Four options for the Denver Broncos at quarterback ahead of NFL draft

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos general manager George Paton has repeatedly said he wants more competition at quarterback, that he's monitoring the available options at quarterback and that the Broncos will not force the issue.

Well, free agency is well over a month old, the NFL draft is now eight days away and the Broncos' quarterback depth chart is still Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel. Or, exactly what it was when the Broncos closed out 2020.

It leaves Denver with these four QB options:

Use their first-round pick: Here's the thing: Even if the Broncos want to use the No. 9 pick (their current first-rounder) to select quarterback or move up to use an earlier pick to select a quarterback, that assumes they like FOUR of the quarterbacks on the board enough to use a top-10 pick on one.

That would be exceedingly rare. Some teams only have two actual first-round grades on quarterbacks in this draft and many personnel executives in the league privately concede that at least one, two or even three of the quarterbacks selected in the upper half of the first round next week will be "overdrafted."

If the top three picks of the draft (with the assumption that Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is No. 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars) are quarterbacks, the Broncos would have to wait until the San Francisco 49ers' pick at No. 3 to really know the identity of fourth quarterback still on the board.

And other than Lawrence, who is expected to be the Jaguars' starter as soon as he arrives, the readiness of the other quarterbacks on the board to even compete with Lock for the 2021 season would be in question.

Wait until Day 2: Any quarterback on this draft board selected after the first round won't be able to "compete" until well after the 2021 season, if at all.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has called this year's quarterback group essentially "five firsts" (Lawrence, BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance, Ohio State's Justin Fields, Alabama's Mac Jones), maybe Florida's Kyle Trask in the second round and "a lot of just guys."

After the initial run on quarterbacks, Stanford's Davis Mills, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and Georgia's Jamie Newman constitute the next group. Mills played in just 14 games during his career for the Cardinal. Newman didn't play at all at Georgia when he opted out in 2020 after his transfer from Wake Forest.

Mond, whom many evaluators in the league have ahead of Trask, easily has the longest résumé of the group given he started at least eight games in all four of his seasons and played in 47 games overall. It's likely a sign-of-the-times stat, but he passed Peyton Manning this past season for seventh place on the SEC's list for total offense in a career.

Mills and Mond have helped themselves in the pre-draft process in recent months, but even their most ardent supporters see them needing time to develop. Players such as Mills and Mond could work for a team like the Broncos that, again, would put Lock behind center in 2021, giving him the chance to show he is, or isn't, ready to be the long-term starter.

Add a veteran during draft weekend or after: The Broncos, other than a dip-the-toe conversation about Matthew Stafford before the Detroit Lions traded him to the Los Angeles Rams, have largely sat out the quarterback proceedings around free agency.

Until the Carolina Panthers make a move with Teddy Bridgewater, there will be some among the team's faithful who see Bridgewater as an option to compete with Lock. Many in the league, however, consider Bridgewater a backup option and then quickly point to his contract with the Panthers as a significant impediment to any trade.

Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million deal with the Panthers last season. He has a $17 million base salary for 2021 that includes a $10 million guarantee. The Panthers, if they simply release Bridgewater, take a $20 million dead money charge.

Panthers coach Matt Rhule said last week the team had given Bridgewater's representatives clearance to talk to other teams about a trade. Those discussions have included the potential of some kind of rework of Bridgewater's contract, but a team would likely have to initially take on the original contract against its salary cap to officially complete the trade before any renegotiated deal could then be signed.

Some in the league surveyed in recent weeks believe, because the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold and that Bridgewater's dead money charge is still slightly lower than his salary-cap charge for 2021 ($22.9 million), consideration will be given to releasing Bridgewater if no deal transpires by the end of draft weekend.

Beyond Bridgewater, Jaguars coach Urban Meyer publicly said in recent weeks the team wasn't fielding trade offers for Gardner Minshew at this point, but Minshew may be one of the few potentially available options who could, in reality, push Lock in training camp.

The other free agents still available at the position are mostly the over-30 crowd. Nick Mullens is 27 and has some starting experience, but he is recovering from elbow surgery.

Stand pat: This is an option, maybe the option, until the Broncos do something that shows it isn't.

Paton has said the Broncos "fortunately" have a quarterback they like in Lock. Ahead of his third season, Lock has already put in plenty of work this offseason, including consulting with Manning, and the Broncos could save the significant draft capital it would take to make any move up on the draft board and improve the team around Lock with the expectation he doesn't lead the league in interceptions again.

Lock was originally a second-round pick because the team felt he needed developmental time. That time would point to the 2021 season and they would then reassess when that season is said and done.