Reports are that Peyton Manning will return to the Broncos in 2015. But with Manning set to be in his final year of his contract and set to be 39 years old by the start of the 2015 NFL season, the end is in sight for Manning’s career: All signs point to 2015 being his final regular season.
The Broncos will remain in “win-now” mode for the 2015 season, but they’ll be considering (and have been) options for the post-Manning era. Will they look on the roster, into 2015 free agency, or consider NFL Draft options this year?
On the Roster: Osweiler Still in the Plans?
In 2012, the Colts and Broncos boldy made changes to their quarterback positions. The Colts moved on from Peyton Manning in favor of Andrew Luck. The Broncos won the Manning lottery, and drafted Brock Osweiler 56 picks after Andrew Luck.
Expected to be groomed behind Peyton throughout the duration of his three-year contract, Osweiler immediately drew developmental comparisons to Aaron Rodgers, who sat behind Brett Favre in Green Bay. Coming out of Arizona State, Osweiler had remarkable size (6’8), flashes of top-end arm strength, and a basketball background that spoke to his potential running ability. While the second round seemed a bit high for him on draft day, the fact that he could become a “blank slate” of talent for three years behind one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
However, Osweiler has yet to win over people within the Broncos organization. As I’ll elaborate on later, the Broncos nearly traded up in the 2014 draft for a top quarterback prospect. Denver likely was hoping Osweiler would force their hand at some point to move on from Peyton Manning, but he’s been a far cry from that.
No matter what, he’ll be in the final year of his rookie deal after this season, so he’ll have the opportunity to battle with whomever they bring in to challenge him, and he’ll have the incumbent value of learning behind Manning and having a full year in the offense. But as of now, he doesn’t appear to be the clear heir apparent.
It’s also interesting to keep in mind Zac Dysert, a 2013 seventh round pick who, despite lingering on the practice squad, has reportedly made strides his last two off-seasons. He’s not expected to be in the mix this year, but there’s an outside chance he’s shown enough promise for the team to be okay with a Dysert-Osweiler battle alone.
In Free Agency: Jake Locker the Leading Option
For the offense Gary Kubiak has tried to utilize his own coaching career, he’s valued quarterback who can move outside the pocket and have plus arm strength to attack vertically. Jake Locker, just 26 years old and coming off his rookie deal in Tennessee, fits that prototype, despite his Titans struggles.
In the 2011 NFL Draft, Mike Shanahan, the offensive mind that sculpted Gary Kubiak’s offensive designs, coveted Jake Locker. But Tennessee surprisingly took him two picks before the Redskins could pick, and Shanahan wasn’t able to get his quarterback fit on his roster.
Now Kubiak has a chance to get the athletic, strong-armed passer to develop his offense for in 2016. Locker, likely the most coveted passer in the free agent market for teams looking for a long-term starter, should have plenty of interest in the market, but he’d be wise to strongly consider the Denver situation, if Kubiak and Elway reciprocate interest.
Outside of Locker, Ryan Mallett and Christian Ponder are also young options for Denver to consider as reclamation projections. Also, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell could be options if the team doesn’t have faith in Brock Osweiler or Zac Dysert to replace Peyton Manning in case he goes down with injury, as this team still has quality playoff talent to make a run even if Manning goes down.
Minor note for the future: Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin and Nick Foles all could be free agents in 2016 if the Broncos punt on free agency options in 2015.
In the Draft: Trade Up a Legitimate Option?
In the 2014 draft, I’m told the Broncos had legitimate interest in trading up for Blake Bortles had he fell past the top few picks, including above the Dallas Cowboys. While they missed out on Bortles in the 2014 draft, they may have the same interest in drafting a top-tier quarterback prospect if one is attainable via trade up.
While Winston’s character background may give them pausing, having Marcus Mariota to develop for a full season behind Peyton Manning with minimal pressure on him initially may be the best situation for both teams.
After Manning, Brett Hundley may intrigue thanks to his upside, and he’ll likely be drafted in the same area that Osweiler was three years earlier. He’s also not a great fit for Kubiak’s system.
Garrett Grayson of Colorado State may be the safer, lower upside pick to learn behind Manning, while Chris Bonner of Colorado State-Pueblo may be the developmental, elite-tools option for the Broncos to groom. Staying in Colorado would be a unique coincidence at the least, and a strong option due to knowledge within the state at best.