DENVER — Experience won out in the end Wednesday.
The Broncos have hired George Paton as their next general manager, landing him with a six-year contract.
“Early in the process, it became clear why George has been suched a coveted GM candidate for so many years. He is a proven evaluator who knows every detail of leading football operations,” president of football operations John Elway said. “With the 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.”
The appeal of Paton can be traced to the draft and his decorated resume. Over the past 10 seasons, the Vikings have landed 13 Pro Bowlers, tied for most in the NFL during his time. The list of standouts includes linebacker Anthony Barr, tight end Kyle Rudolph, running back Dalvin Cook and All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson. This is a team that has remained competitive through a draft and development model. In all, the Vikings have boasted 22 Pro Bowlers during Paton’s time in Minnesota, including 15 in the draft.
From 2012-20, per the Broncos, 24 of Minnesota’s 26 picks in the first three rounds of the draft remain in the NFL, best in the NFL and tied for second most with the Chiefs. The first three rounds have been not as kind to the Broncos during this time.
Paton arrives with a longterm, handsome contract — that was part of the pitch given that president of football operations John Elway and CEO Joe Ellis are expected to exit in March of 2022, and the uncertainty surrounding the ownership situation. The length of the deal gives Paton security, provides him protection if a new owner takes over and also lured him away from Detroit where he was a top candidate.
“It’s an honor. I feel like this team is a sleeping giant,” Paton said. “For me, it’s the right place and the right time for this opportunity. I believe in hard work, the grind and not taking any shortcuts to achieve our goals. Drafting and developing players is the No. 1 priority. We will be aggressive — but not reckless — in adding talent to our roster.”
Paton, who met for several hours Tuesday and finalized the deal this morning, has been promised independence and authority, allowed to use his “fresh set of eyes” to help the Broncos rebound after missing the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, tied for the second longest active drought in the NFL. In talking to multiple industry sources, they describe Paton as super organized, a tireless worker and someone who will not be a “puppet.”
So how will Paton work with coach Vic Fangio? Mike Zimmer is probably the most like Fangio as a head coach, a longtime defensive playcaller with a reserved personality. Paton will have a season to evaluate Fangio and his staff, then decide if change is needed, a decision he has been empowered to make based on the term of his contract.
There are several key issues Paton must address. While Elway will remain involved in big decisions, he has promised not to meddle in daily operations. Paton must determine whether to keep outside linebacker Von Miller, the most accomplished defensive player in franchise history and a future Hall of Famer. Miller is due an $18 million salary after missing last season with a dislocated left ankle tendon. The Broncos must exercise the club option by March 17, which guarantees Miller $7 million. Will Paton ask him to take a paycut to bring him back?
The most prominent unrestricted free agents begins with safety Justin Simmons and defensive end Shelby Harris. Simmons made the Pro Bowl after playing last season on the franchise tag. He bet on himself, and wants a longterm deal not another year on the tag, which is projected to be lower because of the dip in the salary cap following a season with no or limited fans. Harris has found a home in Denver and would like to return, but admitted “it’s a business.”
And while the Broncos feature resources and attractive young offensive players, the specter of the quarterback hangs over the team. Will Paton commit to Drew Lock as the starter after he finished with nine touchdowns and four interceptions over his final four games? It requires belief Lock will improve significantly as he finished last in the NFL in completion percentage (57.3), tied for the league lead in interceptions (15) and posted a 4-9 record.
During Paton’s time with the Vikings, they leaned on veteran quarterbacks, making that a possibility that he will bring in someone to compete with Lock. Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and Kirk Cousins started in recent seasons. Working with current Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Keenum led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game two years ago.
While Paton was in Minnesota, the Vikings made the playoffs six times with six different quarterbacks. At the very least, Paton is expected to bring in competition for Lock to protect for injury and performance, and it would surprise no one if the Broncos kicked the tires on proven standouts like Deshaun Watson, Matthew Stanford and Matt Ryan.
Paton cemented his status as a slight frontrunner for the Broncos general manager’s job on Tuesday. He arrived mid-morning for an in-person interview and tour of the UCHealth Training Center. The Saints’ Terry Fontenot received a second interview via Zoom on Tuesday, prevented from traveling due to COVID-19 protocols with New Orleans remaining in the playoffs. Paton returned to Minnesota and, drawn to a new life in Denver, agreed to the deal.
“George is one of the most widely respected and experienced personnel executives in the NFL. He’s a composed, collaborative leader with a clear vision of building a championship team. Getting to know George over the last week, his intelligence, work ethic and leadership skills impressed all of us,” said CEO Joe Ellis. “He has worked nearly 25 years in the NFL to prepare for this challenge, and we are very fortunate to have George as our new general manager. We’re excited to welcome George, his wife Barbara and his children Bella and Beau to the Broncos family.”
Paton has served as an assistant GM for the Vikings for 14 years, leaving him ready for the next step. He has been patient in looking for the right fit. He pulled out of the Browns GM search last year after his in-person interview, uncomfortable that the owner would not meddle. He was also a finalist in San Francisco when John Lynch paired with Kyle Shanahan.
The Broncos were competing with the Lions for Paton. Minnesota GM Rick Spielman provided a glowing recommendation to his brother Chris, a former Pro Bowler, who is now a special assistant to the Lions president. Paton’s nephew Rob is a college scout for the Broncos.
Paton, who was a defensive back at UCLA from 1988-91 where he was an undersized tough special teams contributor and played pro ball in Italy and Austria, had remained loyal to Rick Spielman, but realized he was ready to run his own team. For more than a decade he has distinguished himself as a strong personnel man, who has worked under the radar and has never sought media publicity.
He will be in the spotlight in the Denver as the Broncos look to return to relevancy.
“George has waited and worked for the right opportunity, which shows that he is smart and serious about winning,” Elway said. “We are thrilled.”
Paton, who will begin interviewing current Broncos personnel as he assembles his own staff and hires a right-hand man, summed it up Wednesday.
“Our family has heard nothing but great things about Colorado, especially the passionate fans in Broncos Country. Along with wife Barbara and children Bella and Beau, we are proud to now call Denver our home. I can’t wait to get to work. Go Broncos!”