Bo Nix, Jarrett Stidham or Zach Wilson? Broncos’ quarterback battle is truly a three-man race

NFL

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The math is cruel. Three players, one starting quarterback job and essentially one winner.

The Denver Broncos adjourned their offseason program last week, and Jarrett Stidham, Zach Wilson and rookie Bo Nix ended it largely where they started it — in a three-way battle to be the team’s starting quarterback. And they leave awaiting a decision, one that will likely come after training camp starts in late July.

“It went how I wanted it to go,” Broncos coach Sean Payton said of the offseason program for the QBs. “… It kind of went how we expected. Lot of good stuff to coach off of, lot of things to correct.”

Payton and the Broncos’ offensive coaches have insisted that the offseason program was largely about giving the quarterbacks the “install” — the full look at the playbook — to give them the foundation to truly compete later this summer.

Nix is a rookie and Wilson recently arrived in a pre-draft trade with the New York Jets, so they have far less experience in Payton’s offense than Stidham, who was acquired last offseason. The offseason program was also an attempt to remove the angst from the process, something quarterbacks coach Davis Webb said was addressed in their first position-group meeting.

“Competition sometimes gets a little dicey at times, but we nailed that in the first meeting, that’s not going to happen here,” Webb said. “We’re all going to be rooting each other on, we want everybody’s best and what the coaches decide they decide.”

Asked how important that message was in preparation for what’s to come, Webb added: “Oh yeah, no one wants to be in a nasty room, nasty relationship in anything. Communication is the power in any successful relationship; we try to drill that every day.”

When the quarterbacks return for training camp, emphasis will heavily shift to their performance. Because while Payton said he doesn’t have a specific decision date in mind, he knows there’s a deadline.

“I have an end date,” Payton said. “That would be the week before the first game, but I don’t have a set date.”

But until Payton steps into a team meeting and tells the players who the starting quarterback will be this season, it will be the biggest, most-discussed, most poked at, prodded and flipped around depth-chart decision he will make.

“We have a pretty good plan on how to go about this thing,” Webb said. “… We have a pretty good village.”

Each player showed glimpses of what they could provide as the starting quarterback. Along with starting the final two games last season after Russell Wilson was benched, Stidham has a head start in Payton’s offense and five NFL seasons under his belt. He recorded a 31.1 QBR in those starts, completing 40 of 66 passes for 496 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception.

According to several pro personnel executives who have evaluated the Broncos’ quarterbacks, Wilson — the No. 2 overall pick by the Jets in 2021 — has liveliest arm and potentially the biggest portfolio of throws he can make. He never found his footing in New York, recording a sub-40 QBR in each of his three seasons and completing 57% of his passes with 23 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions.

And Nix has the belief from the organization that comes from being the No. 12 pick in April’s draft. It was the first time a Sean Payton-coached team had selected a quarterback prior to the third round, dating to 2006.

The 24-year-old Nix has consistently been lauded for his maturity, a product of five seasons as a starter at Auburn and Oregon, the last of which saw him throw for 4,508 yards and 45 touchdown passes to only three interceptions.

“You can feel his 61 games played in college,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “With experience, a calmness comes along with it. He certainly doesn’t feel like a rookie. He’s learning a brand-new system, so whether you’re a veteran or a rookie coming in, that’s common to all these people.

“He has seen a lot and doesn’t make the same mistake twice very often. There is a maturity level. I think when you draft a guy who is a little bit older, you hope that [maturity] comes with it, but he’s certainly shown that.”

Added Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton: “Whoever winds up coming out, they’re going to give us the best chance to win … I know the politics of the game, I know everybody is looking for [Nix] to be the guy.”

Payton said he took great pains to divide the first-team work as equally as possible for each quarterback in OTAs and minicamps, with each passer often having a specific “day” to practice with the starting offense.

As minicamp ended, Payton was asked if he had seen anything that would influence how first-team work would be divided in training camp. Payton said that he hasn’t decided how to divvy up the workload and wasn’t yet sure if the QBs would start camp with an even number of starter reps.

“We’ll have a plan when we start camp,” Payton said. “And then we begin to make some decisions relative to reps and all of that.”

Payton followed up like he normally does with such queries, indicating that the answer will make itself clear.

“We have to see it,” Payton said. “… I think the most important [thing] is the right decision.”

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