns would keep the other of their first round picks, No. 4 overall. That left the Giants (No. 2) and the Jets (No. 3) sitting in front of the Broncos. That put the Giants, with QB Eli Manning still the starter, in the crosshairs for a potential trade for many teams, including the Broncos.
“[Mayfield] was the No. 1 pick and rightfully so,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller this week. “[But] in my opinion, just watching everything from a pass-rusher’s point of view, I just felt [Darnold] was the No. 1 pick in the draft. He wasn’t the No. 1 pick, but he’s definitely playing like it.”
“Any time you try to move up, especially in the first round, it’s always going to be a question of how much it’s going to cost you,” Elway said. “You can always do it if you want to, but you’re talking multiple drafts you’re impacting."
And the Giants’ price was high because general manager Dave Gettleman, having just been hired for his second stint with the team, had his sights on running back Saquon Barkley. After the Giants took Barkley, Gettleman said publicly: “Once Browns took Baker, I told our guys ‘Don’t even waste your time. We’re taking Saquon and we’re going to run.'”
Gettleman also, that same day, said this of trade offers: “People call you and they want the second pick in the draft for a bag of doughnuts, a hot pretzel and a hot dog." That prompted Elway to say he hadn’t spoken to Gettleman specifically on draft day, and that “I was not the one that offered the hot dog.”
The Jets then took Darnold at No. 3 and roughly five months later made him the youngest quarterback -- at 21 years, 97 days old -- in the league’s history to start a season opener. Two picks later the Broncos scuttled another proposed trade down in the opening round because they had a chance at Chubb.
"They have a great team,” Darnold said this week. "Coach Joseph is a great leader. John Elway has obviously built up a pretty good team there. We are really looking forward to going up against those guys ... obviously I knew of [Elway] growing up and I knew how well he was doing when they went on those runs and all of that.”
ESPN's Rich Cimini contributed to this report.