ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **No one evaluating free-agent quarterbacks the last two months had the insight into Case Keenum that the Broncos did.
That went beyond President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway. It included Senior Personnel Advisor Gary Kubiak, who was in Houston as head coach when the Texans signed Keenum as a college free agent in 2012.
"He has a great deal of knowledge and is a very good evaluator, but also Gary's relationship with Case and knowing Case, that was a big feather in Case's cap," Elway said.
Kubiak and Head Coach Vance Joseph -- then the Texans' secondary coach -- watched Keenum grow on the Texans' practice squad in 2012. They also saw how Keenum handled his first NFL start, seven games into the 2013 season.
A day after signing his contract, Case Keenum was officially introduced as a Bronco at a press conference with John Elway and Vance Joseph on Friday. (Photos by Gabriel Christus)
It is one thing to be tossed into the deep end of the pool, as is the case for some young players, and quite another to be lobbed into a bacteria-tinged body of water filled with sharks, which is closer to what Keenum faced in his first NFL start.
The Texans had lost four consecutive games, including three by three or more scores. Starter Matt Schaub had injured his ankle and foot in the previous week's loss to the Rams. Backup T.J. Yates had floundered in relief of Schaub. Meanwhile, the undefeated Chiefs, six games into what would be a 9-0 start, loomed. The game would be at hostile Arrowhead Stadium.
Keenum, with no regular-season snaps to his name, got the start.
"It was a packed stadium, and he battled," Joseph recalled of Keenum's performance in the 17-16 loss, a 15-of-25, 271-yard day with one touchdown pass, no interceptions and one lost fumble in the final moments as he tried to rally the Texans on a desperate, late-game drive.
"He is a battler, man. Every week, he is going to give it his best shot. It won't be too big for him."
Joseph and Kubiak could look at that day and contrast the Keenum they knew then to the one they saw on film from Minnesota last season.
To Joseph, the biggest change in Keenum was in his maturity, which revealed itself in his play.
"Taking care of the football. Playing in a relaxed state. That's always a key component when you're watching a quarterback play," Joseph said.
While leadership matters, ball security is a crucial component, as well, and Keenum's progress in that area is perhaps the single biggest reason why he has the opportunity he now possesses in Denver.
In 10 games over the 2013 and 2014 seasons with Houston, Keenum averaged one fumble or interception every 25.1 plays (pass attempts, sacks and rushing attempts). In the 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Rams, he averaged one fumble or interception every 24.1 plays.
Last year with Minnesota, his rate improved to one fumble or interception every 57.8 plays, a number that offers evidenced of his game's maturation.
"Case has done a real nice job of taking care of the ball," President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway told Orange and Blue 760. "As we were talking today, he said, 'Every series needs to end in a field goal, an extra point or a punt.'"
That is exactly what the Broncos need after a season in which over 36 percent of their defensive touchdowns allowed came on possessions that started at midfield or in Broncos territory, mostly because of giveaways.
"That mentality right there [helps], because last year, the fact was that we turned the ball over," Elway said. "We were minus-[17 in turnover margin] on the year, and that was a big problem in what we did offensively. I think the maturity level, plus the experience and understanding the ability to take care of the ball and not make mistakes."
It's not that Keenum isn't going to go for the big play. But he will start by making sure he gives his team the best chance -- which begins by not making the mistakes that undermine its hopes.
That is a pragmatic -- and, yes, a mature -- approach, gained through a pro experience that has seen him cut, tossed aside and relegated to the scrap heap. It has tested his resolve but never broken it.
"Obviously, when those guys like Case Keenum, when they play and survive, and they play and survive, they get better and better each year," Joseph said.
"I mean, he said it: He's going to be better this year. To have a chance to finally be the guy walking into the building -- this is his first time being that guy. He's excited about it. But those guys who play and survive, who play and survive, they get better. Most guys who play and don't survive, they're out of the league.
"So for him to be here at this moment and be our guy, what he's gone through as a free agent, a guy out of college, and to work his way through [three] teams, he's hardened because of that process."
No one knew that better than the Broncos.