Keeler: QB-Coach league. Coach-QB league. Pick your order, but the priority’s the same. Quirks and all, I’m partial to Jim Harbaugh first when it comes to replacing Nathaniel Hackett full-time — the man’s a quarterback whisperer who’d milk the best out of whatever’s left of Russell Wilson. But Sean Payton ticks almost all the same boxes: Super Bowl-level coach, Super Bowl-level resume. The trick with Payton? His contract with the Saints. The going rate to snatch him out of the Big Easy is expected to be close to what Tampa Bay shipped to the Raiders for Jon Gruden in 2002: two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. It cost the Bucs a ton, but they got what they wanted out of the deal — a ring. I think, if you’re Broncos CEO Greg Penner and you want to expand that trophy case, Payton’s worth that first-round draft capital. What say you?
Gabriel: Just like you said, Sean, acquiring Payton is not going to be cheap. Especially if other teams get involved in the bidding process. Take Houston, for example. The Texans have two first rounders in 2023 and two more in 2024 thanks to the DeShaun Watson trade. That not only makes forking over at least one and maybe multiple first-rounders more palatable for them. And you know what else? It also means Payton himself could still walk into a job where the franchise isn’t bereft of draft capital for the coming seasons.
Keeler: Yeah, yeah, I know. First-round picks are precious, cost-controlled gold to NFL front offices. But we’ve seen this movie before. And the sequels. And they all stunk. Paxton Lynch aside, the Broncos have turned first-rounders since 2016 into very good starters (Garett Bolles, Bradley Chubb), pretty good trade bait (Noah Fant) and potential stars (Pat Surtain II, Jerry Jeudy). But Bolles, Chubb, Fant, PS2 and Jeudy have two things in common: One, they’ve never reached the playoffs in Orange & Blue. And two, the head coaches they played under from 2017 on were weird or lowball choices who were all in over their respective heads. No thanks. Try another path.
Gabriel: All true, but you also can’t win without talent. And with Russell Wilson’s contract going from counting $22 million against the cap in 2023 to $35.4 million in ’24 to $55.4 million in ’25 — or, you know, counting as a massive dead cap hit or two-part, post-June 1 dead cap charge — the Broncos can’t just roll into each March and buy big on the free agent market to keep their team stocked with talent. Maybe you can figure out a way to pay Surtain and Jeudy in the next 18 months, hit on a bunch of mid-round picks and make it work without a first-rounder until 2025 with Payton running the show. If he gets Wilson playing at an above-average level over that time horizon, you’d think the Broncos would be in the mix. It would certainly be interesting to watch.
Keeler: This is a parade town. Broncos Country evaluates the success of its pro franchises on trophies and banners. It’s about advancing in the playoffs — not just getting there. Three first-time head coaches went into 2022-23’s Wild Card Weekend. Only one — the Giants’ Brian Daboll — came out of it. Before we even get to Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles, four other head coaches made their playoff debut over this past weekend. Only Daboll advanced. Yes, Payton is 1-2 all-time in conference championship games. Yes, he hasn’t reached a Super Bowl since the winter of 2009-10. But in his nine career postseason trips with the Saints, Payton won at least one game during those treks seven times. In January, experience matters.
Gabriel: There’s little doubt that, in a vacuum, Payton’s worth a haul of draft capital. And maybe in the Walton-Penner Family Ownership Group’s eyes that makes for an easy answer. Part of the consideration, as always, is alternatives. Is Payton worth at least one first-round pick and probably more than that? Yes. Is he worth that acquisition cost (plus, obviously, what you’re going to pay him and his staff) if the alternative answer is Harbaugh, who will be expensive but costs zero draft capital? Much closer call. Maybe they won’t ultimately have that choice to make. If they do, the decision will tell us a lot about just how valuable they think Sean Payton is.
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