Will Zach Wilson start in Denver? Are the Broncos still trying to draft a quarterback? What the trade means



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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos’ decision-makers have been adamant that they’ve got a plan at quarterback.

They said it when they made the costly move to release Russell Wilson just two seasons after the blockbuster trade to acquire him. They said it when they sat out free agency at the position as one veteran quarterback after another signed elsewhere — some even settling for backup jobs.

And they said it last week as coach Sean Payton and general manager George Paton answered questions in a pre-draft sitdown with the media.

Monday, part of that plan came to light when they acquired Zach Wilson in a trade with the New York Jets. Wilson, the No. 2 pick of the 2021 NFL draft, had a rocky three-season tenure with New York before the Jets told him they would look to trade him during the offseason. The Jets will split Wilson’s salary for the upcoming season with the Broncos.

Wilson, 24, joins quarterback Jarrett Stidham on the depth chart. Payton and Paton won’t speak publicly until after the first round of the draft Thursday night. But the low-impact trade — the Broncos swapped one of their sixth-round picks for a seventh-round pick — gives the Broncos a little insurance if the board does not fall their way this weekend, especially Thursday.

Wilson, given his on-field struggles — 57% completion rate with 25 interceptions compared to 23 touchdown passes — is a bit of a reclamation project. Payton has vowed to bring in competition for Stidham, and Wilson is now part of that.

But this is also some insurance against the fact that the Broncos are not in the sweet spot to select a first-round quarterback. There are several teams just as quarterback-needy above them in the draft and the Broncos, who haven’t picked in the first round since 2021 because of the Russell Wilson deal, don’t have nearly as much firepower to move up if even if they wanted to.

If four quarterbacks are selected Thursday night before the Broncos are on the clock as some have projected, they would face the decision of whether or not to use the 12th pick of the draft on a fifth quarterback.

A team has used a top-12 pick on a fifth quarterback just once since the AFL-NFL merger: the Chicago Bears selected Cade McNown at No. 12 in 1999. McNown ended up playing 25 games in his career.

The trade for Zach Wilson could certainly indicate the Broncos, as they work through their own mock drafts and opening-round scenarios, might not believe the fourth- or fifth-rated quarterback on their draft board would be worthy of the No. 12 pick.

The Broncos have also publicly said they’re open to a lot of ideas at No. 12.

“Look, I mean, do we have to draft a quarterback?” Payton said last week. “You’d say man, it sure looks like we have to draft a quarterback and yet, it’s got to be the right fit, the right one. And if you had the tip sheets as to who everyone else was taking, it would be easier to answer that question … That’s the puzzle here.”

The Broncos have missed the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons with five head coaches and 12 starting quarterbacks.

“What you don’t want to do is force it,” Paton added. “Otherwise, we’ll be in this position next year and the years after, you want to get the right player at 12. Our first pick we’ve got to hit on, whether it’s a quarterback, whether it’s a tackle, a receiver, you name it, we need to get an impact player.”

They have just two of their own first-round picks on the current roster — cornerback Pat Surtain II and tackle Garett Bolles — so they need impact players all over the depth chart.

While many have clamored for the team to do anything it needs to do to snag one of the top quarterbacks on the board, the uncomfortable truth is any player the Broncos have graded highly enough to take with the 12th pick is a need for this team.

So, Zach Wilson’s arrival doesn’t negate the Broncos exiting the draft with a rookie quarterback. But it is a low-cost flyer that gives them some insurance heading into a potentially chaotic first round.



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