Broncos analysis: As “orphan dog” QB race heats up, a look at challenges facing Bo Nix, Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson

Broncos analysis: As “orphan dog” QB race heats up, a look at challenges facing Bo Nix, Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson

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When Bo Nix was a precocious five-star high school quarterback prospect in Alabama, he knew he was going to college at Auburn. Same place his dad did.

Even still, schools around the country recruited him, and he took an official visit to Auburn before enrolling there.

His host for that weekend on the Plains: none other than Jarrett Stidham.

“We go way back. I know him and his family really well,” Stidham said Thursday.

Flash forward more than five years and Stidham and Nix are together again, making up two-thirds of an inexperienced Broncos quarterback room. Together with Zach Wilson, they are the most interesting storyline of Denver’s offseason and Sean Payton’s second season in charge here.

Stidham is entering his second season with the program after serving as Russell Wilson’s backup in 2023 and starting the final two games after Payton benched the nine-time Pro Bowler.

Zach Wilson was the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 but struggled mightily throughout three seasons with the New York Jets before that team cast him off in a bargain-basement trade last month that also included splitting his relatively modest $5.5 million salary with Denver.

Nix is Denver’s first-round pick this spring, selected No. 12 overall but the last of six quarterbacks taken in the first round.

“It’s kind of the orphan group,” Payton said of his quarterback room at the end of the first week of organized team activities on Thursday. “They’re all orphan dogs. They’ve come from somewhere. But they’re doing good and it’s a good room.”

Stidham smiled when asked about the canine characterization.

“He mentioned it today and I just kind of let him go with it,” Stidham said. “I didn’t know where it came from.”

Wilson’s just getting to know Payton and just getting familiar with the Broncos, but he figured maybe the metaphor fit.

“I mean, we’ve gone through it, right? You can see why,” he said. “It’s been three years of tough challenges, but in the end that’s what makes you stronger, and you just need somebody to believe in you and to believe in yourself and just keep working hard and getting better.”

Payton does seem to believe somebody is going to emerge from this trio and play winning football for the Broncos. And though the obvious option is Nix — teams don’t draft quarterbacks in the first round, even after five others are off the board, if they don’t plan on investing heavily in them and playing them at some point — each does have his own path to the starting line of this quarterback derby.

Each also has his own challenges. Here are some of them as the offseason marches on.

Stidham, the journeyman looking to break through

Stidham, 27, has a head start on the other pair because he played for Payton here last year.

A 2018 fourth-round pick, his only four NFL starts have come in pairs at the end of each of the past two seasons.

Stidham began his career as Tom Brady’s backup in New England, then backed up Derek Carr in Las Vegas and Russell Wilson last year. In 2021 he might have competed with Patriots rookie Mac Jones for the starting job, but back surgery slowed him down and he didn’t appear in a game. Besides that, he’s spent every other season of his career behind a veteran starter.

The complexion of the room has changed considerably since the offseason began, but Stidham’s understandably excited about having a chance to compete for the job.

“Youth is always a good thing,” he told The Denver Post on Thursday. “It’s just so much fun and it’s funny, I said this earlier, now being the vet I feel like I’m the one telling war stories a little bit in the room.

“But it’s a lot of fun.”

The challenge for Stidham, beyond the fact that he’s shown some positives in his limited playing time through the years, is that in this room he’s going to be asked to teach the newer players while also attempting to beat them out.

“I was fortunate enough, my rookie year I was competing with Brian Hoyer for the backup job in New England behind Tom (Brady),” Stidham said. “‘Hoy’ had been in the system for seven or eight years, whatever it was, and he did nothing but help me. I want to help these guys learn as much as they can. Like I said, I’m the vet in the room, so anything that I’ve picked up over the years, I tell those guys. Certain little thoughts or tricks I have, I share them.

“At the same time, we’re all in it together and we’re all competing. That’s what we have to do.”

Wilson, the cast-off with talent … and avert-the-eyes tape

Denver Broncos quarterback Zach Wilson adjusts his headband while stretching before practice at the NFL football team's training headquarters Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos quarterback Zach Wilson adjusts his headband while stretching before practice at the NFL football team’s training headquarters Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Wilson on Thursday spoke like a player relishing a fresh start. Relishing the idea of something else. Anything else. Relishing, even, the prospect of being back in the West after growing up in Utah and attending BYU before starting his NFL career in the country’s biggest media market on the East Coast.

“I do love spending time with this quarterback room, and it is new for all of us, right?” He said. “Bo coming out of college and now it’s a transition for him. I love living out here in the West, it’s a little easier for me. But you quickly acclimate and get to know some guys on the team who are just phenomenal dudes. You can tell they bring in guys here with great character and so it makes the adjustment easy.”

Wilson, 25, makes throwing the football look easy. The ball jumps out of his hands in a way that makes it obvious why he went No. 2 overall just three years ago.

“I like his experience,” Payton said Thursday. “You can tell he’s played and I think he’s got very live arm strength. He’s picking up the offense pretty quickly.”

His challenge, though, is a tough one. He and Denver’s coaches have to figure out a way to untangle what went wrong in New York. Or if the untangling is even possible.

Payton knows where the starting point is.

“Exactly how we started with Bo or Jarrett,” Payton said earlier this month. “It’s just, ‘Come on in, let’s get going.’ Meaning we start from the snap count, the cadence. We want to work kind of like he’d be a rookie. …

“It’s kind of getting acclimated and trying to do it as quickly as possible.”

It’s also accepting that many players get second chances, but not everybody gets a third. Wilson’s under contract for this year and then he’s a free agent. The Broncos aren’t tied to him long-term.

New Denver wide receiver Josh Reynolds has unique insight. Until he signed with the Broncos in March, Reynolds had played every year of his career except for one with quarterback Jared Goff, first in Los Angeles and then the past two years in Detroit.

Goff was the No. 1 pick in 2016 and helped the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance in his third season. But then he fell out of favor and eventually was part of a trade to the Lions for Matthew Stafford, seen widely as an expensive throw-in to make the money work in the deal.

Reynolds saw how Goff went from high draft pick, through adversity and then set about trying to start over and play his way out of the labels the league put on him.

“I think it was him with his back against the wall, man,” Reynolds told The Post. “You get counted out and you’re a first overall draft pick, you sign the big deal and then a couple years after it’s just like, ‘Damn, what happened?’ If you get in a situation like that, you can go one of two ways: You can either fold or you can have that chip on your shoulder and prove people wrong. That’s how he went into Detroit.

“He was working his ass off, man, and he was ready to step up to that challenge.”

No two paths are the same, but Wilson would do well to adopt that kind of mindset this summer.

Nix, the rookie who has to prove he’s ready

Denver Broncos rookie quarterback Bo Nix takes part in drills during practice at the NFL football team's training headquarters Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos rookie quarterback Bo Nix takes part in drills during practice at the NFL football team’s training headquarters Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

There’s good reason to presume Nix is the favorite to ultimately win the job, even if Payton’s not going anywhere near that territory at this point.

He’s the club’s first-round pick. The Broncos selected him three days after trading for Wilson. He’s widely seen as a tight schematic fit with the head coach because of his accuracy and penchant for getting the ball out of his hands quickly.

“He gets rid of the ball so stinking fast,” said rookie edge rusher Jonah Elliss earlier this month after having played against Nix each of the past two years in the Pac-12.

That comes more naturally when a quarterback has command of the offense and confidence in what he’s seeing. Tying both of those things together is going to be the challenge for Nix, who has an FBS-record 61 games of starting experience in college and will undoubtedly sense the steep increase in speed and complexity in the NFL.

The age-old question for NFL teams is whether a young player tackles that curve by watching for a while first or by getting thrown into the fire. Hall of Famer Peyton Manning said this week that there’s “no way” he leads Indianapolis to a 13-3 mark his second season if he doesn’t throw a rookie-record 28 interceptions during a 3-13 slog of a debut season.

Payton on Thursday said the decision comes down to the player, sure, but also the rest of the quarterbacks room.

“I think some of it is a byproduct of what you have in the building,” he said. “If you have a starter in the building, then that’s the path you go. Then sometimes you don’t have that luxury, and then that’s the path you go.”

The Broncos, by definition, don’t have a starter in the building. A point worth keeping in mind over the next three months as the horse race — or orphan dog race — heats up.

A three-way split … but for how long?

Payton outlined a simple workload breakdown of the first week of OTAs.

Stidham handled the No. 1 reps Tuesday, Wilson on Wednesday and Nix on Thursday.

“Look, we go by what we see,” Payton said. “We try to get them as many reps as possible. We’re rotating all of them right now. … We’ll keep doing that for right now.”

For right now.

One reality for Denver is that whoever ultimately starts would benefit greatly from as many training camp reps as possible with the first team. So the race can’t be called too early in the summer, but it can’t drag on to where nobody gets into a good rhythm, either.

The Broncos will also eventually have to figure out who’s No. 2, too. The NFL tweaked a rule this offseason that allows a practice squad quarterback to be elevated for game day as many times as a team wants. Most teams keep only two on their 53-man roster anyway and the added practice squad flexibility should only push more teams to do so.

Payton typically keeps two, though he did keep three in 2021 in New Orleans in the first year after Drew Brees retired.

Those are matters for later in the summer. Now that the first week of OTAs is finished and the summer break will be here in three weeks, however, the clock has started.

“They come from different systems,” Payton said. “One is coming from college. One is coming from two or three NFL systems, and the other is coming from one system. They’re all in a race to learn this system.

“I would say — you guys watched the practice — they’re doing well.”

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