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Broncos coach Sean Payton says trading up in NFL draft is “realistic”

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Broncos brass has no time for fun in the sun.

On a breezy but beautiful 75-degree day here, across a pond from a pristine golf course and a stone’s throw from all kinds of spring break fun, Denver general manager George Paton donned sunglasses and smiled.

He had no problem acknowledging, though, that he’d rather be losing track of the hours in a dark room illuminated only by film or hoofing it to yet another college team’s indoor practice facility for a pro day.

“We don’t have a lot of time and that’s why it’s hard to come here, the anxiety,” Paton said with a grin.

Such is life for a general manager as the countdown to the NFL Draft hits the one-month mark exactly Monday.

Such is life for a franchise without a clear answer at quarterback.

The key as Paton and head coach Sean Payton outline it: Be quick but don’t hurry. Figure out the solution but don’t sign a guy or trade for one just to do it. Explore all options. Even the ones that seem improbable or come with mega risk. Maybe especially those ones.

The Broncos, for example, head toward April with the No. 12 overall pick but less 2024 draft capital than any team in the top 15.

Payton, though, called the prospect of trading up, “realistic.”

“What’s hard to predict, though, is what’s on the receiving end,” he said Monday morning. “It’s good to be (general manager Monti Ossenfort) today at Arizona. It’s hard to predict what that cost is and yet I certainly wouldn’t say it’s unrealistic.

“We’ll pay close attention to it.”

If the NFL spring meetings here provided little more than a detour on the quarterback express for Payton and Paton, this latest waypoint on the journey still provided a useful window into their thinking.

“The draft is one element and we’re in that phase now but there are still a few possibilities relative to guys that are currently in this league or have played in this league,” Payton said of the quarterback landscape. “I think we have a pretty good plan in place, we understand what we’re doing and we’re going to be smart about it.”

Paton said he thinks there are at least seven talented quarterbacks in the draft. Payton was quick to remind everyone that even in these seemingly quarterback-heavy years, the NFL’s hit rate isn’t particularly pretty. Remember when five quarterbacks went in the top 15 picks in 2021? Four of them have been benched or traded.

Wait around at your own risk.

“A lot of times you’ll hear someone say, ‘Hey, they can always move back and pick up one of these other players,’” Payton said. “The reality of it is one, maybe two of these guys will have a chance at success and then there’s leap years where three or four do. So I think the key is what’s the fit relative to your team? You do pay attention to where you feel like teams are at in their needs. There’s obviously a few teams at the front of this draft with a quarterback need. That’s no secret.

“Then you kind of go from there.”

Denver has a clear need and also sat out free agency on the quarterback front so far. Declined to make a trade or add to Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci in any capacity, for that matter.

Not because they’re satisfied with the picture at the game’s most important position, though. In some ways, it’s just the opposite.

“We were involved. We talked about all these quarterbacks,” Paton said. “Some just weren’t great fits for what we’re trying to do. We didn’t just want to add one to add one. Then you multiply your problem.”

The No. 1 goal of this offseason is not to find a quarterback.

It’s to find the quarterback.

That guy might end up coming to them at No. 12 or by trading back. On the other hand, the Broncos might have to go get him. And in that case, Payton sounded Monday like a coach ready and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure it happens.

In that regard, Payton and Paton showed their hand Monday. They’ve been showing it for weeks, really.

They think the quarterback answer is in the draft. They’ve got a month to figure out how to land the plane. Nervy times, but Payton said there’s no reason for panic.

“I would rather the angst be now rather than in September or October,” he said.

More takeaways from Monday:

The draft cycle never stops

Sean Payton: “I wasn’t at J.J. (McCarthy)’s pro day but we had a private the next day. We sent him a bunch of information, spent four or five hours with him, and made him throw all over again. It’s all part of the process and it can help lead to a more efficient and more effective position.”

Analysis: Payton was talking about his pre-draft process when he dropped this note about a private workout with the Michigan quarterback.

The Broncos coach hasn’t been spotted at the pro days so far for USC’s Caleb Williams, Oregon’s Bo Nix or South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, either, but you can bet he’s spending time with most or all of them. Same for the upcoming pro days for North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels.

It would be a complete, stone-cold stunner if Denver convinced Chicago to move off No. 1 overall and only slightly less surprising if the Bears took anybody besides Williams. After that, though, Payton shouldn’t be counted out. That’s clear by the multi-hour meeting with McCarthy, who is widely considered to be a likely top-eight pick and maybe a trade-up target as high as No. 4.

What’s less clear is Payton’s intention in bringing up McCarthy. It’s lying season in the NFL. So is this a true love story? Is it a disinformation campaign? Or is it just a coach giving an honest-to-goodness example as a way of shedding some light on the way he likes to evaluate draft prospects?

Departures necessary, but sting

Payton: “It’s difficult, especially with someone like Justin (Simmons) who’s really been a first-class player for the organization, someone that I know is respected highly in our league and certainly by us as coaches. That was difficult. That’s the hard part of this job sometimes. That wasn’t any fun.”

Analysis: The coach made it clear that releasing safety Justin Simmons and losing center Lloyd Cushenberry to free agency were essentially financially related decisions. That’s the reality of where the Broncos are at this point, especially with the decision to “take the medicine” as Payton said, and put $53 million of Russell Wilson’s dead money on the 2024 books.

Cushenberry, in particular, stung the coach, though he said he was happy to see the center land a four-year deal in Tennessee worth up to $50 million. Payton, though, said Denver would have “extended ourselves” to keep him if the team didn’t feel good about Alex Forsyth and Luke Wattenberg as potential replacements.

The Broncos are clearly making a point to get their books in order while they’re dealing with the fallout of Wilson’s contract, and that at least played a factor in the decision not to retain a pair of key contributors from the past several years. In fact, CEO Greg Penner essentially said as much.

“We looked at the players we had on the roster and we want to make sure we’re competitive for this coming season, but also for the long-term. We felt like we could take the bigger hit this first year and still be successful and competitive this coming season and then be in an even better position next season. …

“If you’ve got a hard decision, you make the hard decision and you move forward and that’s what we did here.”

Sayonara, Russ

Payton: “(Pittsburgh) is a good opportunity for Russ. First off, they’re a playoff team and a team that wanted to make a change at quarterback. Certainly, he has a chance to be a starter there.”

Analysis: Payton multiple times referenced the impact Wilson will have on the Broncos’ cap situation the next two years. He said he has a “good chance” to be Pittsburgh’s starter. He said a key for Denver offensively in 2024 is to “take fewer sacks” after Wilson was sacked 100 times in 30 starts in the blue and orange.

His first public comments since Wilson’s release weren’t outwardly hostile, but they conveyed the point just fine: Payton’s been ready to move on from Wilson for a while. Now it’s officially done.

Paton, too, addressed Wilson’s departure Monday and took responsibility for the failure of the massive 2022 trade and subsequent $245 million extension.

“We took a shot on a quarterback who had a lot of success in this league,” Paton said. “Nine Pro Bowls and won the most games in his first 10 years in the league. It wasn’t just Russ. There were a lot of contributing factors to why we didn’t win. At the end of the day, we didn’t play good enough offense and we didn’t win enough games. I’m accountable for that. I’ll just leave it at that.

“No one tried harder than Russ to make this work, and we appreciate the effort and professionalism that he showed. Total pro. I wish him the best in Pittsburgh.

“He’s going to a good team and just wish him the best.”

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