The Broncos are the first Lombardi Trophy winner to lose its top two quarterbacks since the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. That franchise also rode its dominant defense, a strong running game, and some competent QB fill-ins to playoff appearances in two of the following three years.
Of course, what the Broncos would prefer to do is repeat as NFL champions. Despite some significant losses in free agency, the team’s D is still elite (if a year older), and there’s plenty of talent at the offensive skill positions, or at least there will be after they fortify their backfield and receivers in the draft.
But the NFL still is a QB-driven league, so if the Broncos can get even a little bit more out of their signal-caller in 2016 than Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler gave them last year—hardly an impossible task—they could be one of the AFC favorites again. Here’s where they stand right now:
Mark Sanchez: Having “the Sanchize” as your primary backup is about all any team could ask for; having him as your starter makes everyone a little nervous. Fairly or not, Sanchez is probably better known for this unfortunate play than he is for his 4–2 playoff record and two AFC Championship Game appearances. The Broncos could do worse than having him start ahead of a rookie QB, but they might also be able to do better by trading for or signing…
Robert Griffin III*: After lighting up the league in his rookie year, injuries, attitude issues, and the general chaos inherent to being a Washington Redskin doomed RGIII to the scrap heap. With lingering concerns about his long-term health and leadership skills, he probably can be had pretty cheaply and is likely looking for the best situation for him to rebuild his game and reputation. That’s where a stable franchise like Denver could be appealing, and the Broncos are known to be pondering it.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: The Harvard-educated journeyman had his best season as a pro in 2015. Now he’s in a stare-down with the Jets over how much the unrestricted free agent should be paid. The Broncos have made it clear that they won’t overspend on a veteran QB, but if Fitzpatrick could approximate the 31 TD passes he threw last year, almost any team would be glad to have that production. On the other hand, there’s a reason the 33-year-old has played for six teams.
Colin Kaepernick: Like Griffin, Kaepernick is a spectacular athlete whose game and confidence suddenly vanished. He’s under contract with San Francisco for about $12 million this year, so the Broncos would have to trade for him and possibly renegotiate his deal. But also like Griffin, they’d have no idea which player they’d be getting—the disruptor on the field or the disruption off of it—until he got here.
TBD rookie: With only Sanchez and former seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian currently on the roster, the Broncos will probably draft a “QB of the future” even if they add another veteran. Whoever that youngster turns out to be wouldn’t necessarily start in 2016 but would have plenty of support around him if he did. From their spot at the end of the first round the Broncos should be in range to draft Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Or if they’re looking to be bolder, they could trade into the 15–20 range to draft Paxton Lynch from Memphis. (Given Lynch’s resemblance to Osweiler in both stature and skill set, this move seems less likely.)
If there’s a wildcard in all this, it’s John Elway. Should he fall in love with one of the top two throwers—Cal’s Jared Goff or North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz—would Elway make some team a Godfather offer to move into the top 10? To date, he’s shown that he’s every bit the gambler in the front office as he was on the field, so anything’s possible.
Update, 3/24/16: The Browns announced the signing of Griffin today, which means incumbent Cleveland starter Josh McCown—another capable if unspectacular veteran—might be available and the Broncos might be interested.