INDIANAPOLIS — Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett might be green in his new position, but he showed enough veteran poise to parry the first quarterback-specific question he received on Tuesday.
As in one from the gold and green. Yes, as in his former protégé, Aaron Rodgers.
“I’m just happy to be a Bronco right now,” Hackett said with a smile at the 2022 NFL scouting combine. “We’ll evaluate everything as we go.”
But the team’s quarterback situation — something Hackett was tasked with fixing when he was hired — appears to be a big part of the evaluation process to this point, just a few weeks shy of the start of free agency.
Or, in Broncos terms, QB-acquisition season.
“I think it’s always a priority,” Broncos GM George Paton said of the position the franchise has failed to secure for the long term since Peyton Manning walked away after Super Bowl 50. “It’s the most important position in sports, and so we’re always looking.
“We do have Drew Lock under contract, we have Brett (Rypien), but we’re always looking and we’re gonna leave no stone unturned to find that guy. We know we need better play out of the quarterback position. And so we’re going to be aggressive.”
Paton used the word “aggressive” multiple times during his session with media, even if the question didn’t.
“We’re always going to be aggressive,” Paton said. “But we’re going to be disciplined.”
One year ago the Los Angeles Rams were aggressive in targeting Matthew Stafford to solve their QB conundrum, and that paid off in a big way as Stafford led the team to a Super Bowl title in his first season in L.A.
The Broncos do not find themselves in the same position as the Rams were in a year ago. But the Broncos do have two big assets: salary-cap space and draft-pick ammunition.
Denver has the sixth-most cap space in the league, at just over $38 million, via Over The Cap. The Broncos also have 11 draft picks, including five in the first three rounds.
Paton indicated that he feels unencumbered to move in whatever direction he needs to find the team’s best option — even if that’s not Rodgers.
“We’re always willing to move up, willing to move back,” Paton said, “so we do have that flexibility. And we always like that flexibility.”
They might need that flexibility in case Rodgers or other big-name quarterbacks who were thought to possibly be available … just aren’t. As Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson wrote this week, many of the Packers’ moves to this early point in the offseason lean more toward Rodgers being back in Green Bay than not.
Still, the longer we go without Rodgers clarifying his stance, the better the chances of a trade materializing.
There’s always the draft route
Even so, the Broncos are here at the combine to evaluate the QB draft options — whether that’s their preferred method of securing a starter or not — continuing on from what they saw at the Senior Bowl.
The Broncos might not have much of a choice in the matter. If the veteran route doesn’t produce the desired target, the draft might be the last vestige of hope for the 2022 season.
“It’s another step of the process,” Paton said of the combine helping sort the quarterbacks. “You know, we’ll sit down with all of them (and) obviously watch them compete with other really good quarterbacks.
“I like this class. It’s an interesting class. You have, you know, five or six talented guys, and they’re all different. And so we just really need to hone down and sort out the stack and and see what’s best for the Denver Broncos. If we go that direction …”
Paton seemed to be tipping his hand just a bit. The “if we go that direction” felt like a heavy hedge. The feeling is that the combination of the desire to make the most of an otherwise-talented roster and the Broncos’ past QB draft misses (even if they didn’t come on Paton’s watch) would push the likelihood of Denver seeking a veteran much higher.
Hackett was asked what qualities are most important in a quarterback in his eyes. His answer focused on a few key elements: How fast and how well do they process information? How tough are they, both mentally and physically? How much physical talent do they possess? And, as a bonus, Hackett threw in how athletic the quarterback is — not a necessity in his eyes, but it’s nice to have.
“Really those are the big things that we look for in a quarterback,” he said. “A lot of other things kind of go into it, but that’s kind of the overview.”
This is a coach who has seen just about the full spectrum at the position, coaching eventual bust E.J. Manuel in his first offensive coordinator position, coaxing out just about every drop of talent from Blake Bortles in Hackett’s second OC job, and then winning over Rodgers, a two-time MVP on Hackett’s watch, the past three seasons in Green Bay.
Hackett knows he had a special QB in Rodgers, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to help pry him loose. As badly as the Broncos coach might want to reunite with Rodgers, he also seemed resigned to settle in for a longer, tougher hunt if needed.
“I think it’s just one of those kinds of never-ending sagas that we all have on how to find a great quarterback,” Hackett said.