Payton is betting his legacy on being smarter than everyone else

Apr 29, 2024, 4:00 AM

Sean Payton knows more than everyone else in the NFL. Just ask him.

“I think we’ll be really good at this,” the Broncos head coach said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February about evaluating rookie quarterbacks. “And I think to some degree, we’re glad that a lot of people aren’t.”

So it should’ve come as no surprise that Denver stayed at No. 12 in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft and grabbed the sixth quarterback off the board. Payton thinks the other teams missed. And he got it right.

Allegedly, the Broncos got the guy they wanted. Forget about Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye, Michael Penix Jr. or J.J. McCarthy. Denver had their sights on Bo Nix all along.

“We just didn’t want to overthink it,” general manager George Paton said about the pick. “This was our guy. We’re going to take our guy.”

Their guy certainly wasn’t high on everyone’s list. Many people gave Nix a second-round grade. They were scared off by the “Weaknesses” outlined on his draft profile.

• Nearly 30 percent of his passes in 2023 were thrown behind the line of scrimmage, per Pro Football Focus.
• Tends to short-arm throws when blitz is leaking in.
• Decision-making can take a hit when he extends the play.
• Left easy touchdowns on the field due to overthrows.
• Bucket throws will come out a little flat.
• Needs to do a better job of throwing receivers away from coverage.

None of that fazed Payton, however. He was dazzled with Nix’s football IQ. He loved the way the quarterback processed the game.

“Nix is super intelligent,” Payton told Pat McAfee after the first round ended.

A lot of that assessment stemmed from the Broncos workout with Nix in March. They sent the quarterback some play installation the night before. He dazzled the head coach with the way he absorbed the information.

“Man, it was impressive,” Payton told McAfee. “I just remember we got in the car afterwards and I just looked around and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?'”

The coach said all along that he would evaluate QBs on how they processed info.

“If we send him information at 5:00 p.m. the prior day, we send him more than we think they’re going to have a chance to study,” Payton said at the NFL Owners Meeting in early April, two weeks after the team’s meeting with Nix. “How do they handle that? Where’s the break point the next day? Is there one? Do they handle it really well? Do they really struggle? What time are they at the facility? Have they been preparing? Are they early?”

Nix passed all of those tests. As a result, he’s now the Broncos quarterback of the future.

Unfortunately for Denver, the game isn’t played in a classroom. Being a Wednesday Whiteboard Wizard only goes so far. At some point, the QB has to make plays on the field.

Dinking and dunking, as Nix did a lot in college, can only take an offense so far. On third downs and in the red zone, a QB has to be able to make throws into tight windows, off schedule and without the defense guessing between run or pass.

That’s where Nix could struggle. That’s why he wasn’t higher on other team’s draft boards.

A lot of teams looked at him like they have the sixth-best quarterbacks in recent drafts. Over the last 10 years, QB6 hasn’t produced any players worthy of being taken at the No. 12 overall pick. There isn’t a franchise quarterback in the bunch.

2014 – Logan Thomas
2015 – Brett Hundley
2016 – Cody Kessler
2017 – C.J. Beathard
2018 – Mason Rudolph
2019 – Ryan Finley
2020 – Jacob Eason
2021 – Kyle Trask
2022 – Sam Howell
2023 – Stetson Bennett

But Payton knows better. He’s smarter than everyone else.

That’s why he and the Broncos believe they are going to defy history. That’s why they think they can buck convention and find a gem in the sixth quarterback off the board.

The head coach is staking his reputation on it. His legacy will be defined by how he develops Nix.

Turn the QB into a star and Payton will go down as one of the best offensive minds in NFL history. Spend the No. 12 pick on a player that is Sam Howell 2.0 and the coach will have a disastrous stint in Denver.

The Broncos can’t afford to miss on this pick. They’ve already missed the playoffs for eight-straight seasons. They’re currently riding a seven-year stretch of being under .500.

If Nix isn’t the answer at quarterback, those streaks will easily surpass a decade. It’ll be the worst stretch in the history of the franchise, with no end in sight.

Payton certainly doesn’t think that’ll happen. He sees great things for his new QB.

“A lot of comparisons to Drew (Brees),” the head coach said.

The future Hall of Fame quarterback was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001. He was also the second QB off the board, behind only Michael Vick.

There’s certainly a chance that Payton turns Nix into the next Brees. The head coach knows better than anyone else what he needs in order to run his offense at a high level.

But there’s also a chance that he’s a total bust. He could be Josh Rosen 2.0, a first-round quarterback who is so overmatched in the NFL that his team takes another QB in the first round of the next draft.

That’s what one “way-too-early” 2025 mock draft suggests. CBS Sports has the Broncos in the market for a quarterback again next season, projecting Georgia’s Carson Beck to Denver at No. 6 overall.

If that happens, Payton likely won’t be around to try again. The head coach will be coming off a disastrous season, saddled with another year of Russell Wilson dead cap and a young quarterback who can’t play. At that point, he could very well decide that living in Malibu and working one day per week on the FOX set is a pretty nice gig.

That’s how big the stakes are with the Nix pick. The near future of the franchise and the legacy of a Super Bowl-winning head coach are on the line.

Payton thinks he knows better than everyone else. For Broncos Country, as well as the head coach, he better be right.

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Payton is betting his legacy on being smarter than everyone else