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'There's some talented guys in this rookie class': GM George Paton gets closer look at quarterback prospects at 2022 Senior Bowl

MOBILE, Ala. — There's no substitute for seeing the top draft prospects in person.

The game tape tells quite a bit of the story, but as General Manager George Paton and the Broncos evaluate the next crop of NFL players, there's nothing quite like seeing those players firsthand.

And that's especially true of the quarterback position.

"It's really important to see them in person — all positions, but especially quarterback," Paton told in an exclusive interview at the 2022 Senior Bowl. "There's so much quarterbacks have to do during a game, during practice. How are they when they're not on the field, on the bench? How are they amongst their teammates? How does the ball jump off their hand? How are they in competitive situations, in two-minute drills, no huddle? So it's really important during the fall to see them live, and then here, just again, competing against the best. Seeing [Malik] Willis vs. [Kenny] Pickett and all the other quarterbacks, just back to back. I think there's six here, and so it's really [that you] can see two practices a day and you stack them up. 

"How do they throw it? How athletic are they? How do they handle an interception? How do they handle adversity? … You can't see all that on tape, so it's very beneficial."

Paton had a chance to see many of the top quarterback prospects over a three-day stint in Mobile, Alabama, as UNC's Sam Howell, Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, Nevada's Carson Strong and Liberty's Malik Willis were among the six quarterbacks in attendance. Over three days, the quarterbacks had the chance to work out in front of hundreds of NFL scouts and decision-makers — and they'll receive another opportunity during Saturday's Senior Bowl.

Paton and Co. will get to see these quarterbacks — and the rest of the draft prospects — several more times before the 2022 NFL Draft, but the Senior Bowl is one of the earliest steps in the evaluation process.

"These are the top players, the top seniors in the country," Paton said. "A lot of them I haven't seen live, so it's really important just to follow them around through the week and kind of see how they go about practice, how do they compete against the best. And then you get them at night, you can interview them and get to know them a little bit. So it's really the first step in the draft process — or the second; the fall is the first step. Then we've got the Combine and more interviews. So, this is a great time just to be around the top players."

And, as the Broncos continue to look for a long-term answer at the quarterback position, the five top signal-callers generated most of the buzz from media members and fans. As Paton evaluates that position, he said he will consider the best route for a roster that is ready to compete.

"You weigh the free-agency class compared to the draft class, and that's what we're doing now," Paton said. "If we don't think the draft class is very good, we're probably going to try to go heavy into free agency or the trade market. But I think there's some talented guys in this rookie class, so we'll weigh that as we will other positions. What are the strengths of free agency compared to the draft, and if the draft isn't strong at a certain position, we're going to be very aggressive in free agency."

During the team's search for a quarterback, Paton said new Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett will play a "big-time role" in the evaluation process. And, if the team pursues a rookie quarterback, Paton said he has faith in Hackett's ability to develop that player.

"Part of the appeal of Coach Hackett is his ability to develop younger players, and especially quarterbacks," Paton said, "so he's going to have a big-time role, as will the other coaches, in our free-agency process, as well as our draft process."

While the quarterback position will dominate the headlines, it's far from the only position to monitor during the draft process. Asked about the strength of the 2022 draft class, Paton pointed to the line of scrimmage.

"I think the big guys thus far, and you can see it down here at the Senior Bowl," Paton said. "I think the offensive line, there's some good tackles, there's some good interior [linemen]. And then the defensive line, I've been really impressed down here at the Senior Bowl. And I'm just getting into it, obviously, but I do think it's going to be a big man's type draft."

No matter which position the Broncos target early in the 2022 NFL Draft, they'll need to find success through all seven rounds. The Broncos found a slew of key contributors in 2021, but Paton said he knows how crucial it is to stack another class on top of last year's successful group.

"I think it's imperative," Paton said of adding another strong class. "You need to stack one after another after another. And that's how you build a foundation and that's how you build a consistent winner, year in and year out. You don't want to win one year and take a step back, but if you can keep drafting well, it's a sustainable roster from a financial standpoint. Again, that's why we brought Nathaniel Hackett here, because of his ability to develop young talent, among other things."

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