ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As General Manager George Paton and Head Coach Sean Payton approach their first NFL Draft together, the two men have a clear, aligned vision of how to build a football team.
In free agency, Paton and Payton took their first steps toward making that philosophy a reality as they signed a number of players to the roster. And when the 2023 NFL Draft arrives next week, they'll take the next step in the roster-building process.
"My first two drafts here, I thought the process was really good," Paton said Thursday during the Broncos' pre-draft press conference. "With the addition of Sean, we've enhanced it and we've taken the next step. Sean sits in all of our meetings. He sounds like a scout, and he's been around a lot of really good people throughout his career."
When Paton spent time with the Dolphins earlier in his career, he worked alongside then-head coach Nick Saban. Now, in Denver, he's found a reminder of Saban's approach in the Broncos' new head coach.
"The two years I was with Coach Saban, they have a similar vision of how they want to build the football team," Paton said. "They have a clear vision on how they want to build the team. I'm aligned with Sean on that. You can see throughout free agency with some of the players that we signed and some of their makeup. You'll see that moving forward."
Payton said the process of working with Paton in Denver has "been fantastic," and they've worked long hours to build a strategy for next week's draft. They finished their draft prep Monday, and they've moved on to special projects and mock drafts. On Wednesday, the group watched more than 1,000 snaps of film before re-ordering a pair of players on their board.
"It's easy to look at the key plays or the highlights," Payton said. "You guys might have an opinion on some players in this draft, and they're probably based off of maybe 15 or 18 snaps. For us, last night, we probably watched 1,200 snaps of three players going back a season ago because you really are trying to get the totality of what's coming in the building."
Payton and Paton have also built a consensus regarding their philosophy on draft-day trades. During their careers, Payton has tended to trade up to acquire prospects, while Paton has more often traded back to acquire more picks. Finding a common ground, Payton said, will be "smooth and easy" for the two men.
"When we're watching these players all the time," Payton said, "philosophically you're looking at, 'All right, who would be a target that if they fell, you might move one direction? Then what would be the three or four scenarios where, if presented with that scenario, would you gain equity and move back?'
"Look: 95 percent of discussions in the sports world relative to the draft is [about] the first round, and understandably so. And yet, there's so many other things that take place later that are important. … If you're in the middle of the first round selecting, you've got to love 15 players if you're picking [at] 15. If you don't, then you move in one direction. If you're targeting someone, you move up. When you're picking where we are, the unique thing, which I think we both really like, is that we have back-to-back picks there. You've got to be able to be a little bit, I don't want to say reactionary — there are scenarios that fall to you with every round and then every pick. The spray is a little wider, if that makes sense."
Paton said the team evaluated a list of players on Wednesday that they would consider trading up for, and both have shown the ability to find key contributors when moving back.
"You just want to have flexibility," Paton said. "You want to have an open mind. We talked last night about potential target players that we would go get. You just never want to be closed-minded. We've traded up where I've been, and we've traded back a lot. It just kind of depends on what's behind you, as well. Last year, we felt we could trade back five or six picks and still get [tight end Greg] Dulcich, based on the teams behind us. You do a lot of these exercises, and we'll continue to do them. We've done them the last two weeks. There are not a lot of surprises because we'll talk through every scenario. We're both open-minded to move up and move back. It just kind of depends on where it is."
No matter where the team picks, their chief goal will be to find contributors — no matter when that contribution arrives.
"We have a clear vision for where these players are [in their] first year, second year, third year and throughout their career," Paton said. "We discuss that. Every time we read an evaluation on a player, and we discuss that. Now, it is very hard to get an impact player in the third round, but we'll have an idea how he fits with our team [in his] first year, second year, third year — [as a] potential starter, marginal starter, solid starter, maybe a special teams player in Year 1 and eventual starter in Year 2. We have classifications for each player we evaluate no matter what the round is."
As Payton explained, the Broncos don't want to pass up on a player simply because he may take more time to develop.
The Broncos may have that luxury — and the choice to take the best player regardless of position — because of the holes they filled during free agency.
"That's the significance of the free agency process," Payton said of the importance of filling needs in free agency. "You're hoping that you free yourself up a little bit to give yourself more flexibility in the draft so you're not taking the toaster over the double oven."
And while Payton and Paton were peppered with questions about running back, offensive line, edge rusher and other position groups, they were steadfast in their belief to take the best player on the board.
"We were really aggressive in free agency," Paton said. "We wanted to fill as many holes with as many quality players that fit the prototype and fit our culture as we could. They just so happened to be on offense. We feel like we filled a lot of those holes. Now, we can draft the best player. We were good on defense last year, and we still have some talent on defense. We have a foundation. We're not going to stretch to draft a defensive player. Both of our mindsets is to draft the best player, no matter where we are in the draft."
The work to be prepared to find those players is almost complete — and in Payton's eyes, the prep is not so different from the season.
"The reason these meetings go for three weeks, four weeks and into the late nights [is] it's no different than game-planning in football," Payton said.
Selecting a player or making a trade may happen when the draft begins, but the work is done and the decisions are made much earlier.
"On Sunday, you're making a call on fourth-and-4, but that was decided on Wednesday night," Payton said. "I think the same thing takes place relative to the draft. With each of these three days, often times there are certain decisions and reactions that have been kind of covered well before it ever took place. I think that's the best way to handle it."
For the Broncos, that preparation is nearly over.