Sean Payton coached 258 games, playoffs included, during his 15 seasons as the football boss of the New Orleans Saints. He coached 17 more games during his first season in charge of the Broncos in 2023, giving him a total of 275.
The number of those games started by a rookie quarterback: one.
The cameo for Ian Book, a fourth-round pick out of Notre Dame who played only one year in the league, came in 2021. Most of the other starts were made by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees (228). The rest were made by veterans like Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill and, last season, Russell Wilson. Payton has navigated with quarterbacks who entered the role with relatively little starting NFL experience, like Hill and Jarrett Stidham, who started the final two games of last season for the Broncos.
But a rookie starter? That is not something Payton has had often as an NFL head coach.
That is what makes the upcoming Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., an intriguing inflection point for the Broncos as they evaluate the future of the roster’s most important position while holding the No. 12 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. A decision with Wilson is looming. When Payton benched the 35-year-old for the final two games of the 2023 season, it set the stage for a possible, if not likely, parting of ways between the Broncos and the quarterback they acquired at a significant cost during a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Seahawks less than two years ago. If the Broncos do decide to move on — Payton promised Wilson it “won’t be a long, drawn-out process” — they’ll need a starting replacement. Moving on from Wilson would likely create an $85 million dead-money charge that will have a significant impact on Denver’s ability to build the roster, even if it were to be spread over two seasons, so the Broncos will likely be looking at relatively cheap options at the position.
One is Stidham, who is under contract for a final season in 2024 at a cap figure of $7 million. There are free agents who could be signed at a similar number who could compete with Stidham or serve as next season’s backup. In a post-Wilson world, though, a rookie could also be part of the equation.
The quarterbacks who appear to be the consensus top three at this stage in the draft process — Caleb Williams of USC, Drake Maye of North Carolina and Jayden Daniels of LSU — will not be in Mobile. JJ McCarthy, who just won a national championship at Michigan and was the fourth and final quarterback selected in the first round in The Athletic’s most recent mock draft by prospect guru Dane Brugler, will also be absent from the Senior Bowl. But eight other quarterbacks will be present, including Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix, two players aiming to prove they deserve to be considered for a first-round selection. Both players were second-round selections in Brugler’s mock draft, which was posted earlier this month, but the next three months will offer a chance for both players to answer questions that could help them vault up the board.
Senior Bowl preview: 7 storylines to watch as NFL Draft prospects descend on Mobile
The rest of the quarterbacks participating this week at one of the draft cycle’s premier evaluation events: Spencer Rattler, South Carolina; Michael Pratt, Tulane; Carter Bradley, South Alabama; Joe Milton II, Tennessee; Sam Hartman, Notre Dame.
Senior Bowl week, which begins with practices on Tuesday morning, certainly will not be the first time general manager George Paton and the Broncos’ scouting staff have laid eyes on these quarterbacks. The evaluation of all these players is a process that takes place over several years. Paton earlier this month reiterated the importance of seeing quarterbacks play in person as often as possible, work that will continue in Mobile.
“The tape is the tape, and you get into that, (but) I’ve been to more live games than I have been to (prior to) this year,” Paton said. “No matter where I’m watching, you’re always in the back of your mind (saying), ‘This player is pretty good,’ (but) it’s just hard to tell on TV. … TV scouting is kind of a term we use, and it is not a good term.”
The Senior Bowl has proven to be an important evaluation period for Paton since he became the Broncos’ general manager shortly before the 2021 event. Denver selected offensive guard Quinn Meinerz and outside linebacker Baron Browning in the third round of the 2021 draft after watching them perform well in Mobile, and both have turned into solid starters for the Broncos. But the Broncos have not drafted a quarterback since Paton became general manager. His predecessor, John Elway, took Drew Lock in the second round of the 2019 draft. Three years before that, Elway drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round. Neither player became a long-term answer at the position, joining the churn of signal-callers the Broncos have had since Peyton Manning retired in 2016. It’s a carousel that keeps spinning.
The difference for the Broncos now is that they employ Payton, who serves as coach, play-caller and de facto personnel lead when it comes to identifying and selecting quarterbacks. He’ll have a significant say in how Denver approaches this critical offseason of quarterback decisions. Paton said he and the head coach are on the same page in terms of what they are searching for at the position.
“Quarterback is a little different, but I do know what Sean is looking for in a quarterback,” Paton said. “We’ll see.”
Predicting Broncos’ free-agent fates, from Lloyd Cushenberry to Josey Jewell
The information-gathering process kicks into high gear for the Broncos this week. How healthy is Penix after being battered in the national championship game loss to Michigan? How do his medicals check out overall following a college career dogged by major injuries? Can Nix demonstrate an ability to quickly process what defenses are throwing at him? Can he show an ability to push the ball down the field consistently? What can Rattler prove as a prospect after a roller-coaster college career at Oklahoma and South Carolina? After a senior season at Tulane in which he showed improved accuracy, can Pratt continue to show improvement in that department while being asked to showcase NFL-type throws? Could he be a passer the Broncos target with their third-round pick?
The Broncos face a lengthy list of quarterback questions as a decision with Wilson looms. Near the top of the list: Is Payton ready to jump into the rookie quarterback business? The Senior Bowl work this week could go a long way toward providing an answer.
(Photo of Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr.: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)