ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- History says the Denver Broncos might want to hit pause this week if they are considering a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft.
The Broncos' two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (John Elway and Peyton Manning) and four of their top five passing quarterbacks overall (Elway, Manning, Craig Morton and Jake Plummer) were not drafted by the team. In fact, the Broncos have not hit on one of their limited forays into finding a quarterback in the draft's opening round.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Broncos have used four first-round picks on quarterbacks -- Tommy Maddox with the 25th pick in the 1992 draft, Jay Cutler with the 11th pick in 2006, Tim Tebow with the 25th pick in 2010 and Paxton Lynch with the 26th pick in 2016.
The Broncos were a combined 26-33 in games started by those four quarterbacks. They had one playoff win, one Pro Bowl selection (Cutler in 2008) and none were with the team longer than three seasons. The Broncos traded Maddox, Cutler and Tebow, while Lynch was released after his third training camp. Two of them -- Tebow and Lynch -- did not start another game at quarterback after leaving Denver.
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"That is a tough call overall," said former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist, who was on the job when the Broncos selected Cutler. "As an organization, in my time with the team and for many years otherwise as well, the Broncos haven't always been in position, or even in the conversation, to pick a top quarterback in the first round. That's part of it and the fact John played at a high level for so long -- I mean we won back-to-back Super Bowls in his last two seasons."
Still, first-year general manager George Paton has likely given some thought to taking a quarterback in the first round, where the Broncos have the No. 9 overall pick just two drafts after taking quarterback Drew Lock with the second of two second-round picks (No. 42 overall).
"We're really high on Drew," Paton said last week. "I like seeing Drew here every morning when I come in. He's working hard and trending in the right direction. As you know, he has a lot of talent. I think he's becoming a better pro, but we're still going to look at the quarterback position. I've said since I've gotten here that we want to bring in competition. That's the goal, and we plan on doing that."
This year's draft is expected to be top heavy with quarterbacks when Thursday's first round gets underway. The first three picks are expected to be quarterbacks and the first four picks could be quarterbacks for the first time in draft history if the Atlanta Falcons select one at No. 4 or trade the pick to a team that wants to.
The Broncos could still be looking at a draft board where either Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance, or both, are available as the No. 9 pick approaches. That's where long-term, and short-term consequences are considered.
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"And that's kind of where we were in 2006, but with even a more established starter in Jake [Plummer] and coming off an AFC Championship Game [to end the 2005 season]," Sundquist said. "We were sitting at 29 and the trade with Atlanta before the draft got us up to 15. But 15 was the highest I had ever remembered drafting in my time with the team. I went to Mike [Shanahan] and said, 'Coach, we have the three quarterbacks at the top, if [Matt] Leinart and Jay start to come down the board, would we entertain doing something more to move up.'"
The Tennessee Titans took Vince Young with the No. 3 pick, but Leinart and Cutler began slipping. Sundquist said about the time the Buffalo Bills selected safety Donte Whitner with the No. 8 pick, "I turned to coach and said, 'Should I get on the phone?' He said, 'Yeah start calling.' Once the 10th pick came up and Arizona wouldn't answer the phone, we knew we were going to try to get to 11 and take Jay if they took Leinart." The Broncos traded up again to No. 11 and took Cutler.
This year, beyond Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick by Jacksonville Jaguars, the "readiness" of the other quarterbacks on the board to play as rookies as well as develop into long-term solutions at the position is a hotly debated topic among talent evaluators. And opinions vary greatly.
Lance, for example, who played in just one game in 2020 due to COVID-19 and won't turn 21 until May, could need more time. Any team, including the Broncos, is essentially using a first-round pick on a player for later if they take Lance. The Broncos would have the salary cap advantage of two quarterbacks on rookie contracts with Lock and a draft pick -- three if current back Brett Rypien remained on the roster.
A team like the Broncos or the San Francisco 49ers, who will pick at No. 3, can play the starter they have now -- Lock, in the Broncos' case -- develop a quarterback and have flexibility later. In a league starved for quarterbacks, they would have the ability to move one of the quarterbacks down the road.
"It's the toughest position to play in sports, it's the most important position to play in probably all sports," Paton said. "I'm generalizing, but you need a good quarterback to win and sustain year in and year out. You need a good one. Do you need a franchise guy or a top five? No, you can still win without one. [But] it's so important to the team's success to have a quarterback. That's why you might see five go in the top 10."
"It's a fair assessment to say you don't really worry if your No. 2 Will linebacker is almost as good as the starter, in fact you want that," Sundquist said, "but it can be an issue at quarterback for a lot of reasons, starting with how the starter feels about it. ... Those backups at other position can also have roles on special teams so often your decision at backup quarterback can be driven by the [salary] cap as much as anything. But you don't take it lightly."