The Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos will defend their title with Trevor Siemian as their starting quarterback.
Now, take a moment to let that sink in.
OK, so: The best team in football let its presumed starter leave in free agency for $37 million guaranteed. They traded for a six-year vet with 72 starts and four playoff wins to his name. They traded up and then drafted a quarterback with their first-round pick. And after all that, they’re rolling with a former seventh-round pick whose only meaningful contribution as a professional football player is the one time he got under center and took a knee.
You’re probably asking yourself, “How the hell did that happen?” We were wondering the same thing.
Where Did He Come From?
A pro-style quarterback out of Orlando, Florida, Siemian arrived at Northwestern in 2011 as a three-star recruit. After seeing limited action as a freshman, he was a part-time starter — the “1B,” not backup — splitting reps in that rare two-quarterback system with Kain Colter his sophomore and junior seasons. (He was used more as a passer, and Colter was more of an option runner.) Siemian didn’t fully take the reins until his senior year, when he started 11 games before tearing his ACL in the second to last game of the season. He finished his career a 59 percent passer with 27 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in 14 starts. Those numbers don’t really scream NFL player — let alone NFL starter.
When NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks recently polled five NFL personnel evaluators to get a sense of what they thought of Siemian in the run-up to the 2015 draft, three admitted that they hadn’t even bothered to write up scouting reports on him. NFL.com’s Draft Profile on Siemian is equally as illuminating, listing just his height and weight.
Siemian wasn’t high up on a lot of draft boards, but Broncos GM John Elway took him in the seventh round with the 250th pick. It was a surprise selection, not least all of all to Siemian himself, who said he “didn’t really expect to be drafted.”
How Do You Replace Peyton Manning?
After Manning retired, Elway let Brock Osweiler walk after the Texans offered four years and $72 million. That left Denver empty-handed, as Siemian, who had served as Denver’s backup for chunks of 2015 as Manning dealt with a foot injury, seemed like nothing more than an afterthought for much of the offseason. This felt especially true when the Broncos traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Eagles for Mark Sanchez in March, then drafted Paxton Lynch out of Memphis with the 26th pick in April’s draft.
But through OTAs and into the start of preseason, Siemian emerged as a real option for the starting job. Sanchez and Siemian were supposedly “neck and neck,” with the rookie Lynch trailing behind. Sanchez and Siemian traded starts over the first two weeks of the preseason. Two games in, Sanchez acquitted himself fairly well, completing 67 percent of his passes for 219 yards and one touchdown on 30 attempts, but he did turn the ball over three times. Siemian fared about as well as a passer, completing 65 percent of his passes for 163 yards and an interception, but did a better job of taking care of the ball, so head coach Gary Kubiak gave him the start in the crucial third-game “dress rehearsal” against the Rams. Siemian completed 10 of 17 passes for 122 yards with a touchdown and a pick, and that was enough to seal the deal.
What Are His Starter Qualities?
The raw stats don’t explain how Siemian separated himself. Instead, a litany of statements from Kubiak and his teammates about Siemian’s intangible “it” factor show why the Broncos went with the inexperienced second-year pro over a guy who has two AFC championship game starts under his belt.
Here’s Kubiak: “Trevor is in command of what we do, how we do it, what we want to get done.”
Here’s running back C.J. Anderson: “You look at him and go, ‘There’s just something about that kid that makes you want to go play for him.’”
And here’s wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders: “Even when he comes into the huddle, he’s always the same guy. I remember when he first came in, I said, ‘You remind me of (Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers in the way that he goes about his business.’”
Outside of the supposed command, poise, and leadership qualities in the huddle, there were a few subtle, tangible things that Siemian did to earn the starting job, too.
First, there’s his ability to manipulate the defense with his eyes. Against the Rams, Siemian looked the deep safeties off by keeping his eyes on what looked to be a developing screen play to Anderson on the left wing. At the last second, he shifted his eyes right, where Demaryius Thomas had separated downfield after running a stop-and-go route.
Siemian has a smooth, easy throwing motion, and the ball comes off his hand in a tight spiral; it almost glides. As Sanders put it, “he throws a very catchable ball,” and just look again at how easily Thomas made the one-handed grab despite his arm being held.
In that same game, Siemian threw a touchdown pass to tight end Virgil Green on a play-action fake. On the replay, you can see how the defense is affected by Siemian’s gaze to the right; they freeze. By the time he comes back to his left and throws to Green, the Rams defenders are well out of position.
During the three preseason games, Siemian was also impressive in how he attacked the middle of the field. He frequently targeted Denver’s other receivers on high-risk slants and routes up the seams. Against the Bears in his first game, Siemian was decisive in hitting Cody Latimer on a quick slant.
Throughout the preseason, Siemian made a few impressive throws to the outside, too. In a key third-and-5 against the 49ers on August 20, he hit Jordan Norwood on an out route — a throw that required precision ball-placement and velocity.
This back-shoulder fade against the Bears shows why sometimes the stat lines don’t always tell the whole story. Siemian hit Bennie Fowler with a strike, right at the pylon, only for a late swat by the defender to jar the ball loose. It’s a perfect throw that gets registered as an incompletion.
This pass against the Rams hints at some of the chemistry he’s developed with his receivers. Thomas ran his out route, similar to the Norwood route above, and Siemian released the ball before Thomas even turned his head.
Despite some impressive moments throughout the preseason, the expectations around Siemian are rightfully low. Then again, so is the bar that Manning and Osweiler set last year. The duo threw a collective 19 touchdown passes in 2015 (28th in the NFL), tossed 23 picks (worst in the league), completed 60.7 percent of their passes (25th), and their 76.3 quarterback rating was the second-worst in the league. It’s not inconceivable that Siemian could put up better numbers than what Denver got from its quarterbacks last season.
That’s what Denver’s counting on in the short term, and while Siemian has no game experience and is not the big, rifle-armed passer teams typically look for as their starter, he does have a strong enough arm to make all the throws required in Denver’s offense, is athletic enough to operate the Broncos’ bootleg game, and has shown he can take care of the football. He represents a high-floor, low-ceiling bridge to Lynch, who will need some time to acclimate to the Broncos offense and learn the playbook after running an up-tempo spread system under Justin Fuente at Memphis. Until Lynch develops into an above-average quarterback — or they find a different one — the Broncos will lean on their Super Bowl-winning formula: keeping the score manageable with their elite defense, while asking Siemian to manage the hell out of the game offensively. He’ll hand the ball off to his running backs, he’ll protect the football, and every once in a while, he’ll throw a ball downfield.