MERILATT MONDAY

By George, it’s time to start holding the Broncos GM accountable

Oct 3, 2022, 6:00 AM
George Paton...
(Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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For the most part, George Paton has gotten a free pass in Denver. The Broncos general manager has enjoyed a relatively criticism-free first season-plus in the Mile High City.

He’s touted as a great drafter. He’s lauded as the executive who landed Russell Wilson via a blockbuster trade. And he’s praised for changing the culture around the franchise.

To some extent, these things are true. He did select Patrick Surtain in 2021, as well as Javonte Williams. Surtain is going to be a star. Williams has been very good early in his career.

But Surtain was the No. 9 overall pick. A GM is supposed to be able to hit on a selection in the top 10; that’s a layup. And Williams has only been a part-time starter thus far; he’s shared carries with Melvin Gordon throughout his first 20 games.

Beyond those two players, however, Paton’s drafts have been mostly anemic. Quinn Meinerz and Baron Browning were third-round picks a year ago; they’re bit players. Caden Sterns was a fifth-rounder; he’s starting now because of the injury to Justin Simmons. And Jonathan Cooper has had little impact. The other four members of the class of 2021 are already gone.

This year, the draft has been even less impactful for the Broncos. Nik Bonitto has hardly played. Greg Dulcich has been injured. Montrell Washington had some nice punt returners on Sunday, while Damarri Mathis made a nice tackle, providing the only highlights through the first four games of 2022 from rookies.

Many will point that Denver’s class was thinned out because of the trade for Wilson, which sent a first- and second-round pick this year, as well as next, to Seattle. That’s true, but the Broncos still had two premium picks, neither one of which has done a thing thus far.

In addition, Wilson has been underwhelming. While the quarterback looked good in the team’s loss to the Raiders, he’s been less-than-stellar through his first month as a Bronco. He’s on pace for a 4,000-yard season, but has only thrown four touchdowns and has led an offense that is averaging just 16.5 points per game.

That’s not what the Broncos had in mind when they traded away multiple picks and three veteran players for the QB. It’s also not what they need from the player they just inked to a $245-million contract extension.

The trade is on Paton. So is the contract, which was unavoidable after making the deal with the Seahawks.

But the questionable moves by the general manager go beyond the draft, the trade and the contract. Instead, they center around three decisions that bit the Broncos on Sunday, leading to a loss to the previously winless Raiders.

After Williams rushed for 903 yards as a rookie, many wanted to see what he could do as the team’s workhorse back. After splitting carries evenly with Gordon as a rookie, it was time to let the running back carry the load.

Instead, Paton brought Gordon back. That immediately created a situation where Denver would be forced into a running-back-by-committee approach, as the veteran was never going to be content only getting a handful of carries per game.

That led to disaster in Las Vegas, when Gordon’s second-quarter fumble ended a Broncos drive and led to a Raiders scoop-and-score touchdown. The play swung the momentum of the game, putting Denver in a hole from which they could never quite dig out.

Gordon is a good player, but he’s struggling this season. He has four fumbles, two of which have been lost. And he’s clearly pressing, in part because he’s trying to prove that he deserves more carries. He’s also cold when he enters the game, as he was on Sunday, when he didn’t get a carry until 70 minutes after kickoff, which turned into the fateful play.

It’s a bad situation, one that almost everyone saw coming. Yet, Paton created it.

He also created the mess the Broncos have on the right side of their offensive line. Graham Glasgow and Cam Fleming were repeated liabilities on Sunday, unable to block the Raiders far too often. This led to a lackluster running game and multiple hits on Wilson.

Of course, Glasgow is playing because Meinerz is hurt, but the lack of depth is troubling. Fleming is on the field because the Broncos once again failed to address their annual need at right tackle, other than signing Billy Turner, who has yet to appear in a game as he recovers from an injury.

Speaking of not addressing needs, Denver once again ignored the middle linebacker position during the offseason. Other than signing Alex Singleton, a special teams player, they didn’t add anyone in free agency or the draft. Instead, they chose to stick with Jonas Griffith and Josey Jewell.

On Sunday, the limitations of both players were on full display. They couldn’t stop the run, as the Raiders rushed for 212 yards as a team, and they couldn’t cover the middle of the field, as they were repeatedly chasing receivers after receptions. It was the continuation of a familiar pattern.

Somehow, Paton thought it would fix itself, however. Jewell, who has been a part of the problem for four years, was suddenly going to blossom into a different player? And Griffith, an undrafted player who was acquired in a trade with the Niners, was going to become a starter in his third year? Both notions were overly optimistic, to be kind.

But perhaps the biggest blunder of all for Paton was his decision at head coach. The fact that he let Vic Fangio stay for a third season should’ve been a sign that his judgment was lacking. The early returns on Nathaniel Hackett have not been good.

After interviewing 10 candidates to replace Fangio, Paton settled on the former Packers offensive coordinator. He also allowed Hackett to surround himself with an extremely inexperienced coaching staff, one where all three coordinators were doing that job for the first time in their careers.

They’ve struggled, to put it mildly. The group’s in-game decisions and game management were so bad in Weeks 1 and 2 that they had to bring another coach, the 31st on the staff, to help in those areas. That’s not an encouraging sign, as it suggests that there was little faith that the group could solve the problem without outside assistance.

On Sunday, they oversaw a team that looked a lot like something from the Fangio era. The offense sputtered at times, especially in the third quarter. The defense couldn’t get off the field, particularly when they needed a late stop to give the team a chance in the fourth quarter. And the special teams had a big mistake, this time a missed extra point when Denver had a chance to take a 17-16 lead.

Add it all up and the Broncos are a mess. And largely, their issues remain the same as they were the day Paton arrived in Denver.

It’s still early. The Broncos could figure it out. But if some of George Paton’s decisions don’t start paying off, it’s time to start questioning if the team is in the right hands.

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