John Elway forced to make tough calls on his 2016, 2017 draft classes

Waiving Paxton Lynch highlights the failures of two draft classes that have hindered the Broncos and John Elway. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- John Elway has certainly lived a football life, given he has won two Super Bowls as a player, one as a team executive and has a gold jacket in his closet as a Hall of Famer.

But he's also often said "you have to work every day to get better in this job. You always look at things you did and there are going to be times you wish in hindsight you would have done things differently or that things would have worked out differently. But you look at it, think about it and make sure you try to understand what you want to do when you're in that situation again. But always you want to do what's best for the Denver Broncos and compete for world championships."

And as the Broncos trimmed their roster for the upcoming season in recent days, it was a tough weekend for the Broncos' 2016 and 2017 draft classes. That means it was a tough, rip-the-Band Aid-off kind of a weekend for Elway as well.

"With every decision we make, we try to do what's best for the Denver Broncos," Elway said again Saturday evening. " ... We picked who we thought were the best 53 football players for our team right now, who give us a chance to go out and compete."

But it stung more than a little. Even as the 2018 rookie class put 10 players on the team's roster, the previous two drafts took a significant hit. The Broncos waived four draft picks from the 2017 class on Saturday -- wide receiver Carlos Henderson (third round), cornerback Brendan Langley (third round), wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie (fifth round) and running back De'Angelo Henderson (sixth round) -- and on Sunday the team waived the centerpiece of the 2016 draft class, quarterback Paxton Lynch.

Lynch's departure likely resets the progression at quarterback once again given Keenum is signed for just two years and reaffirms the struggle the Broncos have had to find a homegrown prospect at a position Elway himself played. The Broncos now have just one of the five quarterbacks Elway has selected in the draft on the current roster -- Kelly -- and just two of the five (Brock Osweiler and Siemian) have started more than two games in any season.

"It's tough to make a lot of decisions, but the bottom line is we've got to make the best decision for the Broncos," Elway said. " ... The '17 class, I'm not giving up on that either. Obviously, we had to let a few of them go [Saturday]."

A few players got a slight reprieve to try to find their way back into the team's plans. Langley and Henderson were signed to the team's practice squad Sunday and McKenzie is going back to the active roster because safety Su'a Cravens is heading to injured reserve designated to return. But those two draft classes have taken their share of criticism in the team's back-to-back playoff misses, including last year's 5-11 cave-in.

Several players, including former Broncos tight end Virgil Green and defensive end Derek Wolfe, had even used the work "entitled" to describe the transition of the team's recent draft classes to the NFL. This past offseason when Wolfe was asked why he thought the team's 2018 draft class had such great potential, he said:

"There's no complaining. That's the one thing that you notice from an immature draft class, is they complain and whine and cry a lot. There's none of that coming from this group."

From the class of '16, defensive end Adam Gotsis, safety Justin Simmons and guard Connor McGovern are currently starters while running back Devontae Booker, safety Will Parks and fullback Andy Janovich will play significant snaps. But Lynch was a player the Broncos and Elway had vetted before trading up in the first round to select him. As a result was a big part of blueprint for the future on offense.

Lynch then lost back-to-back training camp battles to Trevor Siemian to the be the team's starter in 2016 and 2017, with two different coaching staffs. His roster spot became tenuous this summer after the team's first preseason game, when he was demoted to No. 3 on the depth chart behind Case Keenum and Chad Kelly (a seventh-round pick in '17).

Last year's struggles, which often highlighted the lack of impact from the rookies as the team lost eight consecutive games at one point, led Elway to make a concerted effort to find "maturity" in the new class of rookies.

Most of the 10 2018 draft picks had played as college seniors, many were team captains and all had extensive résumés as starters. Eight of those draft picks -- as well as undrafted rookies Phillip Lindsay and Alexander Johnson -- made the 53-player roster.

"They're all qualified," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. " ... I have no worries with our young guys. They're all qualified, they're all smart guys and they're all good football players. Happy to have them all."

Still, if McKenzie, Langley and Henderson can't find a way back onto the roster next season, the Broncos may be forced to dive into free agency a little more than they want to in the offseasons to come to cover some of the roster holes left behind from that '17 draft.

Elway said it's all part of a tug between developing players and keeping the Broncos in the playoff conversation every season, something that owner Pat Bowlen maintained as a foundation principle.

"Because coaches are more 'now' and personnel is a little bit more 'future,'" Elway said. "[Personnel executives] are now and future. That is where discussions are always deep -- a lot of discussions on why we are doing certain things. Eventually we get everybody on the same page realizing that for us to continue to get better we are going to have to take some chances on some guys hoping their upsides are much more than the person we didn't keep. That is why we have 53 slots. You have to take some chances on a couple of those slots."