Broncos, Sean Payton could lure former top-5 pick as backup in 2023

Sayre Bedinger
Denver Broncos; Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) looks to pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Broncos; Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) looks to pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

In the wake of Super Bowl LVII, the top priority for most fans in Broncos Country is not the backup quarterback position. But in the 2023 offseason, that will be a pretty important topic of discussion, even if it takes a bit of a backseat to other positions of need like offensive line, wide receiver, running back, and defensive line.

Russell Wilson, as we all know, is coming off of a season to forget. Especially considering how hyped everyone was to have no. 3 in the building for the Denver Broncos about a year ago, the unmet expectations have “helped” Broncos Country reach a new low in terms of disappointment and downright anger when it comes to the lack of success of the team. Wilson’s down 2022 season was hopefully just an anomaly, and Sean Payton will be tasked with getting him back on track.

But the possibility exists that the Broncos will need a backup plan at quarterback, not just a better backup QB for the time being. They don’t have a first or second-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Not that they would use one on a QB anyway. So where can they invest in the quarterback position? Where can they find this better backup plan at QB?

They can find him in 2023 NFL Free Agency. Over at NFL Spin Zone, I recently wrote about potential landing spots for the top 10 free agent quarterbacks in 2023. The more you look at the list of guys available, and the more you think about the pairing with Sean Payton, the more it makes sense that a former high draft pick could come to Denver on a multi-year deal this offseason to be both Russ’ backup and the team’s backup plan at the position.

But who makes the most sense?

Sean Payton and Sam Darnold joining forces with the Denver Broncos?

Back in the 2018 NFL Draft process, when the New Orleans Saints and Sean Payton weren’t sniffing the top handful of QBs (at the time, Lamar Jackson was considered a fringe first-round pick at best), he gave his honest opinion of the class and what quarterbacks he felt would pan out, essentially. The one guy he thought would be standing five years later? Sam Darnold.

Payton was almost kind of right with his prediction here. Again, nobody was considering Lamar Jackson in this conversation at the time, so the crop of players Payton is referring to here is Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen. It just goes to show that, at the time, even the best minds in the NFL were not in a unanimous agreement on Allen. His talent has always been tremendous but the volatility of his play at the time was too significant to ignore for most.

I say he was almost kind of right because really only one of those QBs is left standing at this point, and that’s Josh Allen. Payton thought it would be Darnold, and I think maybe most people did. Darnold was considered the top QB in the class by many, perhaps including the Denver Broncos that year. There have been plenty of rumors that have emerged in recent years that Darnold was the apple of John Elway’s eye at the time, but the Broncos never had the chance to draft him with their fifth overall pick that year.

So what does any of this mean for the Broncos in 2023? Well, not much, other than the fact that Sean Payton seemingly liked Sam Darnold in that 2018 class. Given the fact that Darnold is still just 25, and Payton has helped reclamation projects at QB excel in the past, there’s a chance this is a marriage that could make a ton of sense this offseason.

Darnold is not likely to have suitors lining up to sign him in free agency as a starter. He’s going to need to go to a situation that will help him rehab his value around the league. Is there a better spot to do that than on a two-year deal with Sean Payton? It made Teddy Bridgewater a lot of money once upon a time.

It made Jameis Winston a lot of money.

Darnold showed well down the stretch this past season. He helped the Panthers win four of their last six games and we saw him play much smarter than he has in the past, even as the Panthers’ offensive skill spots had been depleted while he was recovering from an injury.

From Darnold’s perspective, where is the flaw in Denver’s situation right now? Sean Payton is leading the charge, and he’s put so many different QBs in positions to succeed as an NFL head coach. The Broncos need an upgraded backup situation. Russell Wilson missed time for varying reasons in 2022 due to injury. There’s also a chance that, by 2024, that starting job in Denver could be open.

Signing as the backup in 2023 could give someone like Sam Darnold the chance to learn the system, maybe play a couple of games in relief, and perhaps have a shot at being a starter in Denver or somewhere else as soon as 2024. And he’ll only be 26 at that point. The clock is not about to expire for Darnold. He’s still got time.

Don’t take all of this the wrong way — this is not a post saying that Sam Darnold should come in and be the starter for the Denver Broncos. This is simply making a wise investment at a critical position in a player with upside. And Darnold is not even the only one who qualifies. Someone like Baker Mayfield would be intriguing, or Jameis Winston reuniting with Payton if he’s let go by the Saints.

One way or another, the Broncos will have to upgrade their Russell Wilson backup situation and backup plan in 2023. That could come through free agency and the NFL Draft. This year’s free agent crop at QB gives you the opportunity to do more than just sign a boring, lifelong NFL backup to a short-term deal. You have a chance to take a swing on upside, and the Broncos need to make that happen.