Denver Broncos cornerback Patrick Surtain II is a marvelous player. Before the end of his second season he's already one of the best young defensive players in football.
Pro Football Focus' grades have Surtain ranked as the ninth-best cornerback in the NFL, and that seems low. He has shut down some of the game's best receivers. He's a star.
Surtain is also a fantastic cornerback on one of the worst teams in football, which has little hope for a quick turnaround.
The Broncos are proving that you can pick a great player in the first round of the draft and still unintentionally set in motion a series of events that wrecks your franchise for years. When the Broncos were up with the ninth pick of the 2021 draft, there were a lot of things swirling around the team. There were reports that the Broncos, in desperate need of a quarterback, were on the verge of an Aaron Rodgers trade. When they went on the clock, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields had slipped to them and that pick seemed like an easy one for the Broncos. But the Broncos had medical concerns about Fields and loved Surtain.
"This is a kid we targeted. This is a kid we wanted," Broncos general manager George Paton said about Surtain on draft weekend. "We were very fortunate that he was there, and we took him."
Nobody knew the lasting effects that passing on Fields would have, some affecting franchises that had nothing to do with the pick. If you knew the moment the pick was made that Surtain would turn into exactly the player Paton hoped, you'd never have guessed that all the bad things that happened to the Broncos afterward — a coaching hire that looks like an all-time bust, a trade that looks like one of the worst in NFL history and a contract that might be the worst in the league from management's standpoint — started with that pick.
Broncos are one of NFL's worst teams
The Broncos are in really bad shape. They're 3-9. They have one of the worst offenses the NFL has seen in a long time. Nathaniel Hackett seems certain to be a one-and-done head coach who will go down in Broncos infamy. Russell Wilson has been shockingly bad but has a new five-year, $242 million deal. If he doesn't turn things around it will be a big problem for the Broncos for many years because they can't get out of the contract for a while.
It could have all been avoided.
Paton and the Broncos could have selected Fields to stop the Broncos' post-Peyton Manning quarterback blues, but they went the safe route.
"Were we surprised [Fields] dropped? Maybe a little bit, but we set our board and Surtain was really high on our board," Paton said after the Broncos drafted Surtain.
Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson said last year the Broncos "really liked the talent a lot" when it came to Fields but they were concerned about him having been diagnosed with epilepsy. The Broncos didn't want to take that risk. That's understandable.
Fields isn't a sure thing but once the Chicago Bears' coaches started using him more this season, he has become one of the breakout players of the second half of this season. He looks like a viable quarterback for many years to come. There are reasons to believe he's a future star if the Bears put talent around him. He has had some electric moments.
Even if Fields would never have been a star with the Broncos, picking him probably would have at least changed two franchise-altering mistakes.
What if the Broncos drafted Justin Fields?
Let's say the Broncos drafted Fields. The NFL landscape is different today, and not just in Denver.
Assuming Fields had a reasonable first season with the Broncos and stayed healthy, their decisions last offseason might have been entirely different.
Nobody will admit, probably ever, that hiring Hackett was at least in some part due to the Rodgers chase. Rodgers himself hinted he'd follow Hackett, saying in 2020, "I love him. I hope he doesn't go anywhere ... unless I do."
The Broncos had been chasing Rodgers since at least April of 2021 and there was plenty of speculation that hiring Hackett could have been a way to land Rodgers in 2022. If the Broncos had Fields, are they still chasing Rodgers? Perhaps, but that seems unlikely. Do they hire Hackett if they're not after Rodgers? Maybe, but it's no sure thing.
Hackett has become a punch line around the NFL and an object of scorn in Colorado. Broncos fans have been calling for him to be fired since September, while Rodgers decided in March to stay in Green Bay. A couple hours after news broke that Rodgers was staying in Green Bay, it was reported that the Broncos had traded for Wilson.
And it seems really hard to believe the Broncos trade for Wilson if they already had Fields. Here are the details of the trade, and Broncos fans might want to avert their eyes: Denver sent to Seattle two first-round draft picks, including the ninth pick this year and a pick that would be third overall in 2023 if the season ended today; two second-round picks, a 2021 fifth-round pick, tight end Noah Fant, quarterback Drew Lock and defensive end Shelby Harris. And then they gave Wilson the contract. Wilson's salary-cap hit is $17 million this year, $22 million in 2023 and then it goes to $35.4 million in 2024 and is above $50 million every year after that. Wilson has eight touchdown passes in 11 games and leads an offense that is last in the NFL in points scored.
All those picks and money go back in the Broncos' pocket if they had Fields and don't trade for Wilson. Fields' cap hit this season is $4.3 million.
So the Broncos could have had Surtain ... or Fields, likely a different coach, four first- or second-round picks, a fifth-rounder, Fant, Lock, Harris and an extra eight figures of cap space each year through 2025, when Fields would be on the fifth year of his rookie deal.
Surtain is great. Yet Broncos fans probably would pick the latter package.
How the NFL would have been affected
There are other possible effects if the Broncos had drafted Fields over Surtain. One changed pick affects the whole top of the draft, it likely affects Wilson's landing spot and perhaps the coaching carousel earlier this season. Teams that had nothing to do with the ninth pick of the 2021 draft could look entirely different.
Wilson probably goes to the Washington Commanders, who (thankfully, now) came up short in their pursuit of the former Seahawks star. Washington is 7-5-1 and battling for a playoff spot. Perhaps Wilson would have been good with Washington and it would still be a playoff contender, but we'll never know. The Broncos might have hired Kevin O'Connell or Dan Quinn, who were their other two finalists when they hired Hackett. O'Connell is 10-2 as a first-year coach with the Minnesota Vikings and Quinn leads a top-five defense for the 9-3 Cowboys. Those two franchises are pretty happy right now. Chicago might still be chasing its quarterback.
And Surtain would have gone past the Broncos at No. 9. The Cowboys were linked to Surtain countless times before the draft at No. 12 and might have been his landing spot. Dallas instead chose a Penn State linebacker named Micah Parsons. The Cowboys have said afterward that Parsons was the top-graded defensive player on their draft board and while that could be true, just about every team will claim the player they drafted was their actual target after the fact. We'll never know for sure.
One decision, which ended up being the draft pick of one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, ended up changing the trajectory of multiple franchises. The Broncos certainly saw the shape of their future change. If they didn't believe in the butterfly effect before, they do now.