Will Sean Payton buck history to draft a first-round QB?

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — One month from now, analysis will become action, speculation will become reality and the names will tick off one by one in the NFL draft’s first round. Somebody will make the 11th pick, and the Denver Broncos will be on the clock at No. 12 if they haven’t traded their way up or down.

With that pick, they face the decision to do something a Sean Payton-led team has never done and something the Broncos have rarely done: take a quarterback in the opening round.

As Payton put it at the scouting combine when asked about the best prospects at the position in this draft: “I think we’ll be really good at this, and I think to some degree, we’re glad that a lot of people aren’t.”

While history is no true predictor, for all Payton has done as an NFL head coach, potentially fast-tracking a rookie quarterback is not on his resume.

Of note: Tony Romo was a rookie in 2003 when Payton was assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys. But Payton wasn’t nearly as close to a big chair in the decision-making process as he is for the Broncos, and Romo was an undrafted player who did not start a game or throw a pass in a regular-season game when Payton was with the team. For 15 of his 16 years as Saints coach, New Orleans had Drew Brees at quarterback and the Broncos had Russell Wilson last season without a first-round pick.

The Broncos are on the hunt for a long-term solution at quarterback since Payton benched Wilson last season and released him at the start of free agency. They have many of this draft’s best prospects at the position at the forefront of their evaluations.

General manager George Paton said at the scouting combine that the Broncos know how important the decision is for all involved and that he knows what Payton sees in the job description.

“I do,” Paton said. “Quarterback is a little different, but I do know what Sean is looking for in a quarterback. We’ll see.”

Everyone will see in April if the board falls the way the Broncos want it to — or if they get more aggressive and move up for a QB. Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Oregon’s Bo Nix are expected to be available around Denver’s selection, per ESPN football analyst Mel Kiper.

“I think it’s realistic,” Payton said of using draft capital or players to trade up. ” … What’s hard to predict, though, is what’s on the receiving end? … It’s hard to predict what the cost is and yet, I certainly wouldn’t say that it’s unrealistic. We will pay close attention to it.”

But the pairing of Payton and the Broncos in a potential first-round quarterback quest is, by quirk or fate, the pairing of two of the least active participants in the league in first-round quarterback quests.

In his 16-year tenure with the Saints, New Orleans selected four quarterbacks in the draft — Ian Book, in his last year with the team in 2021, seventh-rounder Tommy Stevens in 2020, Garrett Grayson in 2015 and Sean Canfield in 2010. None of those picks was earlier than the third round and the four have played in a total of two NFL games.

The Broncos have selected four first-round quarterbacks in franchise history: Paxton Lynch in 2016, Tim Tebow in 2010, Jay Cutler in 2006 and Tommy Maddox in 1992. Of the four, only Cutler lasted longer than two seasons in Denver.

“The process has evolved a little bit with analytics and different testing we are doing, but it still comes down to the film evaluation, spending time with them, getting around them. Can they learn it?” Paton said. “What type of leader [are they]? The passion for the game? I mean, it’s a tough game as we know, and the toughest job is to play quarterback.”

For his part, Payton has described a list of things beyond physical stature, arm strength or other items on the proverbial eye test of quarterbacks.

“I’d like to find out how they process, how quickly it comes,” Payton said this week. “If we send him information at 5 p.m. the prior day, we send him more than we think they’re going to have a chance to study. We’ve all been in that position. It may not have been football. But 5 p.m. on a college Thursday, test on Friday and more than we have enough time to study. How do they handle that?”

Those who have worked with Payton know certain factors will tip the scales if the Broncos see the quarterback they like still on the board.

“Look, I’m not speaking for him or anything, but if the guy can’t think it, or Sean doesn’t think the guy can think it and do it, quickly, see it, throw it, he won’t endorse just taking a guy,” said an NFL assistant coach who has worked with Payton. “That’s not how he thinks.”

In the end, the public landscape will be filled with mock drafts in the coming weeks with the Broncos attached to the next quarterback left on the board in that moment. And the Broncos, in their second-floor conference rooms and quiet dinners with the hopefuls, will make a call.

“The more information you get, the better decision you’ll make,” Paton said. ” … We’re going to get as much information as possible and make the best decision we can.”

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