INDIANAPOLIS — George Paton became an expert in interviewing this offseason after an exhaustive coaching search. He believes he found the right man to energize the Broncos in Nathaniel Hackett.
The pair provided a jolt of hope and perspective Tuesday when meeting the media at the NFL combine. Hackett has carved out a unique path for the Broncos, embracing technology, diversity and authenticity. Paton has made few missteps since taking over, nailing his first draft with six impact players, including standouts Patrick Surtain II and Javonte Williams.
The positive steps only underscore the difficult challenge facing the Broncos. They appear to be doing a lot of things well. But until they address the quarterback position in a meaningful way, skeptics remain. Every division winner last season featured the best quarterback. The Broncos have used 11 starters since Peyton Manning and are actively seeking a 12th to end the madness, keeping all options open.
"Obviously quarterback is huge. You need one to get where you need to go. It’s on our mind a lot," Paton said Tuesday. "We know, we hear it. But, we don't need to hear it. We know how important it is.”
Paton will cast a wide net, while not ruling out last year's starters Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. Lock remains under contract, so he could serve as a backup plan or be a part of a competition for the job. Bridgewater, who posted a 7-7 record last season, is a free agent.
"I think it’s always a priority. We’re always looking. No stone unturned to find that guy," Paton said. "We know we need better play out of the quarterback position. So we’re going to be aggressive.”
Paton and Hackett are working together to address the issue. That means looking in all directions. Acquiring Aaron Rodgers would camouflage more blemishes than Revlon. However, the sense at the combine is that Rodgers will remain in Green Bay, with Packers GM Brian Gutekunst saying Tuesday there was was no update and that he "hopes" Rodgers makes a decision by March 16, when free agents can officially sign.
The team is expected to monitor Russell Wilson's situation in Seattle. Baker Mayfield could be on the move if Cleveland finds an upgrade, and Kirk Cousin's status remains interesting in Minnesota even with Mike Zimmer gone. The 49ers are expected to trade Jimmy Garoppolo, despite ESPN reporting that the veteran will undergo shoulder surgery that will sideline him until the summer. Gardner Minshew has one year remaining on his contract with the Eagles, and owns an impressive career touchdown to interception ratio (41-13).
The free agent market remains underwhelming, though the buzz at the combine is that Mitchell Trubisky — Washington anyone? — and Marcus Mariota will receive plenty of interest on the open market.
That leaves the draft. This is not considered the best year to stink. However, one or two from this class will blossom. The question remains - is that Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, the most pro ready, Liberty's Malik Willis, North Carolina's Sam Howell, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder or Nevada's Carson Strong?
Hackett knows what he wants in a quarterback — intelligence, toughness and accuracy. And, well, other stuff.
"Whenever you’re talking to a quarterback, you’re always looking for that ‘it’ factor. That’s always so important because you want a quarterback that when he’s out there, he’s going to make other people better around him. You’re trying to find that in different techniques and different things to see how he presents himself in front of a group of a lot of people that he doesn’t know for the first time," Hackett said.
"I want to make him feel a little uncomfortable, but at the same time, have a little fun. In the end, it’s about that intelligence to be able to get out there and process quickly because it’s the hardest position in all sports, in my opinion. I mean, it’s unbelievable. You want to be sure you make the right decision there.”
The Broncos feature other wrinkles that must be ironed out. Paton identified multiple needs, including right tackle, pass rusher, and secondary depth. This is considered a strong draft for right tackles and edge rushers.
With the coaching staff in place, the Broncos microwaved their meetings, going over their current roster, potential fits in free agency — the legal tampering period begins March 14 — while sharing initial impressions of the draft class.
Paton has interest in bringing many of his own free agents back.
On Melvin Gordon, who owns 20 touchdowns in 31 games with Denver:
“We think Javonte [Williams] is ready to do whatever — full workload, shared carries. I think Melvin and Javonte really complemented each other well. Melvin was a total pro with Javonte, and I know Javonte appreciated that relationship. I’ve had really good discussions with Melvin. We’d like to have him back. We still think he’s a really good back. I think you need two or three runners in this league. They’re going to get nicked. It’s a tough position."
On the inside linebacker position:
"It’s pretty unique. We have three guys who are unrestricted. Josey Jewell, ‘A.J.’ (Alexander) Johnson and Kenny Young. So all really good guys, starters in this league. They’re proven that. They all finished the season injured. But we like them all. We’d love to bring them all back. We can’t. So we’re going to discuss with their agents this week of where they stand."
On the outside linebacker position and faith Bradley Chubb will bounce back:
"With the edge rushers, kind of like corners, you can’t have enough. You need to pressure the quarterback in this league. I do think we have some really good, young players with Jonathon Cooper, (Stephen) Weatherly is out of contract, Malik Reed, obviously we have Chubb. But, you just can’t have enough. I think there’s some talented ones in free agency, and I think there’s a lot of depth in the draft. ... I’m very confident in Bradley. He had two minor— they weren’t minor to him —but he had two minor surgeries on the foot. That held him back. He was never healthy. Going into the offseason, this is the first time Bradley is going to be healthy in, I believe, three years. When he’s healthy, we all know he can play at a Pro Bowl level. I’m really excited. I really respect Bradley fighting through the injuries and finishing strong."