With quarterback talk dominating most of the Broncos storylines this season, another discussion has flown under the radar. The Broncos have developed a very nice young core of players to build around.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton, running back Phillip Lindsay, offensive lineman Dalton Risner, edge rusher Bradley Chubb and, yes, tight end Noah Fant have all given Broncos Country reasons to be excited for the future of the team.
What should excite the Broncos organization and fans alike is that these five cornerstone players are all currently on rookie contracts. It is a luxury to have your top talent playing on the cheap.
With the way the Broncos are handling their roster and the quarterback situation, they may never realize the full potential of the opportunity placed in front of them. The Broncos need to be acting with a higher sense of urgency.
One reason the Broncos achieved such high levels of success in 2013 and 2015 was because a good number of their major contributors were playing under their rookie contracts.
We’ve also seen the Broncos completely mishandle a young talented group of players playing on their first contract.
In the 2006 offseason, the Broncos had one of the most-talented drafts in team history. That year’s crop of rookies included quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, tight end Tony Scheffler, edge rusher Elvis Dumervil and offensive lineman Chris Kuper.
The rookie pay scale didn’t exist in 2006, but given where the Broncos found value on these players, they were all signed to team friendly deals.
With five games remaining in the 2006 season, head coach Mike Shanahan benched starting quarterback Jake Plummer in favor of Cutler. The rookie would start the final five games of the 2006 season. He finished with record 2-3, while throwing nine touchdowns to three interceptions. Not bad for a rookie.
Cutler would start the entire 2007 season. The defense was atrocious, but the team finished with the seventh-ranked offense in the NFL. Cutler had a decent first season as a full-time starter with 20 touchdowns to 14 interceptions and throwing for 3,497 yards. Marshall exploded that season with 102 receptions, 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns. Dumervil would register 12.5 sacks. Scheffler caught 49 receptions for 549 yards and five touchdowns. And Kuper started 11 out of 16 games on the offensive line.
Due to the bad play of the defense and the offense still growing, the team finished 7-9. But the second-year players were beginning to shine.
Then came the 2008 season.
The Broncos offense finished second in the NFL. Cutler had his only Pro Bowl season, throwing for 25 touchdowns to 18 interceptions and 4,256 yards. Marshall was again outstanding with 104 receptions, 1,256 yards and six touchdowns. Scheffler finished with 40 receptions for 645 yards. Kuper started all 16 games. In addition to these three players, the Broncos had major contributions from three rookies – left tackle Ryan Clady, wide receiver Eddie Royal and fullback / running back Peyton Hillis.
Dumervil was part of the Broncos 29th-ranked defense in 2008 and was only able to sack the quarterback five times. The defense let the offense down and combined with injuries would lead to the Broncos downfall late that season.
The Broncos famously blew a 8-5 record and finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. With Cutler, Marshall, Scheffler, Clady, Royal and Hillis all playing on their rookie deals, the Broncos simply needed to fix their defense and were potentially a Super Bowl Contender in 2009.
Individually, these were really good players. But together, they had potential to be really special.
The 2009 season should have been the next step for this young group. Instead, they never played together again.
Head coach and general manager Mike Shanahan was fired after 2008 and was replaced by Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels famously feuded with Cutler and traded him to the Bears during the 2009 offseason. Following the 2009 season, Marshall, Sheffler and HIllis were traded. Royal regressed under McDaniels. The young offense that once looked like the future of the franchise was gone.
Only Clady, Kuper and Dumervil would receive second contracts with the Broncos. Clady and Dumervil, while great players, both had big contracts that essentially backfired on the team.
The Broncos organization completely squandered this incredibly talented core. They were all on rookie contracts. During the 2009 offseason they simply needed to add talent on defense as the offense looked ready to continue what they started in 2009.
Cutler, Marshall, Scheffler, Hillis and Royal were on their way to becoming great Broncos. Now, they are nothing more than footnotes in the team history.
It’s starting to look the Broncos will be unable to take advantage of the young nucleus they’ve built with Lindsay, Sutton, Risner, Fant and Chubb. Like 2008, all five players are on their first contract.
This makes the Broncos delaying of practicing and starting Drew Lock all the more puzzling. The team should be scrambling to learn everything they can about the rookie quarterback to take advantage of this closing window they have.
At best, this core will be together under rookie contracts for 2020 and 2021. Best-case scenario, the offense starts coming together in 2021. At that point, however, the Broncos will have to start paying their young playmakers, thus missing their window.
The difference between Lock and Cutler is that Cutler wasn’t a question mark. He was ready to go as a rookie, the team believed in him and he was absolutely the future of the franchise. The Broncos current staff didn’t have enough confidence in Lock to let him practice.
If Lock is not the guy, they need to know by the end of Week 17. If he’s not the guy, they can look to draft one of the top quarterback prospects. With so much young talent not costing the team a huge chunk of the salary cap, the team should look to free agency to fill holes (offensive line).
That’s a lot to ask of this organization, which has struggled with both drafting and free agency.
In the end, it looks like too little too late for this opportunity. By the time the quarterback situation is figured out, it will be time to re-up Sutton and Lindsay. Things change so much in the NFL. When that time comes, it may not be worth extending either player. Keep in my mind, they will have to be looking at re-signing Chubb at this time, as well.
Shortly after Sutton, Lindsay and Chubb, it will be time for the team to make decisions on Fant and Risner. The Broncos are just too far off for this to work.
The Broncos are already watching their window close with Justin Simmons. Simmons has really emerged this season as a top player in the NFL. His contract is up at the end of the season and the Broncos have had zero success with Simmons while he was at his cheapest.
Now, they must decide if they are willing to pay Simmons top dollar. The flip side is Simmons has to decide if he wants to continue to play in Denver. He may want to go to a winning team.
Simmons is a great player and the Broncos have nothing to show for it.
When these current Broncos standouts were drafted to the team, the hope was they would be like the players of 2013 and 2015 and contribute to a great run of success. Instead, this current group will end up like the 2008 team, a big missed opportunity.
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