The Denver Broncos have struggled with an identity crisis at quarterback for the better part of the last decade. From Jay Cutler being pushed out of town, to Tim Tebow stumbling to a playoff win, to a decrepit Peyton Manning being forced off the field in favor of Brock Osweiler, the Broncos have been a circus at quarterback.
2016 was supposed to give clarity to the organization. During the 2016 NFL Draft, the Broncos moved up a few spots in the first round to select Paxton Lynch, a tall, mobile quarterback out of Memphis. To some, myself included, Lynch was the best quarterback in the draft, and the Broncos paid a considerably cheaper price for their first-round quarterback than the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles did for theirs. It felt like the reigning Super Bowl champions had immediately solved their new void at quarterback. More than a year removed from then, the Broncos aren’t sure what they will reap from their sow.
Despite the capital investment in Lynch, the former Memphis star did not earn the starting job as a rookie. It was well known Lynch was going to be a project, but the expectation was more that Lynch would play through his rookie callusing, rather than learn from the bench. Instead of Lynch, Trevor Siemian earned the opportunity to fill the shoes of Manning and Osweiler. Siemian, a seventh-round pick in 2015, did not attempt a single pass as a rookie.
Siemian played up to par with his expectations. The bar for a seventh-round pick in just his second year in the league was quite low, but Siemian could have been far worse than he was. Siemian notched slightly below average stats in nearly every major category, though he did manage to not throw interceptions at an alarming rate. Considering the play of Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, and so on, the Broncos could have been in worse hands last season, but it was still upsetting that their first round pick couldn’t unseat a lackluster replacement-level quarterback.
The tides may be turning for Lynch, though. Whereas last offseason there was little indication he had a chance at the starting job, the race appears to be open this offseason. Lynch has reportedly grown more comfortable with the system and has been able to speed up his process. The speed at which Lynch is coming along isn’t ideal, but him showing signs of progress is comforting and the slow build up isn’t any different than how he developed at Memphis.
Lynch played in a Wing-T offense in high school, making his transition to then-Memphis head coach Justin Fuente’s spread system, a difficult one. Lynch redshirted as a freshman in 2012 and was then thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman in 2013. The young quarterback wasn’t ready yet. In 2013, Lynch threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns, as he notched nine touchdowns to ten interceptions. Lynch started to come alive in 2014, however, and by 2015, his redshirt junior season, Lynch was one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Lynch threw 28 touchdowns to four interceptions in 2015 and lead Memphis to a heroic upset over a ranked Ole Miss team. His growth as a college player was phenomenal.
Now in the NFL, Lynch has been trying to make another jarring adjustment. The Broncos ran a heavily under-center offense last year that was predicated on zone running, boot action, and intermediate passing. Given Lynch’s arm, intermediate passing ability, and mobility, the Broncos system made perfect sense for Lynch to be groomed in, but he simply needed more time, and now the system is changing again as the Broncos are transitioning their offense from the Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison duo to a Mike McCoy-led attack. Switching the offensive scheme on an already slow-developing project quarterback could be a problem.
In three appearances, two of which were starts, Lynch was more sizzle than steak. His defining traits—mobility and intermediate passing—showed up from time to time, but Lynch’s handful of appearances were plagued with disastrous mechanics and mental mistakes. Blitzes rattled his thought process, his body was seldom under control when passing, and he blanked on elementary reads. Lynch wasn’t close to being NFL-ready.
The above play in particular was damning. Lynch botched a high school level read in his first ever NFL start, an overall performance that was tough to watch. The Broncos called for a simple “four verticals” concept just inside the red zone at the Atlanta Falcons’ 18-yard line. As Lynch retreats from under center, he stares down the lone receiver on the right side of the formation. Lynch was right to check his receiver versus the solo coverage, but he should have come off that receiver much earlier and been prepared to move to his next read as his back foot hit the end of his drop. Lynch’s delay causes him to peer over to his next read as the interior of the pocket is being pushed into his lap. The collapsing pocket startles Lynch and he quickly fires to his checkdown option, a throw that was too late and not accurate.
Had Lynch come off of his initial read and gotten into the rhythm of the play, he would have seen that the number three (innermost receiver on the left) was clearing over the top of the middle linebacker and had plenty of room to work with underneath the centerfielding safety. Lynch had an abundance of moments like this where his operating speed was a tick too late, ruining the flow of the play and neutering its chances.
It’s within the realm of possibility that Lynch does need more time and, like at Memphis, he may be a late bloomer in the NFL. However, whether or not the Broncos can afford to stash Lynch again is the pickle that the team finds itself in. The Broncos defense was the best in the league last year, per DVOA, and there is no reason to believe that unit won’t be top-five again. Despite their defense last year, the Broncos missed the playoffs because Siemian couldn’t give life to the offense when it needed it. Siemian isn’t going to give the Broncos anything in 2017 that he didn’t give them in 2016, either. He is a low-variance, low-ceiling quarterback; the very essence of “he is who he is.” At best, the Broncos would crawl to a Wild Card spot and get axed in the first round by a team with a superior quarterback.
With Lynch, the Broncos would at least be swinging for the fences, instead of trying to leg out an infield single with Siemian. Lynch has the mentality and mobility to be a playmaker, and added confidence and comfort in the system should help him rack up more routine yards and add some pop to his arm as he gets the ball out quicker. If Lynch hits even 80 percent of his potential this season, he’s an upgrade over Siemian and could provide just enough spark to make the Broncos a legitimate team. In the event that Lynch crashes, at least the Broncos know for certain that they don’t have a quarterback and they can begin to focus their attention on trying to reload at the position.
The Broncos have to decide whether they are committing to the long con with Lynch, or understanding that most quarterbacks simply hit or don’t hit and that wasting time with him on the bench has little value. With their defense still at its peak and their skill players being more than enough to support a quarterback, the Broncos need to commit to Lynch and confirm to themselves whether or not they have a quarterback for the future.