If you don’t have a quarterback in today’s NFL, you might as well punt to next season. The bad news for Denver Broncos fans is that their current crop of signal-callers isn’t what anyone outside of Dove Valley would consider, you know, good. Fortunately, the 2024 NFL Draft starts Thursday night and head coach Sean Payton is exceptional at evaluating quarterback talent—according to head coach Sean Payton. “I think we’ll be really good at this,” he said at this year’s scouting combine.

His history indicates otherwise. To be fair, the former head coach of the New Orleans Saints enjoyed 15 seasons of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees in the Big Easy, and Russell Wilson was Broncos General Manager George Paton’s fault. So there’s not a lot of info about which quarterback Denver might select in this year’s draft—but there’s enough to take an educated guess. Follow us through Payton’s progressions as we lock in on who will likely emerge from this weekend’s meat market as the Broncos’ QB1 in 2024.

You Gotta Get Up To Get Touchdowns

Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton at a microphone in front of a blue NFL Combine backdrop
Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton speaks to the media during the NFL Combine on February 27, 2024. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

During his 16 seasons in New Orleans, Payton selected only four quarterbacks, and never one before the third round. (We’d mention their names, but you wouldn’t know them.) But one trend did emerge during his time with the Saints: He loves to trade up in the draft. In Payton’s final 13 years in New Orleans, the team pulled off 22 draft-day trades, all of them to move up in the order. He added two more vault-ahead deals during his first draft with the Broncos in 2023.

That might make you think the Broncos will strike a deal to move from 12th, their current first-round pick, to inside the top five, where they might be able to land Caleb Williams of the University of Southern California, Jayden Daniels of Louisiana State University, Drake Maye of the University of North Carolina, or J.J. McCarthy of the University of Michigan, the quartet generally regarded as this year’s cream of the crop. Except the Broncos don’t own a second-round pick, which means they don’t have the capital to buy the BMOC of their dreams. Well, not unless they mortgage next year’s first-round pick, too, and surely Paton is still too scarred from the blimp explosion that was the Wilson trade to try that again.

Option One: Covered. The Broncos won’t pick higher than 12th. In other words, neither Williams, Daniels, Maye, nor McCarthy will play for Denver next year.

Think Fast

Boy, Bo Nix sure looks good. When it comes to eye-candy, he’s a Snickers. Maybe even a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. His stats are great, too. Last season, the Oregon Ducks’ front man threw for 4,508 yards and 45 touchdowns. The Broncos offense scored 36—as a team. That seems to indicate that Nix has some brains beneath that pretty veneer, and Payton is definitely a sucker for a beautiful mind: “How quickly can they deliver the information? How quickly can they get through the progression? Are they accurate? There are some fundamental things that we have to see that are present.”

The thing about Nix is that he might just be a pretty stat line. The Alabama native spent his first three seasons at Auburn, where he struggled to complete 60 percent of his passes against mighty SEC defenses. Then, he transferred to Oregon and his completion percentage eclipsed 70 percent for two straight years. The difference? It could have been that he got better and had better teammates. Or it could have been the fact that the Oregon offense never asks its quarterbacks to fire the pigskin more than three feet.

Option Two: Might drop the ball. The Broncos could trade out of the first round to get Nix, who is projected to fall to day two, but, as we covered above, Payton doesn’t like to retreat in the draft. Plus, the Broncos finished a lowly 27th in total defense last year, so expect them to use the 12th selection on an edge rusher like Alabama’s Dallas Turner.

One Team’s Trash Is Another Team’s Treasure

Zach Wilson wearing a green New York Jets uniform
Zach Wilson. Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images

Excluding Russell Wilson, Payton has essentially picked two starting quarterbacks during his career, both via free agency: Brees and Jameis Winston, who was named the Saints’ QB1 the season following Brees’ retirement. Now, Brees and Winston seemingly have nothing in common. The former is short, the latter is tall. Brees is an accurate passer, Winston, um, less so. Both, however, were reclamation projects.

Like a LoHi tech bro scouring 19th-century dairy barns for just the right salvaged oak for his dining room table, Payton loves to take cast-offs and turn them into stars. Brees, for example, had been expelled by the Chargers after suffering a gruesome shoulder surgery that left some wondering whether he’d ever throw again. Winston, meanwhile, had won a Heisman Trophy in college and was drafted number one in 2015 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who eventually grew tired of his penchant for throwing the ball to the other team. Payton’s bargain-hunting strategy paid off with Brees, but not with Winston.

But where, oh where would Payton possibly score gold from the discard pile at this late hour? He’s already found him: This week, the Broncos traded for the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson.

Option Three: Wide open. Consider this an outlet pass. And before you start complaining (and locking up your mothers), remember that Wilson wasn’t given a fair shake in New York, where his offensive coordinator was the guy the Broncos fired as their head coach after only 15 games. Under Payton’s guidance, Wilson might actually deliver on the promise that made him the number two pick in 2021.

Or not—and the Broncos can enact their real strategy: tanking in 2024 to ensure they have the number one pick in 2025, when a promising quarterback from the University of Colorado named Shedeur Sanders is projected by some to be the top signal-caller in the draft.