Everybody knew the Broncos needed to upgrade at quarterback this offseason. Denver’s starting quarterback in 2018 was Case Keenum, who was dreadful. He finished 29th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt (6.6), 30th in touchdown rate (3.1 percent), and 29th in passer rating (81.2).
But instead of upgrading, general manager John Elway decided to spend tens of millions of dollars to acquire a quarterback who may be a step down from Keenum. On Wednesday, he agreed to trade a fourth-round draft pick to the Ravens in exchange for Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco. Keenum’s stats may be bad, but Flacco’s are worse, and have been for some time. Of the 36 quarterbacks to play in at least 25 games since 2015, Flacco is dead last in yards per attempt, tied for last in touchdown percentage, and 32nd in passer rating. The Broncos will pay him $18.5 million next season, and gave up a draft pick for the right to do so.
Scroll down the list of the 36 QBs to play in at least 25 games since 2015, and you’ll notice something revealing. The Broncos now have had four quarterbacks on that list: Flacco, Keenum, Brock Osweiler, and Trevor Siemian. Not one is ranked among the top 25 in any of the three categories I mentioned. All four are among the bottom 10 in all three.
Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback, has turned out to be awful at finding quarterbacks. This is surprising, because for a while it seemed like he was a brilliant executive. After taking the reins of the franchise for which he played his entire career, Elway instantly turned the Broncos around. His first draft pick, in 2011, was game-changing All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller. A year later, he brought in Peyton Manning as a free agent. After missing the playoffs in each of the five years before Elway became GM, the Broncos made the playoffs in his first five seasons on the job. Three years after Elway took over, Denver reached the Super Bowl. Two years after that, it won the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since Elway’s playing days. The same understanding of the game that made Elway a Hall of Famer on the field apparently allowed him to excel in the front office, identifying the talent that could build a successful franchise.
Since the 2015 season, however, the Broncos have missed three consecutive postseasons, with an increasingly dire situation at football’s most important position. Elway has used high draft picks on quarterbacks; he has traded for quarterbacks; he has signed quarterbacks in free agency. No strategy has worked. During an era when winning games seems to be almost entirely dependent on passing success, this legendary quarterback seems to have lost any feel for how to pinpoint a good quarterback.
Let’s take a look at all of Elway’s quarterback acquisitions since taking over as Broncos GM in 2011. I’ve graded them as hits, mehs, and misses.
Hit: Signing Peyton Freakin’ Manning
There will probably never be a situation analogous to Manning’s 2012 free agency. He was a four-time MVP coming off spine and neck surgery, and his old team, the Colts, had made the bold decision to move forward with no. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck at QB rather than sticking with their franchise hero. The Broncos won a competitive battle to sign Manning—in large part because Manning liked Elway—and, well, it turns out that signing Manning was a good idea. He was named first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons with the Broncos, and turned in the greatest passing season of all time in 2013, setting league records in touchdowns (55) and yardage (5,477).
Elway deserves credit for signing Manning. It’s the crown jewel of his GM tenure. But it’s not like Elway was a visionary for wanting Manning—this was Peyton Freakin’ Manning. Lots of teams wanted Manning, and the Broncos got him in part because Elway is famous. The greatest front-office achievement he has accomplished stems from his being John Elway more than showing any kind of talent-evaluation insight.
Meh: Finding a Non-Disastrous QB in the Seventh Round
Since 2010, 16 quarterbacks have been taken in the seventh and final round of the NFL draft. Most have not panned out. Eleven of those 16 players, including Elway draftees Zac Dysert and Chad Kelly, have yet to throw a pass in an NFL game. Three of the 16 have fewer than 10 career attempts. One, Greg McElroy, started a single game, when he bypassed Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow on the Jets depth chart going into a 2012 matchup against the San Diego Chargers. McElroy was sacked 11 times in that contest, and New York lost 27-17.
And then there is Trevor Siemian, drafted by Elway in 2015. Siemian has started a whopping 24 games, winning 13 of them. He’s not just the best seventh-round QB of the decade—he’s essentially the only seventh-round QB to have played meaningful snaps in the league.
I don’t know how Elway managed to identify Siemian as a potential NFL starting quarterback. Trust me—I went to Northwestern, where Siemian played, while Siemian was in school. I watched him fall on his butt to lose a game against Michigan; I wouldn’t have used a 13th-round draft pick to take him. Somehow, Elway recognized pro-caliber talent in a player who threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (seven) as a senior.
But then again, Siemian has been bad in the NFL—on the aforementioned list of the 36 quarterbacks, Siemian ranks 32nd in yards per attempt, tied for 30th in touchdown rating, and 34th in passer rating. Siemian has far outperformed the average seventh-round draft pick, but perhaps the noteworthy part of his stint on the Broncos isn’t that he performed well for a seventh-rounder, but that Elway’s roster was so QB-deficient that he needed to start a guy recently picked in the final round of the draft.
Miss: The Brock Osweiler Era
Osweiler was the first quarterback Elway ever drafted, and he has one defining trait: He’s tall. At 6-foot-7, Osweiler is tied for being the tallest quarterback to play in the NFL this millennium.
The Broncos selected Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 draft and put him on the bench for three years behind Manning. Brock’s name was finally called in 2015, when Manning got injured, and he looked decent, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt and throwing more touchdown passes (10) than interceptions (six). Most importantly, the Broncos won five of the seven games in which he played, securing a playoff spot while their franchise quarterback was on the mend.
Since then, Osweiler’s career has been a joke. The Texans signed him to a four-year, $72 million deal in 2016 and immediately had buyer’s remorse, after Osweiler failed to prove himself superior to Tom Savage. The Texans traded him to the Browns the following March in a rare NBA-style salary dump, and Cleveland paid him $16 million to not play. Just a year after letting Osweiler walk, Elway signed him again in 2017. He started four games that season, going 0-4 with as many touchdowns as interceptions while averaging a hideous 5.6 yards per attempt—a number that would’ve been worst in the league if he’d thrown enough passes to qualify. (The actual worst in the league: Flacco, at 5.7.)
At first, it looked like the Broncos got a decent return on their second-round selection of Osweiler. He rarely played, because the team had Manning, but when he did the Broncos won games. Upon leaving Denver, he signed a meaty contract.
But it’s clear that Osweiler has been one of the worst quarterbacks in recent league memory: On that now-famous list of the 36 quarterbacks to play in at least 25 games since 2015, Osweiler ranks 35th in yards per attempt and passer rating, and dead last in touchdown rate. Given the caliber of quarterbacks left on the board when Osweiler was taken—Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, and Kirk Cousins—it’s clear Elway whiffed by drafting Osweiler.
Miss: Drafting Paxton Lynch
Lynch was the first quarterback Elway selected with a first-round pick, and he has one defining trait: He’s tall. Remember when I said that Osweiler was tied for being the tallest quarterback to play in the NFL this millennium? Well, he’s tied with Lynch, who is also 6-foot-7. Elway has a thing for tall dudes. Maybe he’s convinced that their height combined with Denver’s altitude allows these quarterbacks to throw from higher release points than anybody in the history of the game, leading to more power than other GMs could imagine. Regardless, Elway really liked Lynch, agreeing to send the Seahawks first- and third-round picks to trade up to take him no. 26 overall in the 2016 draft.
Lynch has been a bust. There have been 53 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2000, and 50 of them have spent at least one season starting more than half their team’s games. One of the three exceptions is Lamar Jackson, who will start for the Ravens this year following Flacco’s departure. One is Johnny Manziel, who started eight games for the Browns but was cut due to substance-use issues. The third is Lynch, who started just four games for the Broncos before being cut prior to the 2018 season. Over his two-plus years in Denver, he was passed on the depth chart by two seventh-rounders (Siemian and Kelly), as well as Osweiler. In 2018 the team decided to carry career backup Kevin Hogan instead of keeping Lynch around.
It’s exceedingly rare for a team to cut a first-round pick after just two years, especially at quarterback. Normally teams try to keep first-round picks on their roster for all four years of their rookie contracts, as these deals are both team-friendly and fully guaranteed. The Broncos owed Lynch just $3.2 million for the 2018 season and $1.3 million for the upcoming 2019 season and had to pay him that money regardless of whether he was on the roster. But apparently he was so distressingly bad that the Broncos refused to keep him on the 53-man roster.
Think about every famous quarterback draft bust of the past 20 years. Jake Locker! Christian Ponder! Matt Leinart! JaMarcus Russell! The teams that drafted these guys all got more value from their first-round draft picks than the Broncos did from Lynch. Unlike every other bust, who got the opportunity to go on the field and prove why they were bad picks, the Broncos never even got to the point when they felt comfortable putting Lynch in the game. It’s one thing to miss on a first-rounder; it’s another thing to self-diagnose that the first-rounder you just picked is so bad that he’s not even worth a roster spot.
Miss: Signing Case Keenum
Keenum had a wonderful season for the Vikings in 2017, and it was clear that a team would bring him in as a starting quarterback in 2018. Still, it was immediately evident that the Broncos overpaid by handing him a two-year, $36 million contract last March. Keenum’s breakout campaign in 2017 was an outlier compared with the other five years of his career, and was buoyed by an excellent Minnesota receiving corps and offensive line. The Broncos paid him like he had a consistent history of success, and as if they had similar weapons to catch and block for him.
Keenum, as you know, regressed to the mean in 2018. The Broncos owe him $18 million in 2019, $7 million of which is guaranteed.
Miss: This Flacco Thing Probably Won’t Pan Out
Fun story: Immediately after the Broncos traded for Flacco on Wednesday, I Googled “John Elway” while researching this article. I swear to you, the top News result was this Fansided article from two days prior, entitled “Three quarterbacks John Elway absolutely must avoid.” No. 3, of course, was Flacco. “Out of the three options that I want the Denver Broncos to avoid at the quarterback position,” Andrew Wade wrote, “Joe Flacco is undoubtedly the one I want them to avoid the most.” Sure, this was just one fan’s opinion, not a league consensus or prediction. But I couldn’t help but feel remarkably sad reading these words merely four minutes after Flacco had been traded to the Broncos.
We’ve already outlined that Flacco has not been good at quarterback. (On the plus side, he is 6-foot-6. I hope the Broncos keep Elway employed for another decade, just to see how long it’ll take him to sign Shawn Bradley.) I suppose the Broncos are hoping that Flacco will suddenly strike the same gold he mined during Baltimore’s run to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. But the Ravens had hoped for that for years and instead got a steady dose of league-worst production out of their quarterback. Baltimore signaled that it was giving up on Flacco last year, when it grabbed Lamar Jackson in the first round of the draft and saw an immediate improvement upon naming Jackson its starting QB. And that’s when Elway decided to buy in. Flacco is 34 years old. What we’ve seen is what we’ll get. And what we’ve seen, to put it nicely, sucks.
But what makes the trade particularly brutal is the salary situation. Flacco will cost Denver $18.5 million this year. If the Broncos choose to keep both Flacco and Keenum, they’ll pay $36 million for two bad quarterbacks in 2019. If they cut Keenum, they’ll still owe him $7 million, and if they trade Keenum, they’ll lose $10 million in cap space due to his $10 million dead cap hit. If they cut Flacco, they won’t owe him anything—the $60 million-plus on his contract is unguaranteed—but then they will have traded a draft pick for nothing. That’s probably what the Broncos should do. Trading a draft pick for nothing is Denver’s best-case scenario.
There seems to be no argument that Elway’s quarterback background makes him qualified to evaluate other quarterbacks. The best thing he has done in that capacity is be famous enough to convince Peyton Manning to sign in Denver. That helped bring the Broncos a Super Bowl, a win that will probably ensure that Elway’s legacy as an executive will be viewed as a positive regardless of what else happens. What would we be saying about his post-playing career if Manning hadn’t wanted to hang out with him?