Who Will Be the 2016 Denver Broncos' Starting Quarterback?

After losing Brock Osweiler in free agency, the Denver Broncos must feel like they're in a glass case of emotion.

One of the best one-liners in the Will Ferrell movie Anchorman occurs after the news teams of San Diego face off in a cartoonish, absurd back-alley brawl. We cut to Ron Burgundy’s news team in his office later, where he cracks open a beer and comments: “Whew. Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.”

Now, picture Denver Broncos general manager John Elway sitting in that chair, wearing that wingtip suit, saying the same thing after the second day of the 2016 NFL Free Agency period; it totally holds up.

The Broncos cannot feel like this offseason has gone their way at all. Despite winning Super Bowl 50 this February, there has to be a sour taste in their mouths seeing defensive end Malik Jackson exit in free agency, risking running back C.J. Anderson on a low free agent tender and (possibly) losing him, and watching quarterback Peyton Manning retire.

And now, worst of all, the quarterback they groomed to be the heir to Manning -- Brock Osweiler -- has left the team in free agency and signed a massive deal with the Houston Texans.

So, without a true long-term leader to run their offense… What do the Denver Broncos do now?

Football Team, Assemble

Let’s be clear: it’s not like Denver did very many impressive things in the air last year, so it’s not as if the bar is set very high for the next passer to wear orange and blue. Denver had the 14th-most passing yards in the league last season, only 19 passing touchdowns (28th-most), and 23 interceptions (the most). It was a rough year under center in the Mile High City.

But what exactly is the value threshold the Broncos are looking to -- at least -- equal next season? I know they can’t afford to be too picky, with only one quarterback on the roster right now, but which available quarterbacks are a real fit for this team? We can find that out by looking at the team’s Net Expected Points (NEP), an analytic innovated by this site.

NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Osweiler passes for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

So, with this in mind, the two Broncos quarterbacks in 2015 -- Osweiler and Manning -- combined for 14.88 Passing NEP on 645 total drop backs between themselves. This means that if they hope to keep competing in the short-term, the Broncos need to find quarterbacks going forward who will generate around 0.02 Passing NEP per drop back. The league average was 0.11 in this metric.

Not a tall order, that’s for sure.

Another piece of data we can, and should, look at is the Passing Success Rate of each potential Broncos’ passer. This is the percent of drop backs that each player took that resulted in a positive NEP gain. For the Broncos last season, they had a paltry 45.27 percent Passing Success Rate. The league average in this metric was 47.01 percent in 2015.

60 Percent of the Time It Works, Every Time

So, now that we’ve established that the Broncos have nowhere to go but up in the passing department (except for Tim Tebow, don’t sign Tim Tebow…), word just came over the wire today that Mark Sanchez would be traded from the Eagles for a conditional draft pick. This should help staunch the bleeding on their roster, but is he a locked-and-loaded starter? 

Needless to say, every free agent on the market (and some available for trade) has been linked to the Broncos in the wake of this offseason catastrophe. A short list of the major players includes: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Robert Griffin IIIBrandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick, and it doesn't seem like they are done tweaking yet.

Which of these quarterbacks would give the Orange Crush the best chance to succeed in 2016? We can look at their NEP to find out. The table below shows each of the aforementioned quarterbacks, ranked by Passing NEP, and comparing them on their production via the pass. I also included the 2015 league averages for comparison.

Player Drop Backs Pass NEP Per-Play Pass Success %
Ryan Fitzpatrick 581 81.62 0.14 44.23%
Mark Sanchez 332* 49.51* 0.15* 49.40%*
2015 Average 408 46.05 0.11 47.01%
Brian Hoyer 394 39.56 0.10 48.48%
Brandon Weeden 150 16.26 0.11 48.67%
Colin Kaepernick 272 -9.49 -0.03 38.97%
Robert Griffin III* 247* -36.84* -0.15* 43.32%*
Nick Foles 351 -59.52 -0.17 37.61%

Note that the numbers above for Sanchez and Griffin are marked with an asterisk, due to 2014 being the most recent season in which they had at least 150 drop backs.

It’s clear that there are only two veteran options that bring the Broncos over the 2015 league average in all categories, and those are Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez. It’s no surprise, then, that they are courting Fitzpatrick with such fervor right now, despite a few clubs vying for his signature. What surprises me is that we had not heard much about Sanchez in connection with the team, given the fact that he’s shown that in the right system, he can thrive. It’s possible league Broncos executives and scouts believe that Sanchez was a product of the Chip Kelly quick-read system in Philadelphia, but I’d think he was at least worth taking a look at.

Hoyer and Weeden fall short of a few marks for being above-average quarterbacks in 2015, mostly due to the fact that they can never seem to be even average for more than brief stretches of time. The defending Super Bowl Champion Broncos don’t want to have a scatter-shot passer under center.

Then we get to three names who are heavily talked about, but I can't fathom it based on production. Each year since his breakout, Kaepernick’s passing accuracy and value has slipped. There is a serious issue when you have a Passing Success Rate on par with JaMarcus Russell’s career rate in this metric. In addition, Griffin hasn’t shown that he’s physically or mentally able to play in the NFL for quite some time now. Foles has dropped off of the Broncos’ radar, for now. Thank goodness for small consolations.

Stay Classy, Denver

What will be next for the Broncos, then?

Now with Sanchez in the fold for a much cheaper deal than they would have paid to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the best solution for Denver, is to select a project passer like Jacob Coker or Dak Prescott with a mid-round rookie pick, and put them in competition against second-year backup Trevor Siemian. Siemian is the only other quarterback on Denver’s roster right now, standing 6' 3'', weighing 220 pounds, and having run a 4.94 40-yard dash at Northwestern’s pro day in 2014. He’s not the strongest-armed passer in the world, and has mediocre decision-making skills, but he’s accurate, mobile, and knows his limitations.

Perhaps the Broncos won’t have a stud passer this year, but there are so few scenarios in which they could get worse under center. Sanchez is a perfectly serviceable stop-gap, and should be much better than the production they had in 2015. The Broncos front office just has to be smart and not panic at this point, and they could still be a competitive team in the near future.

If they do splurge on another veteran or take a subpar passer at 31st overall in the NFL Draft, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles.