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Renck: Broncos’ grade at QB since Peyton Manning is a D or F. Is the answer J.J. McCarthy?

The juxtaposition remains jarring on J.J.

Never do I remember such a divide between what the media thinks and scouts believe about a quarterback prospect. When his season ended in a rain of confetti, J.J. McCarthy projected as an early-second to late-first-round draft pick.

With the draft roughly a month away, there appears no scenario where he falls past the sixth selection. This is bad news for the Broncos, not just because they are looking for their quarterback of the future, but because they sit behind five needy teams who are better positioned than them.

The idea of the Broncos landing McCarthy now requires imagination and the stomach to assume an enormous risk. Which is why we can’t ignore the growing connection of Denver, including by Luke McCown in a fantastic piece by Broncos beat writer Parker Gabriel, to Bo Nix.

There is one factor that is impossible to quantify, but cannot be ignored: Coach Sean Payton relishes an opportunity to be bold.

How did this happen where drafting McCarthy requires magic and mettle? To find out, I went to Michigan. Or more specifically, a Michigan man.

You remember All-American Jake Butt? He played three years for the Broncos before his knees betrayed him. Butt works as a lead college football analyst for the Big Ten Network. I sought his perspective for a few reasons: He knows McCarthy well, has watched all of his games and understands the cauldron that is playing quarterback for the Broncos. There have been 13 starters since Peyton Manning retired. Butt was teammates with seven of them.

Is McCarthy made for this stage?

“I played with a lot of quarterbacks in college and the NFL. I would have loved to say J.J. was my quarterback. It’s everything about him,” Butt explained. “It’s the way he gets the play call out and controls the huddle. Before a word leaves a quarterback’s lips, his teammates better know he’s dialed in. That you know the motions, and checks, and will put us in the right play. You want a guy who is competitive as (heck). You want him to be the first guy in and last guy out of the facility. You want a leader. J.J. checks all the boxes.”

Butt and I discussed why there have been more quarterback busts than in all of Canton. The modern college game no longer mirrors NFL systems. The play calls are dramatically different. In college, the quarterback walks to the line of scrimmage, claps once and looks for a poster board answer on the sideline. Butt admitted he played with quarterbacks who were incapable of regurgitating the call from the headset, “let alone know what they were saying and what it meant. I know for a fact that J.J. has that down.”

Butt understands he will be accused of bias. A Wolverine stumping for a Wolverine. I told him I like McCarthy, view him like a baseball prospect, his youth (he just turned 21) and athleticism creating a high ceiling. But, Butt, I watched him work as a game manager for a pro-style run game on many Saturdays. Shouldn’t that be a concern for a team moving into the top four or five to take him?

“He played in a system in Michigan and was never asked to win by himself. It was not sexy. And I think that’s to his advantage. Some guys would have pressed in his position. J.J. understood that he could only lose the game by making mistakes. He was extremely disciplined with the football,” Butt said. “But throw on the tape, and you will see he can make all the throws.”

As crickets wailed during free agency amid the Broncos’ unannounced rebuild, there was one question on everyone’s mind: Who is going to start? Jarrett Stidham holds the job for now. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said in a recent breathless report that Payton has “won with a lot quarterbacks who aren’t as good as Stidham.”

Oh really? Can I see citations? As far as I can tell that list is Quincy Carter when Payton was with the Dallas Cowboys in 2003.

If Stidham is the guy in a reset season, so be it. But he is not the future. Payton must decide if that player is in this draft. If he wants Nix, he should be available when the Broncos pick at No. 12. If he loves McCarthy, he will have to stake his legacy in Denver on it because moving into the top four — no way the Chargers trade with the Broncos at No. 5 — will likely require three first-rounders and a third-rounder.

The problem with taking this type of calculated risk is that many teams find out they are really bad at math. Owner Greg Penner, however, trusts Payton. He impressed the boss by changing the culture in the building and dramatically reducing injuries through his handpicked hires. If the Broncos are going to reboot the right way, Penner must let him work through this transition and make mistakes to overcome the lingering odor of incompetence from the previous coach.

This is Payton’s biggest decision. Will he make it this spring or wait until next year’s draft when Shedeur Sanders, Quinn Ewers and Carson Beck will be in the mix?

Since Manning retired, the Broncos’ quarterback grade is a D or F. Is the answer J.J.?

“Sean is a hard (expletive). Frankly, I think that’s a good thing for Denver. You have to earn the right to be comfortable,” Butt said. “Jim (Harbaugh) was hard on his guys at Michigan. J.J. never complained. He knew the path that had to be walked to win. He’s going to lead the right way and do whatever is asked. There are no guarantees, but there is nothing that tells me that he can’t get the job done.”

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