2016 Broncos Season - Quarterback Competition Taking Shape
The Denver Broncos are the defending Super Bowl Champions. Normally when you're about to begin the season after you win the Super Bowl all the questions are about your chances to repeat and defend your title. Instead, the Broncos have a much bigger mountain to scale.
It all began on March 7, just one month after the Super Bowl, when Peyton Manning retired. To be fair, Manning struggled during his final season. In 10 games (nine starts) he posted a 59.8 percent completion percentage, just 2,249 yards, seven touchdowns and a league-leading 17 interceptions. But he also posted a 7-2 record as a starter in the regular season, going 3-0 in the post season, including a Super Bowl title.
It is fair to argue that the Broncos' defense won the Super Bowl, not Manning. There's a reason Von Miller was named Super Bowl 50 MVP. But all Manning had done in four seasons with Denver is help lead the Broncos to four AFC West titles, three No. 1 seeds in the AFC, two Super Bowl births, and one Super Bowl Championship. And he became the second Broncos' starting quarterback in history to ride off into the sunset with a Super Bowl trophy.
Next, the Broncos turned their attention to Brock Osweiler. A back up for his four years with Denver after being taken in the second round out of Arizona State, Osweiler played in eight games (seven starts) last season for Denver. It was his first significant stretch of action, and he went 5-2 in his starts. Along the way he put up decent, if unspectacular numbers: 61.8 percent completion percentage, 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Heading into free agency, most Broncos fans were hopeful Osweiler would return to Denver. He's still somewhat of a question, but his familiarity with the offense and the team, and his decent play in the small sample in 2015 had fans convinced it was worth giving him a shot to succeed Manning. Instead, as Free Agency began on March 9, Osweiler bolted. Just two days after Peyton Manning retired, Brock Osweiler signed a four-year, $72 million deal with Houston Texans. The cash-strapped Broncos were unable, or unwilling, to match the $18 million per year offer to Brock.
So, just a little over a month after winning the Super Bowl, Broncos' General Manager John Elway, himself a two-time champion as a player, was left with a championship team missing a player at arguably the most important position. But, in typical Elway fashion, he didn't panic. He looked at all the options.
First up was adding some bodies to the position. The Broncos still have Trevor Siemian under contract, but he's hardly a proven commodity. After tearing his ACL during his senior year at Northwestern, the Broncos took Siemian in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He showed some flashes in the 2015 preseason, sometimes looking better than Osweiler, and the Broncos remain high on him. Coach Gary Kubiak said he expects Siemian to step up this season, and Elway said he'll have a chance to compete for the starting job. But Siemian only posted a completion percentage of 60 or better during his first year in college. As a senior, he had a 58.2 percent completion percentage, 2,214 yards, seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions, making him hardly a sure thing.
Two days after Brock Osweiler signed with the Texans, and four days after Peyton Manning retired, Elway made another move, trading for Philadelphia Eagles' backup Mark Sanchez. On the surface, it could have appeared to be a panic move. After losing its top two quarterbacks, Denver needed people on the roster to compete. But Sanchez was hardly the ideal choice.
Most remember Sanchez for his famous turnover against the Patriots on Thanksgiving during a nationally televised game. Dubbed "The Butt Fumble," it was an inglorious play, and one that seemed to sum up Sanchez's Jets experience. The way his career in New York ended is enough to make people forget that, while never flashy, Sanchez was effective in his first two years with the Jets. On a team with a strong running game and good defense, he was serviceable in getting them to the playoffs and back-to-back AFC Championship games. In fact, Sanchez boasts a 4-2 career playoff record. And that formula, a serviceable quarterback advancing thanks to a strong running game and good defense, sounds similar to the 2015 Broncos.
But what turned me around was a look at what Sanchez did in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly, arguably the best offensive mind he's played for in the NFL. In 2014, when Nick Foles went out with injury, Sanchez got a sustained run leading the Eagles high-octane attack. In nine games (eight starts) Sanchez completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 2,418 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While the turnover number is higher than you'd like to see, those numbers are on par with the samples seen from Manning and Osweiler in 2015, a year when the Broncos won the Super Bowl. And Sanchez did that with Jeremy Maclin, a year removed from an ACL injury, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz, and rookie Jordan Matthews as his primary receivers.
Does this mean Sanchez is great? No. But his passing numbers under better offensive coaching in Philadelphia and his history of success shepherding an offense with a strong running attack playing with a great defense give me hope he could be good enough for the Broncos. After all, the Broncos still have Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Norwood, Bennie Fowler, Virgil Green, and now Jeff Heuerman. That feels like a better receiving corps than Sanchez has previously enjoyed. And with CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman returning behind an improved offensive line, the Broncos running game should be stronger.
I've also been impressed by Sanchez's commitment to the team and to excellence. He's said the right things and has followed those words with action. He's formed a bond with his new teammates, even hosting passing camps in Southern California this off season. Those are the actions of a leader; one who's hungry to reform their reputation. And Sanchez's cap-friendly contract, which expires after this season, could make him the ideal bridge quarterback to the next era of Broncos football.
Which brings me to the 2016 NFL Draft, which was a relief for all Bronco fans. After watching the team pursue trades for Colin Kaepernick and Sam Bradford, and kick the tires on free agents like Brian Hoyer and Ryan Fitzpatrick, it appeared things were still unsettled for the Broncos at quarterback. But on April 28, Elway moved up from the No. 31 pick in the first round to the No. 26 pick, drafting quarterback Paxton Lynch out of Memphis.
Some think Lynch will start right away for the Broncos. He will have a chance to compete, and he could, but I think the team wants to be cautious and develop him for the future. At 6'7" and 245 pounds, he's got a solid frame and build, something Elway has gravitated towards in his time running the Broncos. Lynch also has raw skill and talent, leading some to believe he might have been the best prospect in the draft. But one that's not pro-ready on day one.
Lynch put up nice numbers as a junior at Memphis, completing 66.8 percent of his passes for 3,776 yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions. That mostly came against lesser collegiate competition, though. And it could take some time for Lynch to fully develop and compete at a high level in the NFL. Which is why I think Sanchez could be an ideal bridge quarterback, saving Lynch from having to follow immediately in the shadow of Peyton Manning, too.
So now the Broncos have three quarterbacks again. A veteran journeyman with decent numbers and a decent history of playoff success; a hot rookie prospect; and a young quarterback that intrigues the coaches and front office. What a difference two months makes.
On March 9, it seems the Broncos were lost. With Manning retired and Osweiler in Houston, the team appeared to have more questions than answers. Two months later, with the NFL draft in the rear view mirror and the core of a championship team locked up, it's easy to get excited about how far this team can go in defending its title.
That's why, as fans, we always believe in Elway, because we know he always has a plan. And no one in Denver wants to win more than him.