Why the Broncos can't afford to botch first-round NFL draft pick

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have to plan for the math not to add up.

And with the first round of the NFL draft coming Thursday, team officials said they are prepared for every scenario that could come with the No. 12 pick -- including not drafting a quarterback.

"One thing we know, we're going to get a really good player at 12,'' general manager George Paton said last week. "We've had teams call to move up, we've had teams call to move back, we have flexibility, but we do know at 12, if we stand pat, we'll get a really good player.''

That, too, is the state of affairs for the Broncos. While the team's need at quarterback is both glaring and longstanding, they have also missed the playoffs in each of the past eight years.

Any player who they've graded highly enough to select at No. 12 is a player they need and a player who can likely -- if he holds up his end of the bargain -- be a starter from the moment he walks into the team complex.

"Our first pick we've got to hit on,'' Paton said. "Whether it's a quarterback, whether it's a tackle, a receiver, you name it, we need to get an impact player.''

There are several pro personnel executives in the league who believe, given the snug fit of the Broncos' salary cap to go with the departures of players like quarterback Russell Wilson, safety Justin Simmons, linebacker Josey Jewell and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, the current roster might not be as talented as the one that finished 8-9 last season.

It puts plenty of emphasis on the team's eight draft picks, especially the first-rounder. After they make their pick at 12, they are not currently scheduled to have another selection until No. 76 in the third round. Monday the Broncos helped position themselves to have as many options as possible when they sent a sixth-round pick to the New York Jets in exchange for quarterback Zach Wilson and a seventh-round pick.

If four quarterbacks are selected before the Broncos are on the clock Thursday night, the Broncos would face the possibility of drafting the fifth quarterback off the board. It would be a rare decision that has happened once since AFL-NFL merger in 1970. In the 1999 draft, five quarterbacks were selected among the top 12 picks.

Of those five quarterbacks, just two (Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper) went to the Pro Bowl and played in more than 65 NFL games.

"If we were looking at our draft board and you looked at the screen and you said, 'team needs,' there are a handful of teams who are ahead of us where you would say 'quarterback,''' Broncos coach Sean Payton said. "Then there is a team or two -- Minnesota, ourselves, the Raiders -- you could argue quarterback. That's what makes this year a little interesting.''

But the Broncos, with plenty of needs in their depth chart, including outside linebacker, cornerback, tight end, defensive line and tackle, could benefit in some ways by a quarterback run. It could push a player they have graded among the top 10, or even top five on the board, down toward 12.

The first round in particular includes several edge rushers like Florida State's Jared Verse, Alabama's Dallas Turner and Penn State's Chop Robinson who could be available to the Broncos. Or cornerbacks like Alabama's Terrion Arnold or Toledo's Quinyon Mitchell.

The Broncos haven't had an edge player finish with at least 10 sacks since Von Miller had 14.5 in 2018. At cornerback, the Broncos like Riley Moss' potential to be a starter opposite Pat Surtain II, but Moss played 23 snaps on defense last season. They added more depth at CB on Monday, signing free agent Levi Wallace.

"You're always looking for corners and edge, value-type positions,'' Paton said. "We like our corner group. We have one of the best corners in the league [Surtain]. We like our nickel in [Ja'Quan McMillian]. We have two young outside guys, Riley [Moss] and Damarri [Mathis]. ... We like the group, but you're always looking at those type of positions. They're hard to find. If someone falls in your lap, you're going to take them.''

If the draft's top tight end -- Georgia's Brock Bowers -- was pushed down the board by a run on the passers, the Broncos would have to take a long look at the two-time Mackey Award winner.

In the end, while they face an almost constant public clamor to find the quarterback solution, a potential long-term solution at another position might be what is presented to them. That it's about timing and value.

"You don't want the huge reach, but if they are in similar graded areas or pods, then you take the value position,'' Paton said. "Whether it's quarterback, whether it's edge or cornerback, you know what they are. They are a premium. [But] you can't reach too much for those guys.''