By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
When Peyton Manning retired at the end of last season and Brock Osweiler bolted to the Houston Texans for $72 million, the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos found themselves without a quarterback as they began their campaign for a second straight NFL championship.
Losing the top two players on your depth chart—at the game’s most important position—would be enough to warrant panic on any team trying to retain its elite status. However, with the play of both former passers suspect at best last season, is their departure really a bad thing for the Broncos?
With Manning and Osweiler, the team finished 14th in the league with 4,216 passing yards, 28th in passing touchdowns with 19, and led the league with 23 interceptions.
While the interceptions were largely due to Manning’s early season struggles, Osweiler’s quarterback rating of 86.4 was nothing to brag about, good for 25th in the NFL and just a hair better than Blaine Gabbert’s for the San Francisco 49ers.
Meanwhile, in 13 games during the past two seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles, Mark Sanchez totaled 18 touchdowns and completed 64 percent of his passes. He also threw 15 interceptions, but Sanchez’s performance was slightly better than what Denver got from either Osweiler or Manning last season.
The Broncos acquired Sanchez in a March trade, and he’ll presumably battle first round draft pick Paxton Lynch out of Memphis for the starting job.
Even if Lynch ends up starting the bulk of the games for Denver, the drop-off from last season may not be a significant one. Over the past five years, 24 rookie quarterbacks have played a significant number of snaps.
In that time, rookies have averaged 209 yards, 1.1 touchdowns, and 0.9 interceptions per game. Compare this to 263.5 yards, 1.2 touchdowns, and 1.4 interceptions per game averages from the Broncos’ quarterback tandem in 2015.
Additionally, rookie quarterbacks over the last five years averaged a 58.1 percent completion rate and a quarterback rating of 79.4, compared to 60.7 percent and 76.3 from Manning and Osweiler last year.
If Lynch’s rookie performance were average, it would not be a significant drop in production, especially when you consider the talent-laden Denver team that Lynch will lead. This also assumes that the average will hold true for Lynch, an arguably more talented prospect than nearly half the rookie starters during that period.
With the expected production of the Sanchez-Lynch duo being comparable if not better than what Denver had last year, the Broncos are also getting excellent value. Osweiler will have a salary cap hit of $12 million this season for the Houston Texans, while Sanchez will count only $4.5 million against the Denver cap.
As a rookie, Lynch will count only about $1.7 million against the cap, meaning that Sanchez and Lynch combined will cost Denver just over half of what Osweiler costs Houston this season.
While Broncos fans may lament such a change at the quarterback position, the stats show a different story. Denver made shrewd decisions this offseason in a difficult circumstance following Manning’s retirement, and ended up better off at the position as a result.
Sanchez is likely to be an improvement or at least a similar producer to Osweiler, and the Broncos have a potential franchise player in Paxton Lynch, who has tremendous athletic ability and could develop into a great pro.
It’s always better to have a pro bowl quarterback on your roster, but when there isn’t one easily available, you make the best of your situation. That’s what Denver did with Sanchez and Lynch, and it’s the reason why the Broncos will still be favored in 2016 to win the AFC West division.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.