Ghosts of Drafts Past: The Best and Worst Picks — QB

Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler made a Pro Bowl, looked like a long-term answer and commanded a handsome trade haul. It's not his fault the collection of draft picks was mostly squandered. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / MAXDENVER.COM)

It’s pretty thin here. Like the air in Leadville.

The best quarterback in Broncos history, some chap named Elway, played his entire career with the organization, but was acquired via trade. The only other quarterback to guide the Broncos to a Super Bowl, Craig Morton, also arrived via a swap. Jake Plummer, who went 40-18 as the Broncos’ starter, came via free agency. Ring of Famer Charley Johnson arrived via trade with St. Louis. Frank Tripucka, whose No. 18 was retired until he gave Peyton Manning his blessing to temporarily un-retire it, was a CFL refugee.

You get the picture.

The Broncos’ quarterbacking history has been defined by men that other organizations brought into the league. No wonder Manning feels so comfortable; he fits snugly in team history.

Finding the five best — and five worst — Broncos draft picks at the position is a challenge, but we’ll try anyway.

THE TOP FIVE:

  • 5. Tim Tebow, Florida (2010, 1st round, No. 25 overall): On the one hand, he was the starter for the only playoff win the Broncos have had since 2012. But he only commanded a modest haul — a fourth-round pick and an exchange of sixth- and seventh-round choices — and for a first-round pick, that constitutes a poor return. Although the selection was a fascinating one, this was too high for a quarterback whose game requires so much work for NFL consistency. Yet the playoff win and the adrenaline shot he provided a team that was previously on a collision course with irrelevance cannot be dismissed.
  • 4. Brian Griese, Michigan (1998, 3rd round, No. 91 overall): Griese had a thankless task: not only replacing Elway, but trying to be a quarterback he wasn’t. He didn’t have his father’s blend of calculation and improvisation; he had plenty of the former but little of the latter. If every blocker took care of his assignment and every receiver ran the proper route, Griese was as splendid as I’ve seen; he could throw a gorgeous, dead-eye pass. But when one block was missed or one route was shortened, chaos could follow. A run of injuries — he missed 13 games to injuries from 1999-2002 and was hurt at least once a year — didn’t help, but his 27-24 record as a starter wasn’t bad. For a late third-round selection, four seasons as a starting quarterback and a playoff appearance isn’t a bad return on investment.
  • 3. Mark Herrmann, Purdue (1981, 4th round, No. 98 overall): It’s not so much anything that Herrmann did; he started only one game in three Broncos seasons, a 13-11 loss to Seattle at the Kingdome on Jan. 2, 1983 in what proved to be his final game as a Bronco. But he was an essential part of the trade for Elway, since by that time the Colts had already learned that 1982 first-round pick Art Schlichter had, in the words of Milhouse Van Houten, “problems — scary problems.”
  • 2. Gary Kubiak, Texas A&M (1983, 8th round, No. 197 overall): Nine years as a backup and the best field-goal hold in franchise history to set up a game-winning playoff field goal. That’s pretty nice value for an eighth-round pick. He was a credible 3-2 as a starter, including a 14-10 win at Washington in 1989 when Elway was forced out because he ate some bad chipped beef on toast at the White House. (In general, “bad chipped beef on toast” is something of a redundant phrase; there’s a reason it’s nicknamed “s— on a shingle.”)
  • 1. Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt (2006, 1st round, No. 11 overall): He was the highest drafted quarterback in Broncos history, and while he hasn’t pushed the Broncos or Bears over the top, he’s been a worthy pick. The Broncos received a copious haul for Cutler in an April 2009 trade; it’s hardly the fault of Mike Shanahan, who drafted Cutler, that they squandered much of a haul from Chicago that included two first-round picks, a third-rounder (which eventually became WR Mike Wallace after the pick was dealt to Pittsburgh in a deal that ended up getting the draft picks that became Richard Quinn and Seth Olsen) and Kyle Orton.

Egads, if those are the five best draft picks at quarterback, what about the five worst ones

… AND THE BOTTOM FIVE:

  • 5. Tim Tebow, Florida (2010, 1st round, No. 25 overall): Again, this isn’t on his play, but the return on investment. Sixteen starts and only a mid-round pick in return is a poor yield for a Round 1 quarterback.
  • 4. Craig Penrose, San Diego State (1976, 4th round, No. 107 overall): Quite likely the most forgettable quarterback ever to win a Monday Night Football start for the Broncos, Penrose was at the controls for the first half of the Broncos’ 16-7 win over Chicago in 1978. This game was his big chance; his only two previous starts came at the end of the 1976 season. Penrose was effective enough; he completed 7-of-11 passes for 74 yards … and then sustained a rib injury late in the second quarter that nagged him the rest of the season. Even though Penrose had “the strongest arm among Denver quarterbacks,” according to the Broncos’ 1979 media guide, he only threw five passes in 1979 and was part of a trade with the Jets for QB Matt Robinson the following year.
  • 3. Rick Leach, Michigan (1979, 5th round, No. 132 overall): Here’s how much times have changed: 33 years ago, the Broncos drafted a quarterback who completed 46.6 percent of his passes in college. That was Leach, who never took a snap with the Broncos, opting to play baseball. He spent parts of 10 MLB seasons with the Tigers, Blue Jays, Rangers and Giants.
  • 2. Jeff Lewis, Northern Arizona (1996, 4th round, No. 100 overall): The fact that Lewis has two Super Bowl rings proves that the “how many rings do you have?” standard for individual greatness is the most myopic consideration possible. Lewis never started for the Broncos, was cut by the Panthers before the 2001 season in spite of entering the preseason as their starter and washed out of the Arena Football League after Elway gave him a chance with his Colorado Crush in 2003. The only positive was that the Broncos fleeced third- and fourth-round picks for Lewis in a 1999 trade, one of which became solid starting guard Cooper Carlisle.
  • 1. Tommy Maddox, UCLA (1992, 1st round, No. 25 overall): His eventual, if short-lived, success as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback shows that Dan Reeves wasn’t altogether wrong for throwing away a first-round pick on a quarterback designed to provide an out in case the coach’s relations with Elway began resembling the interaction between JFK and Khrushchev. Maddox was dealt to the Los Angeles Rams for a fourth-round pick; that the selection became quickly forgotten linebacker Ken Brown doesn’t matter much; the point was to get Maddox out of Denver and expunge the sour taste all around from his selection in the first place.
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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.
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5 Responses

  1. “Ghosts of the Past” is an apt title here. If Denver doesn’t have the worst record for drafting quarterbacks, I don’t wan to see the worst. The only good one out of the lot, that I can see, is Kubiak. Cutler, however, would have been the very best, had he been given the chance here, in my opinion.

    By the way, the 1979 media guide was wrong about Penrose. In one interview, then Head Coach Red Miller was asked about who had the strongest arm among his quarterbacks, Craig Morton, Penrose, and Norris Weese. Miller replied that Morton did. In fact, Morton had one of the strongest arms in football at his time.

  2. Maddox was a f*** you pick to Elway 20 years ago from Dan Reeves. That was inexcusable when WR Carl Pickens was on the board, and would have given the Broncos a bonafide #1 WR that they had been lacking.

    • No argument there. But 12 years later, Dan Reeves was an invited guest of Elway for his Hall of Fame induction. Fences were mended and conflicts abandoned. But, yes, 1992 was a tense time in Broncoland.

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