George Paton’s five best moves since becoming Broncos GM

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John Elway’s reign as Denver Broncos general manager was a tale of two halves. But one of the best things he did for the franchise was helping hire George Paton to replace him.

When leaders transition, in my opinion, the best metric for success is how set up the team left behind is for future success. Hiring Paton is right up there with fellow GM Ozzie Newsome drafting Lamar Jackson in his last draft. In this exercise, we’ll examine Paton’s five best moves thus far.

Acquiring Russell Wilson

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

This feels like cheating, but can’t bury the lede. Like with Elway, Paton’s legacy as Broncos GM is attached to an already-Hall-of-Fame-worthy quarterback looking to close out the second act of his career with a Super Bowl ring.

Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning’s careers before joining the Broncos are eerily similar. Both played for at least a decade with another franchise. Both split their Super Bowl appearances 1-1. Both could’ve retired instead of joining a second team and still gotten inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Hopefully the Broncos’ seventh-best Super Bowl odds actualize, so Broncos Country can hear Paton exclaim “this one’s for Pat!” I get goosebumps typing the confetti-filled scene into existence.

Drafting Pat Surtain over force picking a QB

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

During the 2021 NFL draft, then-first-year Denver Broncos GM George Paton had the ninth overall pick in the first round. Like with signing cornerback Blessuan Austin days before this year’s NFL draft, Paton acquired quarterback Teddy Bridgewater days before his first career NFL draft.

The optionality led to Paton drafting the best player available in Patrick Surtain. That’s backed by the fact the GM already had newly-signed Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in tow. Michael Ojemudia, meanwhile, was a third-round pick entering his second season. And Essang Bassey appeared to be another John Elway undrafted free agent gem at the time. All of that description to say cornerback wasn’t a pressing need for the Broncos in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.

But Suratin was the best player available. Over quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones. Hindsight is 20/20, but the move panned out twofold: Fuller departed Denver after one season (and the firing of coach Vic Fangio), Ojemudia now appears to be an afterthought as a starter and Bassey was released mid-season (then brought back). Couple those developments with Paton’s ability to monitor newly-acquired Russell Wilson‘s disgruntlement in Seattle for a year and pounce on the chance to acquire him and drafting Suratin turns out to be best for business.

As evidenced by Champ Bailey, and some of the league’s modern cornerbacks, Surtain’s position has the second-longest shelf life. In other words, enjoy Surtain strapping opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers for likely at least a decade.

Signing Courtland Sutton to an extension before WR market ballooned

(Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Las Vegas receiver Davante Adams reset the receiver market this offseason by signing a contract with an annual salary clip of $28 million. An annual salary of approximately $750,000 more than DeAndre Hopkins‘ $27,250,000 million mark inked a couple of years back when he arrived in Arizona.

Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill went on to top Adams’ market-setting annual salary clip with an annual salary of $30 million after a trade from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Miami Dolphins. That’s right, Adams’ deal with the Raiders killed two birds with one stone: strengthen the Raiders and weaken public enemy No. 1, the Chiefs.

Courtland Sutton, 27, meanwhile, inked a four-year contract extension with the Broncos worth $60 million. So, an annual salary of $15 million. After this offseason, for reference, Sutton’s annual salary sits at No. 20 among receivers. Not bad for a Brandon Marshall alpha x receiver clone another year removed from a torn ACL with a 72-reception, 1,100-yard-plus season in his back-pocket. Hot take: Sutton coasts to first his 10-plus touchdown season with Russell Wilson under center and an efficient offense opening up more scoring opportunities.

Trading Von Miller mid-season for better draft pick compensation than a comp pick

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

If the Denver Broncos weren’t able to re-sign Von Miller after the 2021 season and let him walk, they’d potentially be line for a third-round compensatory pick. Which would’ve been no better — but potentially lower — than the 97th overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

Instead, Broncos GM George Paton traded Miller mid-season to the Los Angeles Rams. The GM acquired second- and third-round picks for the 2022 NFL draft in the trade (a year earlier than a comp pick). The first selection ironically turned out to be edge rusher Nik Botinno. And the second pick indirectly led to the Broncos’ drafting center Luke Wattenberg in the fifth round. A player some consider in the mix to start as a rookie, although he was drafted on Day 3. For reference, the Broncos traded the Rams’ third-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for a fifth-round pick and their 2023 third-round pick. Then, the Colts’ fifth-round pick was traded to the Packers, so the Broncos could draft Wattenberg.

Not a bad haul for Paton for a 33-year-old Miller that ended up playing just eight regular-season games for the Rams and wasn’t likely to re-sign with the Broncos. Miller went on to play out of his mind in the playoffs for the Rams. He totaled four sacks, six QB hits, six tackles for loss and 14 total tackles. A four-game stretch that netted Miller a six-year contract with the Buffalo Bills with an annual salary clip of $20 million. The sixth-highest for edge rushers. Again, Miller is 33. Oof.

Circling back to the Rams, the team won the Super Bowl. So the Miller trade was a rare win-win all around.

Trading for Teddy Bridgewater before NFL draft for roster flexibility

(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

As mentioned above, Broncos GM George Paton traded for Teddy Bridgewater days before the 2021 NFL draft. A move that led to the team drafting Patrick Surtain with the ninth overall pick.

A move that indirectly ties to three of Paton’s five best moves since becoming Broncos GM. Have a day.

Instead of force picking Justin Fields or Mac Jones, acquiring Teddy Bridgewater allowed Paton to assess former coach Vic Fangio for a season, acquire an elite cornerback with a long shelf life and still keep a long-term view on constructing the team’s roster.

Bridgewater totaled a 7-7 record (7-5 in games he started and finished). Drew Lock, meanwhile, totaled an 0-3 record, leading the team to 7-10 and no playoff berth. Good luck in Seattle, Mr. Lock.

It’s a move akin to Howie Roseman trading one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ three first-round picks during the most recent draft to have two in the 2023 NFL draft, while also trading a second first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft to acquire A.J. Brown so third-year QB Jalen Hurts can still succeed. Or when the Detriot Lions acquired Jared Goff as part of the Matthew Stafford trade. Goff is serviceable enough for GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell to be evaluated while constructing the rest of the Lions’ roster. The Lions, meanwhile, netted three first-round picks and a third-round pick for Stafford.

The picks have turned into cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu and receiver Jameson Williams thus far. Add in tackle Penei Sewell and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson as the Lions’ original first-round pick selections and it’s not hard to see why the football conglomerate is bullish on the team. Holmes and Campbell appear to have hit on Day 3 slot receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown as well.

It gets better: Like with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions are set to have two first-round picks in the 2023 NFL draft. Goff’s set up for success next season. But the Lions have an exit plan in place. For reference, the Lions could save all but $5 million of Goff’s $30.65 million cap hit next year by designating him as a post-June 1 cut.

Bonus: Hiring coaches with similar schemes to the previous regime to accelerate the learning curve

(Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

This move’s dividends remain to be seen. But it doesn’t hurt that newly-hired defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero’s scheme is similar to former coach Vic Fangio’s. The defense also presumably returns nine starters from last season.

It’s good to see first-year coach (and offensive play-caller) Nathaniel Hackett getting along with Russell Wilson better than he reportedly did with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll (subscription required for link).

Time will time on this one. But it can’t hurt having Pat Surtain and Co. having some familiarity on defense under a new coaching staff.

This season is shaping up to be an exciting year for Denver.

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