Say it out loud: The Broncos drafted a cornerback in the first round.
It almost sounds like “quarterback” doesn’t it?
Denver’s been quarterback-needy ever since 2015, when Peyton Manning went on a drastic decline health-wise. Since then, they’ve had too many quarterbacks to name, and while they may have two starters on the roster currently, they don’t have one.
That is, the Broncos don’t have “the guy.” The star. The unquestioned leader for 2021 and into the future.
In the hours before the draft kicked off on Thursday night, rumors floated around that Aaron Rodgers was fed up with the Green Bay Packers and that he narrowed down his next team to three destinations: San Francisco, Las Vegas and Denver.
That ran into the start of the draft, when talks turned cold. Or, never really happened at all.
So Broncos Country got their hopes up for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, only to be disappointed.
Then came the draft.
The first three picks were all quarterbacks, for the first time since 1999. That year, it was Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb (the best of the bunch) and Akili Smith.
This year it’s Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance.
In an instant, the three top quarterbacks were gone.
But for hopeful, long-term quarterback-hungry Denver, there was still hope. As pick after pick came and went, wide receivers and a star tight end and a corner and a lineman, there was Justin Fields.
At No. 9 overall, Fields of Ohio State had an opportunity to be that superstar and long-term solution at the quarterback position for Denver. Instead, George Paton and the Broncos ran the clock out and took Patrick Surtain II, a cornerback out of Alabama.
No doubt about it, Surtain is a should-be star. He’s the best cornerback in the draft, even though Jaycee Horn was taken at No. 8 just ahead of him.
Surtain is 6’2″ so he has the length to defend the taller, No. 1 receivers. And he’s got great instincts, attacking the ball with a quickness. According to NFL.com, Surtain is a Pro Bowl level talent.
At Alabama, he was a shut-down corner in press-man, which is what Vic Fangio ran more of last year. Surtain was a full-time starter for ‘Bama for three years, racking up 24 passes defended and 4 interceptions. He’s a physical tackler against running backs and receivers on screens, even putting up 6.0 tackles for a loss. Plus, Surtain’s dad played in the NFL and has coached him up his entire life.
It’s a possibility that Surtain turns into a perennial All-Pro, a star in his own right.
But the downside is this: He doesn’t have a spot to play this year.
OK, it may not be the biggest deal if he has to sit for a season, but this is a first-round pick we’re talking about here, people. Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, the two legitimate, physical corners will be starting on the outside while Bryce Callahan will be inside for Denver in 2021.
Fuller has been basically an iron man, while Callahan and Darby seem to miss playing time every year due to injury. So, in that way, it’s likely we see Surtain on the field in 2021.
And beyond, both Fuller and Callahan will be free agents after this upcoming season. Meaning Surtain will have his starting spot in 2022.
Surtain is a smart decision at No. 9 overall. In all likelihood, he will be a cornerstone of the Broncos defense for the next decade.
But, right now in 2021, Denver may have the strongest secondary in the entire NFL. With the three aforementioned, veteran cornerbacks teaming up with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, who compliment each other well.
Adding another cornerback was like putting two cherries on top of one sundae and leaving the other bare.
OK, maybe not bare.
George Paton did address the quarterback situation the day before the Draft, trading brilliantly for Teddy Bridgewater and even having the Panthers pay a majority of his contract.
In 2021, either Bridgewater or Drew Lock will be the team’s starting quarterback, leading the best offensive line in the AFC West along with a bevy of young, playmaking receivers, tight ends and running backs. Considering he’s more experienced and more efficient, it seems likely Bridgewater will be the starter this September.
That could turn the Broncos from perennial underachievers to back into the playoffs for the first time since 2015. But, then what?
In terms of the long-term success of the offense and the franchise on the whole, Bridgewater is literally a bridge to…well, we don’t know what. If he beats out Lock, would the Broncos really turn back to Lock in 2022? Or keep rolling the dice on Bridgewater?
Fields is a strong-armed, confident, hard-working, athletically gifted, intelligent quarterback; he’s everything anyone could ever want in a QB. He also played at the highest level college can offer, competing in the National Championship Game against Surtain and ‘Bama.
He may not become a superstar, but Fields has all the makings of one.
Two things can be true at once. The Broncos secured the cornerback of the future in Surtain, and it was a very good pick. But they should have instead taken the quarterback of the future in Fields, because as we’ve seen in Denver and across the NFL landscape, finding a superstar quarterback is more difficult than any other position.
Pro Football Focus agrees, calling Denver a “loser” of the first day of the draft for passing on Fields.