When Peyton Manning retired following the 2015 season, it solved one problem for the Denver Broncos and created another.
Through most of Denver's Super Bowl season, Manning was dog-awful. Impacted by injuries that hampered his accuracy and velocity, he was mostly an innocent bystander in a season that allowed him to go out on top. It was a relief he realized this and bowed out gracefully.
However, there was the small matter of replacing him. Backup Brock Osweiler, who acquitted himself fairly well when Manning was sidelined by a foot injury last season, rejected the team's free-agent offers and toddled off to Houston, where he's been unremarkable. The Broncos selected Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round and traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Eagles for Mark Sanchez.
In addition, they had Trevor Siemian, the Northwestern alum who they selected in the seventh round of the 2015 draft.
I hadn't done a ton of tape work on Siemian until the 2016 preseason, when Manning was out the door and Siemian was competing with Lynch for the starting job (Denver released Sanchez in early September). I had done tape work on Lynch—in fact, I did tape work with Lynch the day before the draft. Based on what I saw and what he said, I felt Lynch had all the tools but was a ways away from reading the field and making quick decisions in the fashion NFL quarterbacks must do to succeed.
When I watched Siemian this preseason, two important positives stood out: He has a quick, efficient release, and he throws with consistent mechanics that allow the ball to zip out of his hand. He doesn't have to overthrow because he's using his lower body to derive strength, and he understands the concept of applying upper-body torque to add velocity. There were issues with field reads and route communication, but perhaps most importantly, Siemian played at the right speed after the snap—he processed things quickly if not always perfectly, and he was decisive in the right ways.
Eventually, Siemian won the starting job, which put him in a bit of a pressure situation: Coached by a former NFL quarterback in Gary Kubiak, on a team run by perhaps the best quarterback of all time in John Elway, replacing perhaps the best quarterback of all time in Manning, and trying to help the defending Super Bowl champs back to the big game.
Oh, and he stepped over two first-round draft picks to get there. No big deal.
Elway was the one who made it public on Sept. 5: Siemian would go into the 2016 season as the starter.
"Trevor is the guy," Elway told reporters. "We have a lot of confidence in Trevor and believe that he can do the job. It's Trevor's job, but he's not going to be looking over his shoulder. He's got a lot of support. Trevor earned the job. I'm excited about it. I'm excited to see him play and I think we're in good shape there."
In Kubiak, Siemian has a head coach who will bring him along in helpful ways. As a play-caller, Kubiak is perhaps the NFL's biggest proponent of boot action, in which the quarterback fakes to the running back and rolls to his dominant side (the right side, in most cases). This presents a few advantages for a young quarterback. First, Siemian doesn't have to read the full field when rolling right; boot action cuts the field in half. Second, it gives him a clearer picture with a free area of field to find his receivers with less defensive pressure. Finally, if the quarterback is mobile (and Siemian is, to a certain extent), he can adapt to coverages and pick up extra rushing yards if his receivers present closed reads.
One disadvantage Siemian has dealt with all season, which showed up in Denver's 30-27 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, is his pass protection. Among the five starters on Denver's offensive line, only center Matt Paradis has played at an above-average level all season. Though rookie fullback Andy Janovich has been a tremendous blocker, the level of pressure Siemian has encountered forces Kubiak to shave off parts of his playbook, focusing on quick drops, quick reads and quick throws. It's an efficient modus operandi, but you eventually have to stop hiding your quarterback and let him define the offense.
This second-quarter incompletion to Demaryius Thomas is emblematic of the timing issues Siemian still has when he gets antsy in the pocket or fails to time up a route before coverage obliterates it. This is a common negative habit among young quarterbacks, and you can't break them out of it until they get enough in-game reps to intuit that the windows for open receivers in the NFL are much smaller than in college. Siemian has Thomas on an outside slant, but he's late with the ball, allowing cornerback Kenneth Acker to deflect the ball. Especially when you're playing a defense as reliant on aggressive man coverage as the Chiefs are, you must be precise with the timing of your passes to routes.
This wasn't the last time Siemian would have this problem.
However, Siemian's next throw (on the next play from scrimmage) showed me a lot. This is a 20-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders, and more than the throw, watch how well Siemian navigates the pocket under pressure before uncorking it. Chiefs tackle Chris Jones manhandled right guard Michael Schofield back into the pocket, forcing Siemian to move to his left. He did so while keeping his feet calm, his eye on the target and his mechanics straight. He threw at Acker again, and Sanders was free upfield for the catch.
That kind of pocket presence, especially when you're getting hit and pressured more than you should, is something some quarterbacks never get. I was extremely impressed by this play.
This howling incompletion to Sanders on the next drive, however, shows there's still a ways to go before Siemian is fully integrated in Kubiak's offense. Sanders is running upfield near the boundary and Siemian throws it more to the seam, yards behind him. Nice throw and all, but not exactly right out of the playbook. Sanders' frustration is evident.
Here's another incompletion, this time to running back Devontae Booker, near the end of the first half. Siemian had just missed Thomas late on another slant—this time, the late throw had Thomas getting hredded by cornerback Phillip Gaines—and Siemian followed that up with another timing-issue throw to his running back. Booker still could have caught it, but this was a point in the game where Siemian's struggles with timing and Kansas City's excellent defense compounded matters.
Denver ended the first half with a 9-3 deficit, and things did not look good.
That makes what Siemian did in the second half all the more impressive. Yes, the Broncos lost the game, but Siemian made a number of throws that were exceptional—the types of throws you want to see as building blocks for a long-term NFL starter. On the night, Siemian completed three of the five passes he attempted that traveled over 20 yards in the air, for 175 yards and two touchdowns. This was what the Broncos needed to see—whether their young quarterback could put things on his shoulders against an elite defense.
The first deep touchdown came halfway through the fourth quarter, and Siemian showed outstanding timing on the throw as Sanders beat Gaines on an over route.
The 76-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bennie Fowler on the next drive was not at all a good look for Gaines. The Chiefs threw a zero-coverage look at the Broncos with no deep safety help. Fowler had Gaines outside one-on-one, and for whatever reason, Gaines looked back to the pocket. Fowler had a free release all the way to the end zone.
So, yes, this was a bit of a layup. But watch how Siemian drops this in the bucket—it's a deep throw across his body, with excellent timing and arc. He understands how to take a little off the throw, and the results were positive.
"He played like a champ," Kubiak said of Siemian after the game, per the Broncos' postgame notes distributed to media. "We really struggled with them in the first half, early in the game and being able to protect anyhow any way. We found a way to muster it up. I think Trevor's play was tremendous. He made big plays across the board. He made some tremendous throws. I wish he could have gotten out of here with a win tonight. That's part of being a pro. You have to battle through it. I'm proud of him. He played really well."
He did, and though the loss has the Broncos at 7-4 and in third place in the competitive AFC West, this game may have showed the Broncos' coaches and executives what they needed to see to give Siemian a more open game plan and more opportunities to create explosive plays.
As for his long-term future? With Lynch waiting in the wings, the quarterback situation in Denver is complicated, but Siemian has proved that he has the base attributes required for success at the NFL level, and he's on a good developmental track to acquire the skills that he lacks.
So now, the Broncos have another problem: Which quarterback is their long-term starter? After a very odd offseason, it's a good problem to have.