Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

The Carolina Panthers traded quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the Denver Broncos in return for a sixth-round draft pick on Wednesday.

Carolina allowed Bridgewater to depart after landing New York Jets signal-caller Sam Darnold earlier this month.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Panthers will pay Bridgewater $7million, while he is said to be set to receive $3m from the Broncos.

Bridgewater spent just one season with the Panthers, completing 69.1 per cent of his passes for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 15 starts.

The 28-year-old rushed for 279 yards and five touchdowns in the 2020 campaign.

Denver could reportedly still be in the market for another QB in Thursday's NFL Draft, despite also having Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel on the roster.

Lock started 13 games for the Broncos last year, completing 57.3 per cent of his passes for 2,933 yards, 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Broncos general manager George Paton said: "Acquiring Teddy Bridgewater adds competition, experience and a strong veteran presence to our quarterback room.

"He's a talented player and leader who's had success in this league in a number of different situations. Being familiar with Teddy from Minnesota, he's going to compete and do everything he can to help us win."

 

The Denver Broncos have signed Justin Simmons to a long-term contract that makes him the highest-paid safety in the NFL. 

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Simmons has inked a four-year, $61million deal. 

It comes after the Broncos placed the franchise tag on Simmons for the second successive year, though they had long spoken of their desire to get a long-term deal done. 

Simmons has established himself as one of the top safeties in the NFL since being drafted in the third round in 2016. 

His 16 interceptions since entering the league are tied for second among all safeties across that timeframe. 

Simmons also has 37 pass breakups in the same span, ranking him eighth at his position since 2016. 

After being named second-team All-Pro in 2019, Simmons was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2020.

Denver Broncos general manager George Paton predicted star outside linebacker Von Miller will "have a Pro Bowl-type season".

The Broncos exercised the $18million option to pick up eight-time NFL Pro Bowler Miller, 31, for 2021 earlier this week.

Miller's future was clouded after missing the whole of 2020 with an ankle injury and being the subject of a criminal investigation in the offseason, which ultimately led to no charges.

The Broncos have since committed to Miller and are expecting big things from the Super Bowl champion and MVP.

"What he's brought since he's been here, he can rush the passer," Paton said of Miller.

"The tape I watched, he still had the juice before he got injured. Pass rushers are a premium, and he's special. He's a special pass rusher.

"You look at some of the great pass rushers of all time, they're rushing the passer well into their 30s.

"Von's been working and I think he's going to have a Pro Bowl-type season."

Miller is still working his way back from the long-term ankle injury which kept him out of 2020, but Paton was adamant they always wanted to sign him.

"Von's been a priority," Paton said. "We wanted Von here since I was here. We were going to try to do that any way we could.

"Had good conversations with Joby Branion, his agent, and I've spoken with Von. We ended up just exercising the option.

"We wanted Von Miller. We wanted Von to be a Bronco."

The Denver Broncos have placed the franchise tag on Justin Simmons as they aim to work out a long-term deal with the Pro Bowl safety. 

A third-round pick by Denver in the 2016 draft, Simmons has made 279 tackles and recorded 16 interceptions and two sacks in 74 games in his NFL career.

The 27-year-old has been an ever-present in the Broncos' defense for the past three seasons, playing all 16 games in those campaigns, while he was voted second-team All-Pro in 2019. 

It is the second successive year where Simmons has received the tag, a move that stops him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. 

However, Broncos general manager George Paton has made clear his determination to agree terms on an extension that will keep the player with the team "for many years to come". 

"Designating Justin with the franchise tag is a procedural move that allows us to continue working on a long-term deal," Paton said in a statement released on Friday.  

"We are completely focused on making sure Justin remains a big part of the Denver Broncos for many years to come." 

Denver finished last season with a 5-11 record, not aided by the absence of edge rusher Von Miller for the entire campaign due to injury. 

Their defense under head coach Vic Fangio gave up 6.54 yards per play, though they ranked 13th in the league against the pass. 

The Denver Broncos enter the offseason surely casting envious glances at the rest of the AFC West.

Still searching for the solution at quarterback, an uneven season for Drew Lock did not provide satisfactory answers about their second-round pick from 2019.

Denver endured a 5-11 season with Lock in and out of the line-up as Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance, Justin Herbert surged to Offensive Rookie of the Year honours with the Los Angeles Chargers and Derek Carr made strides for the Las Vegas Raiders.

This offseason will therefore be defined by what the Broncos decide to do at quarterback, with the heat set to turn up on head coach Vic Fangio as he heads into year three after two successive seasons without a playoff berth.

Using Stats Perform data we look back at another year of disappointment in Denver and assess what they can do this offseason to ensure a five-season exile from the postseason comes to an end in 2021.

Offense

A switch at offensive coordinator from Rich Scangarello to Pat Shurmur did not yield the desired results for the Broncos, who ran one of the least efficient offenses in football.

Denver averaged 5.21 yards per play, putting the Broncos 25th in the NFL. The Broncos' paltry 5.87 yards per pass play illustrated the lack of progress made by Lock, who missed three games last season, with Denver also ranking 25th in that metric.

For a player who came out of college with a reputation for having an elite arm, Lock's tally of 38 completions of 20 yards or more was disappointing. He ranked 19th in that regard but his average distance on such completions of 32.9 yards was ninth among quarterbacks to have completed at least 10.

More worrying for Denver were Lock's numbers on throws of at least 21 air yards. He completed 15 of 63 such attempts for 597 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 49.4 that ranked second last among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 air yards or more.

Lock did not provide the downfield upside some expected of him when he was drafted in 2019 and a tendency to commit turnovers that was all too evident in college has remained in the NFL. His 15 interceptions in 2020 were tied for the most in the NFL.

The absence of Courtland Sutton, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1, did not help Lock's cause, with first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy committing the second-most drops (nine) in the NFL.

However, 23 incomplete targets thrown Jeudy's way were deemed poor throws - only three receivers were on the end of more - that number pointing to below-par play under center as the primary reason for Denver's passing game struggles.

Denver's running game fared slightly better, finishing the year tied-14th for rushes of 10 yards or more with 51. The Broncos were tied for sixth with 13 runs of at least 20 yards.

Melvin Gordon proved a useful addition as he contributed 26 rushes of at least 10 yards. Philip Lindsay had 13, with six of those going for 20 yards or more.

Defense

The Broncos' talent on defense paired with Fangio's acumen on that side of the ball should have theoretically produced a strong season on defense.

However, Denver finished the year a disappointing 20th in the NFL with 5.64 yards per play allowed.

They were 13th against the pass (6.25) but 29th against the run (4.79), with their efforts in stopping opposing attacks not helped by Lock's propensity for turnovers.

A freak injury to Von Miller before the season robbed Denver of one of the most dominant pass rushers of his generation, but the Broncos still finished tied-10th in sacks (39) and 10th in total negative pass plays forced (50).

By contrast, they only forced 83 negative run plays, that total putting them 23rd in the NFL.

The pressure the Broncos created last season did not translate to takeaways, with just three teams producing fewer than Denver's 16.

A lack of a settled line-up at cornerback was a significant reason for their struggles stopping the pass and taking away the football.

Kareem Jackson and Michael Ojemudia were the only Broncos cornerbacks to play in all 16 games, with the latter enduring a difficult rookie year.

Ojemudia had a burn percentage of 63 in 2020. A burn occurs when the receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down, with the defender credited with giving up burn yardage regardless of whether the ball is caught.

No Denver cornerback allowed more yards per burn than Ojemudia's 18.1, with corner featuring prominently on a long list of offseason issues the Broncos must fix.

Offseason

New general manager George Paton has a lot of significant decisions to make to try to inspire a turnaround in fortunes.

The Broncos' future at quarterback casts a large shadow over their plans for the rest of the roster. Picking ninth in the draft, they are in a decent spot to land one of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, the three quarterbacks seen as the cream of the crop after presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence.

Denver must decide whether to stick with Lock or cut him loose in favour of one of that trio, with a possible trade for Deshaun Watson appearing unlikely at this point.

There is a similarly significant decision to make concerning Miller, who will be 32 come the 2021 season and has a contract option the Broncos could decline, eschewing a salary cap hit of $22.25million and making him a free agent.

The Broncos are projected to have $48m in cap space, assuming a cap of $185m, even with Miller on the roster, and a large portion of that may go towards re-signing Pro Bowl free safety Justin Simmons, who played on the franchise tag in 2020.

If they can keep hold of Simmons and find dependable reinforcements at corner, the Broncos defense will be well-placed to make a return to the top half of the league in 2021.

Yet the fate of next season's Broncos likely rests on Paton's ability to succeed where predecessor John Elway consistently failed, and come to a definitive and correct answer under center.

Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said the NFL franchise want eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller back for the 2021 season.

Broncos star Miller, 31, missed the entire 2020 campaign due to an ankle injury, while he has a contract option guaranteeing $7million of his $18m salary for 2021.

The Broncos have until March 16 to exercise the option on Super Bowl champion Miller, who signed a six-year, $114.5m deal in 2016.

New Broncos GM Paton said the team are working with Miller's agent amid suggestions of a potential contract re-structure.

"We want to bring Von back; we're still working through that," Paton told reporters on Thursday.

"I don't want to get into everything, but we want to bring him back."

There is also a legal issue involving veteran linebacker Miller, with Paton insisting he would let the process "play out" and would not discuss the topic.

"Obviously the legal process, what he's going through, it's a serious situation obviously," Paton said.

"I don't know all the details, but we respect what's going on. We do want Von back."

The Broncos finished bottom of the AFC West Conference in 2020, with a 5-11 record.

The Denver Broncos have hired Geroge Paton as their new general manager.

Paton steps into the role after Broncos legend John Elway ceded control of the front office this month.

Previously vice president of football operations/general manager, Elway stepped down from the GM role after the Broncos missed the playoffs for the fifth successive season in 2020.

And the Broncos have turned to Paton, formerly vice president of player personnel/assistant general manager for the Minnesota Vikings, as his successor.

Paton spent 14 seasons in the Vikings' front office and Elway believes he is more worthy of stepping up to the lead role for the Broncos.

Elway, now president of football operations, said: "Early in this process, it became clear why George has been such a coveted GM candidate for so many years.

"He is a proven evaluator who knows every detail of leading football operations. With his experience in all aspects of the job - the college and pro sides, salary cap, trades, working with the head coach and bringing the staff together - George is more than ready to succeed in this role.

"George has waited and worked for the right opportunity, which shows that he is smart and serious about winning. We're thrilled to name George Paton as general manager of the Denver Broncos."

Paton added: "It is an honour to be named general manager of an iconic franchise with a championship tradition like the Denver Broncos.

"This organisation has great resources, tremendous people, a talented young core of players and an outstanding coaching staff.

"In many ways, I feel like this team is a sleeping giant. For me, it is the right place and the right time for this opportunity.

"While it is difficult to leave the Vikings, the relationships I enjoyed in Minnesota are for life. I am truly grateful for the Wilf family, Rick Spielman, Rob Brzezinski, Mike Zimmer and the entire Vikings organisation. Thank you for treating us like family.

"I believe in hard work, the grind and not taking any shortcuts to achieve our goals. Drafting and developing players is the number one priority. We will be aggressive - but not reckless - in adding talent to our roster."

The biggest decision Paton faces this offseason surrounds how the Broncos will move forward at quarterback.

Drew Lock, a second-round pick in 2019, endured a disappointing 2020 campaign, completing just over 57 per cent of his passes and throwing 16 touchdown passes along with 15 interceptions, the highest number of picks in the NFL.

Lock's struggles were seen as the latest example of Elway's inability to find a replacement for Peyton Manning, with whom Denver won the Super Bowl in the 2015 season, the last in which they made the playoffs. For a talented roster to realise its potential, Paton must succeed where Elway failed.

The Green Bay Packers secured the NFC's top seed on Sunday, while Derrick Henry led the Tennessee Titans to the AFC South title.

Aaron Rodgers again powered the Packers, throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Chicago Bears.

Despite their loss, the Bears clinched a playoff spot, as did the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, Henry made history as the Titans won the AFC South, while the Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East.

 

RODGERS DOMINATES AGAIN AS PACKERS CLINCH TOP SEED

Rodgers completed 19 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four TDs in the Packers' 35-16 victory over the Bears.

The Packers quarterback connected for TDs with Robert Tonyan, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Dominique Dafney and Davante Adams.

Rodgers finished the regular season with 48 TD passes. Alongside Peyton Manning, they are the only players in NFL history with 45-plus TD passes in multiple seasons, according to NFL Research. They won the NFL MVP in each of the previous three instances.

While Green Bay finished with a 13-3 record, the 8-8 Bears also reached the playoffs.

 

HISTORY FOR HENRY AS TITANS WIN AFC SOUTH

The Titans claimed the AFC South for the first time since 2008 after a thrilling 41-38 win over the Houston Texans.

Henry became the eighth player in history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a single season.

He had 250 rushing yards and two TDs against the Texans. Of the eight players to achieve the feat, Henry was the only one who needed 200-plus yards in his last game to get there, according to Stats Perform.

A.J. Brown had 151 receiving yards, but the Titans needed Sam Sloman's 37-yard field goal as time expired to edge the Texans.

The Titans became the first team in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and 150-yard receiver in the same game.

 

WASHINGTON WIN NFC EAST AS COLTS, RAMS REACH PLAYOFFS

The Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East thanks to a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions as Washington (7-9) claimed the division.

The Colts (11-5) reached the playoffs thanks to a 28-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Los Angeles Rams (10-6) are also into the postseason after beating the Arizona Cardinals 18-7.

 

Week 17 scores:

Minnesota Vikings 37-35 Detroit Lions
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 44-27 Atlanta Falcons
New England Patriots 28-14 New York Jets
Buffalo Bills 56-26 Miami Dolphins
Cleveland Browns 24-22 Pittsburgh Steelers
New York Giants 23-19 Dallas Cowboys
Baltimore Ravens 38-3 Cincinnati Bengals
Indianapolis Colts 28-14 Jacksonville Jaguars
Tennessee Titans 41-38 Houston Texans
Los Angeles Rams 18-7 Arizona Cardinals
New Orleans Saints 33-7 Carolina Panthers
Green Bay Packers 35-16 Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Chargers 38-21 Kansas City Chiefs
Seattle Seahawks 26-23 San Francisco 49ers
Las Vegas Raiders 32-31 Denver Broncos
Washington Football Team 20-14 Philadelphia Eagles

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