But that changed this year, when Paton accepted the general manager role with the Denver Broncos. There were simply too many things he liked about the job to pass it up.
“There are a lot of reasons,” Paton said. “I mean, when John Elway calls, you listen. We both grew up in Southern California. Obviously, I knew him well as a player. He sold me on what it meant to him to be here in the Denver community and sold me on all the resources they have here.”
Paton also hit it off with Coach Vic Fangio, which made it an even easier decision. But the task facing him in upgrading Denver’s roster was a little more daunting. He needed to decide on whether to find a replacement for quarterback Drew Lock. He needed to strengthen the secondary. He had to decide whether to pick up the option in star pass rusher Von Miller’s contract.
“I feel like we’ve filled some holes and hopefully gotten better,” Paton said of the Broncos’ offseason. “We got more depth.”
Aside from the quarterback search, Paton’s main focus was on defense. Despite being coached by Fangio, a defensive guru, the Broncos gave up 27.9 points per game last season, the eighth-worst mark in the league.
“The defense needed to be fixed,” Paton said. “The secondary was decimated with injuries, so we needed to fix that. We lost some guys in the secondary and lost some older guys. I thought we needed more team speed, and we needed more depth overall.”
Paton opted to pick up Miller’s option to fortify the pass rush, but the real work started in the secondary. Paton made Justin Simmons the NFL’s highest-paid safety, with a contract extension worth $15.25 million per year, because he said he believes him to be the best safety in the game. He then signed free agent cornerback Ronald Darby to a three-year, $30 million deal. When the Chicago Bears cut cornerback Kyle Fuller, he signed him quickly to a one-year deal worth $9.5 million. Paton cut safety Kareem Jackson but was able to re-sign him for one year and $5 million.
To top things off, he used the ninth pick in the draft on Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, who was considered by many to be the best cornerback in the draft. The Broncos may now have the best and deepest secondary in the NFL — a nice place to be when you’re in the same division as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Obviously, we studied the free agency class inside and out, and you know how hard it is to get good corners in free agency,” Paton said. “We thought Darby was the best corner for pure coverage skills in the free agent class. You know this guy can really cover.
“… Once we signed Ronald, we didn’t anticipate signing another corner, but Fuller became available. With Vic being familiar with him, and I was familiar with him being in the NFC North, we signed him. He’s a true pro and is still a very good player. We like his leadership. We had the cap room to go get him for a year. The more corners you have, the better. You can’t have enough corners.”
The Broncos are so deep at cornerback that Fangio will have to be creative in getting Surtain on the field. They have Darby and Fuller on the outside and Bryce Callahan in the slot.
“It’s a valued position, especially for Vic’s defense,” Paton said. “We had the flexibility to draft whoever we want, so that’s what we did.”
The decision not to draft a quarterback at No. 9 drew questions from outside observers, particularly given Lock’s struggles last season. Paton said the team explored all of its options — from trades to free agency to the draft — and decided to find a quarterback to challenge Lock, not immediately replace him. A few days before the draft, Denver traded for Carolina’s Teddy Bridgewater.
“We were involved in every probable deal that went across,” Paton said. “… That’s the way it’s always going to be here. We looked at a lot of different quarterbacks and trade scenarios. But at the end of the day, we feel really good about Teddy Bridgewater. I was with Teddy his first three years, so I know the type of person he is, his work ethic, the intangibles, and he’s played in playoff games. He went 5-0 with the Saints [as a starter in 2019]. I liked his résumé, and I like that he can bring in that competitive element they hadn’t had here.”
Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur worked with Bridgewater briefly when they were in Minnesota. He said Wednesday after practice that he likes Bridgewater’s experience, decision-making and ability to pick things up quickly, adding that the competition has made Lock better.
“Drew obviously has made great progress from a year ago,” Shurmur said. “Last year, he kind of went into the season raw without having an offseason. He worked his way through it, and he did a lot of good things last year. I think he kind of built on the good things he did a year ago.”
Regardless of who lines up under center — Denver has been mentioned as a destination for Aaron Rodgers if the disgruntled Packers star gets his wish to be traded out of Green Bay — the Broncos boast one of the better supporting casts in the NFL. They have a young, talented group of pass-catchers headlined by Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant, a solid offensive line and a running backs group that Paton tried to make more physical this offseason. He released 5-foot-8, 190-pound Phillip Lindsay and brought in a bigger back, Mike Boone (5-10, 206), he knew from Minnesota and brings value on special teams.
Melvin Gordon (6-1, 215) is still the starter, but he’ll be pushed by second-round draft pick Javonte Williams (5-10, 220).
“We didn’t anticipate taking a running back as high as we did, but the room fell in love with Javonte from the very first meeting with him,” Paton said. “He was a valedictorian in high school. He runs angry. He’s a three-down back.”
It hasn’t all gone smoothly in Paton’s first months on the job. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James tore his Achilles’ tendon while working out away from team headquarters — an injury that took place following a dispute between the NFL and the players’ union over voluntary offseason workouts — and after Paton cut him, James filed a grievance seeking $15 million. Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton tore an ACL away from the facility as well, and it is likely he’ll be released at some point.
But on the whole, Paton appears to feel pretty good about Denver’s offseason. He pointed out that the Broncos are one of the younger teams in the league, which could help explain part of the thought process in giving Lock another year and not making a big investment at quarterback. There will be time to make a big move later, if they need to — but in the meantime, with a rebuilt defense and the league’s fifth-easiest schedule, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Broncos emerged as a surprise playoff contender.
“We’re aggressive but not reckless,” Paton said of his team’s approach to the offseason. “I thought all of our deals were prudent. We don’t go crazy, and we didn’t overspend. That wasn’t the plan. But even when you keep your own, we tried to stay prudent.”