Rating the Denver Broncos' quarterback possibilities for 2021

Deshaun Watson may not be a likely candidate to replace Drew Lock as the Broncos' starting quarterback, but it never hurts to ask. Matt Patterson/AP Photo

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A long, long time ago in a football galaxy not so far away, coach Mike Shanahan had some things to say about free agency and the Denver Broncos.

"Everybody says we're in on everybody. Same thing every year. 'Oh and the Broncos are in discussions' type thing. Sometimes we are, but most of the time we weren't, but if you're an agent and your guy is in the market, just say the Broncos are interested."

It was 2006 and, truth be told, Shanahan was quite often interested, but what goes around has certainly come around as the Broncos are one of the league's designated "quarterback needy" franchises that didn't play in this postseason. The franchise has seemingly launched 1,000 photoshops of a rotating group of veteran quarterbacks -- believed to be on the move this offseason -- to see how they would look in orange and blue.

Yes, they dipped their toe in on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes and were a primo draft pick -- or three -- short before he ended up with the Los Angeles Rams. But many believe another high-profile passer or two could be on the move in the days and weeks ahead, so after discussions with several personnel executives around the league in recent days here is a look at where the Broncos might fit.

Drew Lock remains the starter

Probability: Still most likely

The spinning rumor mill about finding Drew Lock's replacement may not be completely fair for a second-year player, but the bottom line is this: If you want job security, don't be tied for the league lead in interceptions and be last in completion percentage.

Lock needs to get to work, fix the footwork and work on the fundamentals. If the Broncos go the capable-backup route in free agency, bringing in a player good enough to challenge Lock as well as keep the team on track if Lock got hurt. Next season will be Lock's last chance to be the Broncos starter over the long haul.

It's important to remember general manager George Paton dropped this missive during his first week on the job: "When I was in Minnesota, I think we went to the playoffs with six different quarterbacks if I'm not mistaken. That's not ideal, but you can still win if you don't have the franchise guy. You can still win, but obviously we're looking."

And president of football operations John Elway followed up with: "It doesn't necessarily have to be the franchise guy, but he has to allow us and give us the chance to win. ... It's a very difficult position to find. Drew did a nice job this year, but George will continue to look to fill that spot if we don't think that Drew is that guy."

Fresh start for a struggling vet

Probability: Only if stars align, as in a lot of stars in a rare alignment

This question was posed to multiple personnel executives of other teams: How many veteran quarterbacks are likely to be traded after the Stafford deal? The responses ranged from "a lot fewer than people think" to "the Stafford deal kind of set the market and now people can see how expensive it really is."

The Eagles' Carson Wentz will carry what would be the biggest "dead money" hit in league history if Philadelphia does trade him and that would seem to be an enormous impediment in a year when the salary cap will go down. Given the Eagles signed him to an extension in 2019, Wentz would make $25.4 million guaranteed next season on a new team.

By contrast, Lock is on his rookie deal -- a cap hit of $1.912 million -- and was better in almost every statistical metric than Wentz other than interceptions. The two were tied for last in the league with 15.

As one executive pointed out, "It probably varies by how much cap room you have and if you're good enough right now to surrender the draft picks, but I'd rather have the guy on his rookie deal and have to pivot later than trading a pile of assets for a player who needs significant re-building and still has a lot of years at big [cap] hits left and then have to pivot."

Some in the league believe the Eagles want multiple first-round picks for Wentz, a price the Broncos didn't offer for Stafford.

While the Jets appear to be listening to offers for Sam Darnold, the team has offered nothing publicly. Personnel executives say they haven't seen, nor heard, anything from the Jets to indicate Darnold is really on the market. Darnold got a long look from the Broncos during his draft year -- 2018 -- and is on his rookie deal.

Lock, Wentz and Darnold were the only three starters in the league to finish below a 60% completion rate this season. Wentz and Darnold both have significant repair work to make, maybe more than Lock in some areas.

Deshaun Watson, come on down

Probability: Bordering on absurd

Watson is Mount Everest, Moby Dick, King Solomon's Mine and Elysian Fields of quarterback pursuits.

He's a 25-year-old franchise quarterback so good the Texans may not actually be able to secure enough in return to make trading him even make sense. Acquiring him and maintaining a roster good enough to compensate for the pile of draft picks given away -- not to mention a likely defensive starter or two -- is a major riddle.

There is also the matter of a standoff between the Texans and Watson, who signed his four-year contract extension in September. The Texans are going to want to have a conversation about getting back signing bonus money if Watson doesn't show up for work later this year, so mending fences makes the most sense no matter how difficult that would appear.

In the end, Texans general manager Nick Caserio has been in the league more than long enough to know he already has the kind of player everybody else wants in Watson. And he just came from a team -- the Patriots -- who let a franchise quarterback walk -- and win a Super Bowl -- only to miss the playoffs with no long-term solution on the roster.

So, the Broncos will indeed work the phones, do their due diligence and play the it-never-hurts-to-ask game. But some decision makers around the league believe, given their cap room, their roster and what it will take to reel in a guaranteed significant improvement, Lock is still the most likely starter with a make-or-break 2021 season staring him in the face.