A trio of youngsters, including two prospective members of the 2014 draft class, are good candidates to succeed Peyton Manning.
Choosing a quarterback to replace Manning is no easy task, but it is one the Denver Broncos are already preparing for. That became clear when they restructured the 37-year-old's deal, supposedly to avoid paying his hefty salary in the event of injury.
That strategy shows the Broncos are aware of the fragility of their situation with Manning. The aging passing great, who has endured four neck surgeries, is nearing the end of the line.
What makes choosing his successor tough is that the Broncos have been far from predictable in the last three years. What other team would have gone from Tim Tebow to Manning and made it work with roughly the same personnel?
There is also the problem that Manning's arrival has forced the Broncos brass to build to win now. In many respects this is a veteran roster trying to beat the closing of its Super Bowl window.
That is how it appears at least, but a closer look at the Broncos shows a team primed for a young quarterback to take over.
The likes of Wes Welker, Champ Bailey and Shaun Phillips might be chasing a Super Bowl before retirement. However, there are a number of youthful playmakers on both sides of the ball. The defense boasts the awesome Von Miller, along with Chris Harris, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams.
Manning's successor would benefit from throwing to 20-something wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. The backfield boasts dynamic potential in bright young things Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman.
The point is that while the Broncos chose the veteran option with Manning, they are likely to go younger when it comes time to replace him.
Given the paucity of next year's free-agency market, that will mean finding No. 18's successor in the 2014 draft. Of the established pros who will be available next offseason, only Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter Josh Freeman seems realistic.
However, if Freeman is available, it means he will have failed to impress Greg Schiano and have been usurped by 2013 draftee Mike Glennon. That is hardly a glowing recommendation for taking up Manning's mantle.
So which prospective draftees should Denver target? Two in particular appear to be strong candidates and could fall into Denver's draft range.
That is under the assumption the Broncos produce the double-digit win 2013 season their talent merits. The first is Alabama's AJ McCarron.
It helped Andrew Luck top the rookie charts in passing yards in year one. Now McCarron is not in that category, but his pro readiness should appeal to the Broncos.
It would prevent a third major schematic shift in Denver. The offense has already gone from running a read-option scheme, to a hurry-up, pocket-based air attack.
McCarron fits more with a trimmed down version of the latter. Critics will point to how he has benefited from a strong defense at Alabama.
Again that should tempt, rather than deter, the Broncos. Head coach John Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio have built a powerful defense.
The unit is capable of carrying this team without Manning. When he coached the Carolina Panthers, Fox was used to letting his defenses be the driving force.
McCarron was also helped by productive running games, as a member of the Crimson Tide. His job was made easier by rushers like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
Yet just like the defensive side, that should endear McCarron to the Broncos. Fox has never been reluctant to feature the ground game.
The likes of Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart pounded it out in Carolina. When the Broncos made the playoffs in 2011, Willis McGahee was as big a factor as Tebow.
Shifting from Manning to McCarron, could let Fox get back to a more familiar dynamic. The Broncos would get more of a game-manager than a game-winner.
That may not sound particularly appealing after Manning. However, finding a like-for-like replacement for a legend of the game will be next to impossible.
The accusations of McCarron being a product of his supporting cast are likely to leave him on the board longer. That would be an advantage if the Broncos find themselves looking for a quarterback next April.
If they are unable or unwilling to select McCarron, the Broncos should consider Georgia's Aaron Murray. Brooks' description of Murray is particularly interesting:
As a pocket passer, Murray shows exceptional awareness and anticipation, routinely leading receivers into open areas. While he lacks a big arm, he makes up for this deficiency with impeccable timing from the pocket.
The pocket instincts Brooks attributes to Murray, make him a viable choice. Manning has always thrived thanks to his ability to read defenses and quickly respond to any adjustments in coverage.
The speed and timing of his passes has left plenty of covering defenders trailing receivers on the run. As a player displaying similar qualities, Murray should be on Denver's radar.
The conclusion of Brooks' description makes Murray seem like a good fit for the Broncos:
If Murray consistently displays the ability to deliver pinpoint throws in the short/intermediate range, he could convince a quarterback-needy team that he is capable of thriving in a quick-rhythm passing attack at the next level.
Quick and rhythm-based could be used to describe every offense Manning has ever run. Murray's lack of arm strength would put many off.
That is especially true given the Broncos' current ability to stretch the field with Thomas and Decker. However, Murray's accurate short game could prompt a move to a version of the West Coast offense.
The Broncos already have many of the pieces in place to execute such a scheme. Both Decker and Thomas stand 6'3" and weigh over 210 pounds.
They possess the ideal size for the inside slants and route concepts of the West Coast system. Jacob Tamme is the exact kind of athletic, Brent Jones-type tight end all West Coast offenses need.
Hillman and Ball are good receivers out of the backfield, and Jacob Hester is an excellent pass-catching fullback. Adding Murray to this mix would give Denver a possession-based passing attack.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention 2012 draftee Brock Osweiller. There is not really much to go on with the tall signal-caller.
Coming in for a series of kneel-downs in his rookie year hardly endorses him to take over from Manning. However, Osweiller must have endeared himself to the Broncos to merit a second-round pick.
Osweiller boasts a cannon of an arm, but he is not refined as Manning. Denver may hope that tutelage from a true great can turn Osweiller's raw physical gifts into polished skill.
However, Manning's level of instinct cannot be taught. Fox told The Denver Post Osweiller remains the choice for the future, putting the pressure on the youngster to live up to that billing.
If he can't do it, Fox and John Elway will have to turn to the 2014 draft for an heir apparent. The suggestions made here may seem outlandish.
However, they fit for a team that has shown no fear in junking what has worked before, and risking a new formula. Of course, at this point, Manning remains in the fold.
However, if the Broncos win the Super Bowl this season, as this author believes they will, Manning could walk off into the sunset. That would make the ideas expressed here very relevant.
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