George Paton’s steady drafts improve on John Elway’s risky ones

May 4, 2022, 6:04 AM

It’s not a secret that John Elway wasn’t afraid to gamble.

On the football field, the Broncos’ Hall-of-Famer was never afraid to trust his gut, and let his ability take over. His innumerable successes speak for themselves. As the Broncos’ general manager, Elway performed in similar fashion — looking for the big strike — but too often, the successes were outweighed by spectacular failures that robbed the team of valuable depth and contributed to the team’s stunning and unprecedented fall from grace following their victory in Super Bowl 50 following the 2015 season.

New GM George Paton is more deliberate and more measured in his approach, and while the highest highs may eventually turn out to be less frequent than they were under Elway, the early signs indicate that Paton may also have fewer disasters, as well. If that’s true, then the Broncos will soon be well-equipped to become a perennial playoff contender once again.

“John Elway sat by me throughout the draft, every pick we’re about to make; it’s just comforting to have John there and to ask him things,” Paton said after last week’s draft. “He’s been through this so many times. Again, he’s a tremendous sounding board for me.”

Elway, Paton’s boss — on the organizational chart, at least — handled things very differently during his tenure.

“(There are) guys we liked going into the workout, and then their measurables at the workout just kind of confirmed what we thought. They’re just good football players; the numbers will sway it a little bit,” Paton explained, before detailing what he looked for in draft prospects. “These guys are our type of guys. Really good off the field. Incredible on the field (with) incredible football character on the field. We feel like they’re really going to fit in our locker room and help us.”

In his two drafts for the Broncos, Paton’s workmanlike approach to filling holes on the roster, shoring up weak spots and focusing on special teams for late-round round picks stands in stark contrast to his predecessor. Paton wants players that will make that fall’s roster. Elway wanted stars.

Both approaches are reasonable, defensible and viable… for the most part. If you hit on enough would-be stars and develop them properly, your team can possess the game-changing talents that every Super Bowl contender needs. Choosing poorly, however, can leave you with a pick that can’t contribute to your team in any significant fashion; stalling improvement, and sinking your season when injuries inevitably occur.

Elway’s initial draft in 2011 couldn’t have gone much better. Picking second overall for the first time ever, the Broncos landed future Hall-of-Famer Von Miller, safety Rahim Moore, who started for the Broncos (until… well, he didn’t; you know why) and offensive lineman Orlando Franklin with his first three selections. The trio were part of the first 46 picks in the draft, but after that, things got dicey. Elway successfully hit on tight end Julius Thomas — a converted basketball player from Portland State — but his other five selections failed to make an impact. Elway landed his surprise star in Thomas, however, and for a time, that’s all that mattered.

In 2012, Elway nabbed defensive end Derek Wolfe in the second round, and found all-too-brief contributors in quarterback Brock Osweiler and halfback Ronnie Hillman, but neither had lengthy careers in Denver. The draft was salvaged by fifth-round defensive lineman Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan — both major contributors to the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 win — but things got worse from there.

The 2013 draft was a washout; not a single one of Elway’s seven selections made a difference in a Broncos uniform, and in 2014, only first-round cornerback Bradley Roby and sixth-round center Matt Paradis became contributors. In 2015, seventh-round quarterback Trevor Siemien may have proven to be the best selection out of nine picks in that draft.

After four seasons in which the Broncos only landed five significant starters, Elway had to compensate for that lack of depth in free agency, a pricey endeavor that planted the seeds for the post-Super Bowl wasteland that the Broncos would soon wander through.

From 2016 through his final, 2020 draft, Elway landed a handful of stars — safety Justin Simmons (2016), left tackle Garett Bolles (2017) and wide receiver Courtland Sutton (2017) — while other early-round picks like edge rusher Bradley Chubb (2018) and wide receiver K.J. Hamler (2020) have struggled with injury histories that pre-dated their arrival into the NFL.

Of course, two of the top three picks of the 2019 draft — tight end Noah Fant and quarterback Drew Lock — were used as part of the trade package that brought superstar quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver. But it was Paton that made that trade, not Elway.

Paton’s initial, 2021 draft was considered the best in the league by a panel of his peers. Landing immediate starters and stars in cornerback Pat Surtain II and bowling-ball running back Javonte Williams, players like third-round linebacker Baron Browning and fifth-round safety Caden Sterns worked themselves into starting roles when injuries took their toll on the Broncos, but neither looked overmatched. Seventh-rounder Jonathon Cooper made an impact as a rotational edge rusher; a role that he’ll be expected to fill again this fall.

Last week, without a first-round draft choice, thanks to the Wilson deal, Paton’s second draft was even less flashy. Edge rusher Nik Bonitto may be Chubb’s long-term replacement as soon as next spring, and tight end Greg Dulcich will almost certainly become the starter before the end of the upcoming season, if not far sooner. The rest of the Broncos’ draft, however, simply checked off boxes.

Need more defensive backs? Paton picked three. When deceive lineman Shelby Harris was shipped to Seattle in the Wilson trade, the Broncos had opening that Paton filled with pair of picks in the fourth and sixth rounds. Each of those later-round selections will be expected to perform on the Broncos’ long-embattled special-teams units, including fifth-rounder Montrell Washington from tiny Samford, already anointed as the starting return man due to the fact that Denver doesn’t even have anyone on the roster as obvious competition.

The odds that any of Paton’s mid- to late-round selections will become regular starters for the Broncos are low. But they’re even less likely to completely flame out like early-rounders Montee Ball (second, 2014), Shane Ray (first, 2015), Ty Sambrailo (second, 2015), DeMarcus Walker (second, 2017), Carlos Henderson (third, 2017), Brendan Langley (third, 2017) or the unlamented Paxton Lynch (first, 2016) — all Elway selections that focused on each prospect’s potential ceiling instead of their more-possible floor. Each of those misses represents a cost-controlled option that, at the very least, would have provided depth. Paton’s approach isn’t likely to allow such a plethora of problematic picks.

In an NFL that’s lost all patience for developing players, Paton’s methods are more in line with the NFL of 2022, where this year is all that matters. Fortunately for Paton, Wilson’s addition also puts the Broncos squarely into win-now mode. In his second draft, Paton was even more ready to tackle the three-day madhouse than he was last spring.

“The only thing to me that may have been different is I was a little more comfortable this year (because) I’ve been here,” he explained. “I knew the ins and outs, and I knew the scouts much better. I knew all their strengths. I was more comfortable with everything — the setting, the board, the building. I probably didn’t know everyone’s name last year when I was running the draft. I was much more comfortable. Last year was a really good process, but this year, I thought it was better.”

Befitting his unassuming style, it’s no surprise that George Paton is a realist. The Broncos have needed some of that for a long time. “No one hits 100 percent, but we’re going to try.”



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George Paton’s steady drafts improve on John Elway’s risky ones