ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For a few surreal minutes, as he paced around the Denver Broncos’ training facility preparing for his first draft as an NFL general manager, George Paton allowed himself to daydream.
The 50-year-old talent-evaluation whiz, a man who’d been handpicked by John Elway to replace the living legend as the Broncos’ GM, had prepared for virtually every possible scenario that could go down in Thursday night’s first round, which would begin with Denver owning the ninth overall pick. Trade up, stand pat, trade down, land a quarterback, grab a shutdown corner — it was all theoretically there for the taking, and Paton felt he had a handle on all of the options that might present themselves as the moment of truth approached.
And then, just two hours before showtime, Paton was compelled to ponder a possibility he never could have envisioned: Aaron Rodgers as the Broncos’ quarterback, as if gifted by the football gods.
By night’s end, reality had set in, and Rodgers — at least for now — remained a member of the Green Bay Packers, who’d made it clear to the football world that they had no desire to trade the reigning MVP. Paton, undaunted, was celebrating the arrival of Patrick Surtain II, the former Alabama cornerback he’d chosen at No. 9 after rebuffing the efforts of four teams eager to surrender draft currency in exchange for moving up to the spot.
“I’m very, very excited, because we got one hell of a player in Patrick,” Paton said late Thursday night as he stood outside the Broncos’ draft room, where Surtain had been the highest-rated defensive player on the board. “Once it was our turn and he was there for the taking, there was no question in my mind that it was the right move. Teams were calling, and we had our chances to move down, but at that point, they were gonna have to blow us away.”
No one did, but even after picking Surtain, Paton stayed aggressive, eyeballing a potential trade back into the first round for another player (he’ll remain nameless, for now) the GM coveted who he thought might drop into the 20s. When that didn’t happen, it was time to start plotting scenarios for Friday’s second and third rounds, with the Broncos holding the eighth and seventh picks, respectively.
Following a late-night press conference in the expansive field house on the other side of the Broncos’ practice fields, Paton walked back to the main building, stood in the corridor outside the draft room and reflected on his first night in the big chair.
“It played out really nicely,” he said, flashing a wide grin. “And now, I’m gonna go collapse.”
The man had his reasons. He’d just completed an exhausting but enthralling two-day stretch in which he landed one quarterback (veteran Teddy Bridgewater) in a trade and considered drafting another (former Ohio State star Justin Fields) with that ninth overall pick.
Throw in a heart-to-heart conversation shortly before making the Bridgewater deal with third-year head coach Vic Fangio and last year’s starting quarterback, 24-year-old Drew Lock, and Paton’s pre-draft attentiveness to the sport’s most important position was palpable.
And then, as Thursday’s first round approached, things turned downright crazy: One of the greatest quarterbacks ever to spin it entered the equation, and Paton’s head started spinning accordingly.
Earlier in the afternoon, it was reported that Rodgers, a three-time league MVP and future first-ballot Hall of Famer, wished to leave Green Bay after 16 seasons, sending shock waves through the football world. An hour later, Pro Football Talk pegged Denver as a likely destination if Rodgers were to be traded, and buzz steadily began building in league circles about a possible trade between the two teams.
Paton, who the previous morning had sent a sixth-round pick to the Carolina Panthers to acquire Bridgewater — a quarterback he knew well from his 14-season stint as a Minnesota Vikings personnel executive — reasoned that the Packers’ asking price would be steep. With teams like the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears eager to move up, there was potential for Paton to use such a swap to stockpile premium 2022 picks that could be part of a trade package.
At the very least, he felt compelled to do his due diligence. The only question was, would the Packers play ball? When a third party made it clear to him that his Green Bay counterpart, Brian Gutekunst, had no desire to entertain such a conversation, Paton quickly abandoned the speculative scenario and pivoted back into draft mode.
A longtime personnel executive who, despite repeated and consistent interest from teams conducting GM searches, had patiently waited much of the 21st century to run his own draft room, Paton wasn’t fazed.
“George is very thorough,” said Elway, who stepped down last January after 10 years as the Broncos’ general manager, transitioning to a role as president of football operations. “Some people turn over every stone; George turns over every pebble.”
Yet when it came to scouting Surtain, Paton essentially crawled under a rock and peered out in secrecy, doing everything he could to conceal the depth of his interest.
“Never called him,” Paton said. “Never did a Zoom interview, and told the coaches not to Zoom him, either. I didn’t want people to know, and I already had a great comfort zone about his character and playing ability. I was good.”
On some level, that comfort zone dated back to Paton’s stint as the Miami Dolphins’ player personnel director from 2001-2006. During that stretch Surtain’s father, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, teamed with Sam Madison to form one of the league’s best — and liveliest — cornerback tandems.
“Just watching (the elder Surtain) him in practice every day, it was awesome,” Paton recalled. “Every play was like a battle. He and Sam would get after it; they’d fight receivers and never let up. He was just a dawg.”
Given that Surtain II projects to be a taller, faster (though possibly less grimy) version of his dad, it’s not hard to see why Paton was so excited about picking him, even after having added cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (one-year, $9.5 million) and Ronald Darby (three years, $30 million) in free agency.
It helped that Paton had relieved some of the pressure to draft a quarterback by trading for Bridgewater, giving Fangio — who has a 12-20 record in his two seasons — the prospect of having a seasoned pro at quarterback as he tries to make a case for continuing as the Broncos’ head coach. It also reduced Paton’s temptation to trade up in the first round, with Fields as his likely target.
As it turned out, the Broncos could have drafted Fields at No. 9, and Paton would have — but he wanted Surtain more. Fangio, one of football’s savviest defensive strategists, was perfectly fine with adding another premium player to a loaded secondary. (Former South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, who went eighth overall to Carolina, was also very high on the Broncos’ board.)
Even before the unanticipated Rodgers-related drama, Paton had explored the framework of potential trade-down deals with numerous teams. Trades with the Philadelphia Eagles (12th overall) or Vikings (14th) were more palatable for Paton, who believed there was a dropoff after the top 15 or so players on his board; the Bears (20th) or Saints (28th), conversely, would have to offer enough to make it worth his while.
“Maybe we get a haul,” Paton mused early Wednesday morning as he sat in his office. “Hauls don’t come along very often, but when you can find a team that really, really wants to come up, it’s possible, and then you have to think hard about it.”
Yet on Thursday night, as the first five picks came off the board, Paton began to feel hopeful that Surtain might be attainable at nine.
“If Surtain’s there,” Paton announced in the draft room, “we’re taking him.” With Fangio on one side of him and Elway on the other, the GM smiled once the Panthers put in their card for Horn. Then things got a little hectic: As the Broncos went on the clock, three calls from team executives looking to trade up arriving simultaneously. Paton fielded one, farmed off another to vice president of football administration Rich Hurtado and put a third GM on hold.
None of the offers was good enough to get him to budge. He countered to each GM before ending the call, imploring each of them to holler back if willing to meet the respective asking price. Then the wait began.
“What do you guys think?” Paton asked Elway, Fangio and the other people in the draft room. “We’re gonna do this — Surtain is the guy — unless someone blows us away. It’s gonna take a hell of a deal to pass up this guy.”
With five minutes left before the Broncos’ pick was due, Paton’s phone rang, and the draft room grew tense and quiet. Was it one of the GMs, sweetening his offer? Was it another team’s GM, coming out of the woodwork to propose a trade?
Nope — it was Paton’s 12-year-old son, Beau, looking for some scoop.
“Who are we taking?” Beau asked his father, who laughed and quickly ended the conversation. With three minutes left on the clock, Paton extinguished the trade-down possibilities and ended the suspense, and soon everyone in the draft room was celebrating Surtain’s selection and looking ahead to the second and third rounds.
From Paton’s perspective, the Broncos “filled enough holes in free agency that we can stay true to our board and not reach. We’re good on the front lines; we need to add to our depth and build a foundation. And we’ll keep trying to do that, and look to add anyone who can improve our team.”
In theory, the Broncos could still try to add one of the greatest quarterbacks of his era — or any era — depending upon what transpires between Rodgers and the Packers in the coming days or months. Unless and until that happens, Paton will keep turning over pebbles and embracing an opportunity he waited a long time to seize.
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