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Why a former Sean Payton QB thinks Broncos coach will like Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. in the 2024 draft

In two epic Pac-12 battles this fall, Michael Penix Jr. edged out Bo Nix.

Penix threw for 621 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions in the wins.

Nix matched him nearly throw for throw, racking up 576 yards, five touchdowns and one pick and also rushing for 83.

Penix’s Huskies, of course, logged victories of 36-33 and 34-31 en route to a conference title and 14-0 start before losing to Michigan in the national championship game.

This spring he and Nix are just two of many interesting quarterbacks in the 2024 class, but they are trending toward being of particular note as it relates to the Broncos.

Denver and head coach Sean Payton sit at No. 12 in the draft. The top three picks all belong to quarterback-needy teams. Right behind is a group of possible QB Derby entrants that either pick higher than Denver (the New York Giants at No. 6), have more draft capital with which to work (No. 13 Las Vegas) or both (No. 11 Minnesota).

Could Denver trade up to land one of the top four? Perhaps, but only if it outbids several other suitors or ends up valuing one of the options differently than anybody else.

One way that expensive endeavor becomes unnecessary is if Payton and company believe in Penix or Nix enough to select one of them at No. 12 or even later in the first or second round.

While the buzz around Nix has increased in recent days, a quarterback who played four seasons for Payton thinks the Broncos coach has plenty of reason to be drawn to Penix.

“I can see it 100%,” Luke McCown, who played 2013-16 in New Orleans as part of a 13-year career, told The Post. “I think (Penix) would thrive in the play-action and downfield stuff that Sean likes. He did a lot of it, just from the gun, in Washington: a lot of the same concepts with the high pylon and the deep cross, deep over routes and all these different things that you saw Sean do for years in New Orleans.”

Shifting board

The 2024 draft quarterback picture overall continues to shift and, in some cases, is starting to clarify.

USC’s Caleb Williams has been considered a strong favorite to go No. 1 overall to Chicago all along, and the Bears’ recent trade of Justin Fields and all-out presence at Williams’ pro day make that pairing look like a foregone conclusion.

LSU’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye divide analysts on who will go second, and it’s now perhaps easier to find people who think Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy will be third off the board than fifth or lower.

Nix and Penix are mostly considered next. ESPN’s Jordan Reid and Mel Kiper Jr. currently have Penix as No. 5 in the class. ESPN’s Matt Miller and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah have Nix fifth. The Athletic’s consensus board pegs Nix at No. 33 overall (No. 5 QB) and Penix at No. 45 (No. 6 QB).

The opening weeks of free agency saw Atlanta (No. 8 pick) sign Kirk Cousins after his long run in Minnesota and the Vikings promptly trade to acquire the No. 23 pick to go along with No. 11.

All of that means there is every possibility that four quarterbacks will come off the board by the time Chicago makes its second selection at No. 9.

The Broncos, according to the Jimmy Johnson draft value chart, have less overall capital than any team in the top 15. After the No. 12 slot, they aren’t slated to pick again until No. 76. That means trading up even a few spots likely requires No. 76 and/or future draft capital. It also means other teams can offer more present-year draft value than Denver.

What to do?

Payton’s notoriously aggressive in the draft, preferring to go up for a specific target rather than trade down and collect darts, as general manager George Paton usually prefers.

This year, though, McCown thinks his old coach may change course. He sees Daniels as a clean fit for the Broncos, but the LSU quarterback will be gone too early.

“It just seems like Jayden’s going to go somewhere in the top five, top seven,” McCown said. “I don’t see Sean moving up in this draft. I’m not speaking for him, but in my opinion, if I look at Drake Maye’s tape and I’m sitting in there with Sean, I don’t think Sean would be so fired up about him to take him at No. 12. I just don’t see that.

“I don’t see the accuracy or the timing to warrant that.”

How about the rest?

“I think J.J. would be a Sean type of guy, and I agree with Bo Nix and Penix being Sean type of fellas,” he said. “I think somebody will trade back into the first round late, 25-28, somewhere in that neighborhood. Somebody could do that to get Penix, and I see Bo Nix going early- to mid-second round.

“That’s how I think it’ll play out.”

McCown likes the idea of a trade-down for Denver in theory, but returned to a story Payton tells often and brought up during the season. Payton wanted to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017 at No. 11 and even told Drew Brees as the first round unfolded that it could happen. But then Kansas City moved up from No. 27 to No. 10 to get him. The rest, of course, is history and a Chiefs lesson in AFC West dominance.

“That has to come into his mind of, OK, I got burned last time and I waited one pick too many,” McCown said. “…  If he really feels good about a guy, if he really, really likes him, maybe he will take him at No. 12. ‘At least I’m going to get him.’”

Payton has expressed a similar sentiment, including on Up & Adams during Super Bowl week, when he said, “If we like one of these guys a lot, then I’m unconcerned with where people think we should draft him. Unconcerned.”

Kiper, the longtime NFL draft guru, has five quarterbacks going in the top 12 and the Broncos grabbing Nix at No. 12.

McCown said he’d prefer Penix and wouldn’t be surprised if Payton does, too.

“He cuts it loose”

Why would McCown think that?

Penix over two years at Washington put up prodigious numbers throwing to a talented set of receivers, including likely top-10 pick Rome Odunze, as well as Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan.

McCown isn’t concerned with stats. He just believes what he sees when he watches Penix.

“Scouts and coaches are always going to start their evaluation process from the standpoint of rhythm within the framework of an offense,” he said. “… When I look at Penix, I think he does it the best of anybody in this draft. Regardless of his arm strength and certainly the talent of the receivers, when No. 1 is open or when he sees a window that he’s anticipating No. 1 to be in, he cuts it loose. And to me that’s processing.

“They’re always going to evaluate from the standpoint of, is he getting the ball out of his hand within the framework, structure and rhythm of what the play calls for? And I don’t think anybody did that better than Penix.”

Penix has good size at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds with a big, 81-inch wingspan and massive 10.5-inch hands. Not many quibble with the talent in terms of arm strength.

The biggest question is his injury history. Penix had two season-ending knee injuries and a shoulder injury over his six-year college career.

“Before injury, you think about the shoulder and the knee, the bottom line is if he can stay healthy, he can spin it,” Kiper told reporters during a Wednesday conference call. “He can make throws to every point of the field. Off-platform he’s not as effective as some of these other quarterbacks. You’ve got to protect him. You’ve got to have a really good offensive line because of the durability questions, the injuries at Indiana. He was outstanding at Washington, but you’ve got to give him a clean pocket.

“When he’s off-platform, when you get around him, you saw that in the national title game, his accuracy wanes a little bit.”

McCown thinks Denver has the offensive line to protect Penix well overall and highlight not just the raw attributes, but the particulars, too.

“Probably more than arm strength is his ability to place the ball,” he said. “The 10.5-inch hands help you do that. He just puts it on time and in rhythm and in sequence of the play, he locates the ball with accuracy where he wants to put it. The back-shoulder throws, the comebacks, these deep square outs. He was masterful all year at throwing these 18- to 20-yard square-outs that we call benches or circus routes.

“Nobody threw those better than he did all season long.”

McCown acknowledges a bias on the injury front. He tore his ACL twice and made it 13 years as a pro, though mostly as a backup. It’s easy to understand, he said, why teams will have concerns.

But it’s also easy to remember that Payton rolled the dice on Drew Brees after his shoulder surgery, prying him away from Miami by making a bigger financial commitment than the Dolphins or anybody else was willing to make in early 2006.

Brees had already made a Pro Bowl by that point, but there was doubt about whether he’d ever return to form.

Acing one risk test 18 years ago doesn’t guarantee Payton will ace another this spring. At the same time, the Broncos don’t have the luxury of controlling the draft board. Payton could see Penix as having injury risk but also upside that otherwise wouldn’t be available around No. 12 or later.

“He needs to be in the right situation, but when he gets time he can spin it and he’s accurate to every level,” Kiper said.

Kiper and McCown both also think Payton will like Nix. McCown thinks Payton will avoid “a guy that’s had it all handed to him. He wants a guy that’s been weathered. You kind of hear that Bo Nix is a guy that Sean would be interested in and it’s not always been roses for him. It certainly wasn’t at Auburn for Bo Nix, and he’s kind of had to stay the course and show improvement and get better year after year, and he’s done that.”

Kiper likened Nix’s accuracy without huge arm strength to Brees, who lasted until the No. 32 overall pick in 2001.

Payton’s never drafted a rookie higher than the third round, which prompted Kiper to bring up Payton mentor Bill Parcells’ four rules for drafting a quarterback: senior, college grad, three years starting and at least 23 college wins. Nix checks all those boxes. So, too, does Penix. He hasn’t had an easy path on the injury front and, like Nix, moved from one Power Five school to another for a fresh start.

In fact, half of the top six quarterbacks this year check all of the Parcells boxes: Daniels, Penix and Nix.

One is likely out of reach for the Broncos. The other two? Time will tell if Penix wins the third matchup like he did the first two.

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