The spender and the saver sat next to each other during the NFL Draft in April, smiling at their recent additions and perhaps feeling slightly differently about their capital moving forward.
When the spender, Broncos head coach Sean Payton, asked the saver, general manager George Paton, how much they had left in their draft wallets, Paton noted diligently the checkbook balance: “A pair of sixths.”
Hey, Payton said, you can find, “probably a couple of dishwashers” with that.
Maybe they did in safety JL Skinner and center Alex Forsyth.
But over the past couple of years, big expenditures have taken bites out of Denver’s ability to keep the pantry full.
There’s no one reason it happened. In fact, Paton was at the center of dealing five picks — four of them first- and second-rounders — for Russell Wilson in March 2022. Then he got a first-rounder for Bradley Chubb, and CEO Greg Penner flipped it to New Orleans for the right to hire Payton.
Instead of trading back and perhaps stashing a couple of extra picks, the Broncos traded up twice this April, first for wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. and later for cornerback Riley Moss.
But overall, Denver had just five picks overall after nine (all after the first 63 picks) in 2022.
Skinner and Forsyth, meanwhile, were Day 3 picks a year after the Broncos took Delarrin Turner-Yell and Luke Wattenberg at essentially the same positions in, relatively speaking, a similar part of the draft.
This is the residual impact of having three coaches in as many drafts. Paton has adjusted his scouting eye from Vic Fangio to Nathaniel Hackett to Payton winter by winter by winter, and there is, unavoidably, overlap.
As Paton and Payton prepared for their first draft together, ESPN analyst and former executive Louis Riddick called the constant coaching churn “the worst position you can possibly be put in” for a general manager.
“It’s starting from scratch every single frickin’ time. Every coach is well within their right to come in there and (make changes). I think it would behoove coaches to not just throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and try to salvage whatever they can and not just automatically say, ‘Well, because I wasn’t here when all these guys were picked, they’re all (bad).’ Some coaches do that.”
If you’re looking for reasons for optimism this fall for the Broncos, they’re easy to find. Payton’s track record is night-and-day different from Hackett’s. He’s a Super Bowl champion and knows exactly what he wants, for better or worse. Communicating clear roles and job duties to everybody in the organization makes understanding expectations simpler and exacting accountability cleaner.
Perhaps Wilson bounces back in his second year as a Bronco. Denver’s defense has had injury issues in training camp but looks poised to continue its run of quality play under first-year coordinator Vance Joseph.
If you’re looking at the pitfalls, though, it doesn’t take far past the top line of the roster to find them. At one point in training camp, nearly half the 90-man roster was new to Denver this offseason. They ranged from $87.5 million right tackle Mike McGlinchey to undrafted rookie right tackle Alex Palczewski.
The question isn’t so much about whether the Broncos’ offensive line will be improved with McGlinchey and Ben Powers added to the mix, it’s about what happens when injuries strike again. If Zach Allen misses four games the way he did last year, where does the Broncos’ interior defensive pass-rush come from?
Preseason games don’t count, but the evaluation does. Less concerning than the result of Denver’s first two — last-second scores with reserves on the field for both teams — is what bigger portions of the games looked like.
Unlike practice, teams rarely have personnel matched exactly No. 1s vs. No. 1s, No. 2s vs. No. 2s and so on.
Even still, the Broncos didn’t fare well after their top group finished up work. They gave up 283 yards (234 passing) in the second half to San Francisco after 139 total in the first half. They gave up 203 yards (170 passing) to Arizona in the second half after 106 total in the first half. Each NFC West opponent put 18 second-half points on the board.
Is that indicative of a lack of overall depth for the Broncos? Back-ups getting pushed around by back-ups from one of the NFL’s best teams (San Francisco) and one of its worst (Arizona) in back-to-back weeks?
“It’s a good question,” Payton acknowledged after the game against the 49ers. “You know, it’s two weeks in a row that we’ve given up a drive for a field goal (this week) instead of a touchdown (against Arizona).
“But again … there were a lot of things that I was encouraged by and pleased with.”
Translation: We’ll find out over the coming 18 weeks.
In 2006, Payton got his first coaching job and took over a team that wasn’t very deep. In his initial draft class, he landed RB Reggie Bush, S Roman Harper, G Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief and WR Marques Colston. That’s a heck of a way to bolster depth.
Maybe Denver similarly nailed the 2023 draft and free agency, but at the season’s outset, Payton’s first team looks like a group that must reverse injury fortunes — Denver led the NFL in adjusted games lost in 2022, per Football Outsiders data, and was top-five in 2021 — to have a chance of being in playoff contention in December.
It helps, no doubt, to have a coach like Payton who has built a reputation on maximizing his roster by finding players who can fill specific roles. But best-case scenarios rarely unfurl in the NFL.
When the attrition starts — or, really, continues — in the regular season, will the Broncos have the depth to handle it?
That might just be the difference between the Broncos playing in the postseason or watching it from the couch.
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