Trevor Siemian will be the starting quarterback for the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, which is weird. He’ll be the first-ever QB to start Week 1 for a defending Super Bowl champ with zero regular season NFL passes thrown. Siemian has taken one NFL snap — a QB kneel -- and wasn’t a highly touted draft prospect. It was a surprise he was picked in the seventh round, so you probably don’t know much about him.
Luckily, for you, I know a lot about him. I’ve been following Siemian for, oh, seven years now. He was two years behind me at Northwestern, where I covered the football team for my (now-defunct) blog. Normally, Northwestern fans don’t get the opportunity to discuss our former players at length to a herd of intrigued NFL fans, so I’m very, very, very excited about this sudden, unusual development. (I'd also love to talk to you about Browns starting SS Ibraheim Campbell, if you'll let me -- maybe some other time.)
I’ll be honest: At no point in the four years I watched Trevor Siemian play quarterback for Northwestern did I think he was an NFL quarterback. Siemian had a strong arm, a quarterback’s body, and threw genuine gems every once in a while. But those gems were rare, sprinkled amidst general inaccuracy on deep passes and poor decision-making. He became famous for ignoring open receivers downfield to opt for more conservative routes with no hope of succeeding — the team’s defense nicknamed him "Checkdown Trevor" and chanted it at him during intrasquad scrimmages.
Siemian was serviceable early in his career as the "throwing quarterback," playing passing downs in a platoon with speedy option-style quarterbacks who ran the majority of plays. But when his faster teammates graduated and the entire offense belonged to Siemian, Northwestern’s offense turned into an atrocious slog. In his only year as the team’s full-time starting QB, the Wildcats finished 12th of 14 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. (That’s bad.)
The game I remember most was a 10-9 loss to Michigan. Siemian threw for 273 yards and a touchdown, which isn’t bad when you completely remove all context. The context is that he had 49 passing attempts, was sacked five times, and threw two picks. He threw short of the sticks on a critical late third down, and given the opportunity to win the game with a decisive two-point conversion after Northwestern’s only touchdown, Siemian slipped and fell to seal the loss.
Siemian was probably the fourth-best quarterback to play for Northwestern in the five years I blogged about the team. The other three are not in the NFL. I was surprised when Siemian was drafted, I was surprised when Siemian wasn’t cut by the Broncos after his rookie training camp, I was surprised when Siemian stayed on their roster for an entire season, I was surprised when the Broncos opted to keep Siemian for a second offseason, and I am currently very surprised that Siemian is the team’s starting quarterback.
I have not been alone in my lack of belief in Siemian. Even Siemian described himself as a "fringe" project. Multiple NFL scouts admitted they didn’t even analyze Siemian coming out of college, with one saying that he "didn’t have high enough grades" to justify breaking down his film. Even on Monday morning, Ian Rapoport said on the NFL Network that in the run-up to the 2015 NFL Draft, he felt the Broncos’ passion for Siemian as a late-round prospect seemed "irrational." It’s not often you hear a seventh-round pick described as "irrational" — they’re essentially throwaway picks, you can waste them and seem pretty rational — but the Broncos’ overwhelming fervor for a self-described fringe prospect far surpassed how excited teams normally get for players so lowly touted.
Simply put, there was nothing about Siemian’s college career that would give most viewers belief that he would be an NFL starting quarterback someday. But knowing what I know about Siemian — and the Broncos — I think starting Siemian might be the right call. (*Might* be.)
The Broncos knew what they wanted in Siemian
Enough talking about Siemian in the past — let’s get down to analyzing Trevor Siemian in 2016. You can watch every throw he made in his last start here, and you can watch a little preseason highlight reel here.
He’s 27-of-43 passing with 290 yards, a touchdown, and two picks. He’s only thrown two interceptions, but he’s thrown several other passes that really should’ve been picked off. One of the passes that was intercepted was a double-covered short route returned for a touchdown. The only touchdown he’s thrown to his own team wasn’t an impressive throw, hitting a wide-open receiver on a (well-executed) goal line play action. His deep balls are still iffy on accuracy. His best throw by far, a 43-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas, was thanks to an absolutely brilliant one-handed catch by Thomas.
From the numbers and tape, Siemian looks like he’s a subpar NFL quarterback, perhaps approaching mediocrity. And you know what? That’s so much better than I ever expected from him. There aren’t that many people on Earth capable of being mediocre NFL quarterbacks. Considering just two years ago Siemian didn’t look capable of being a mediocre Big Ten quarterback, it’s an incredible leap. And with just one pro season under his belt, there’s room for Siemian to turn into an average NFL quarterback, perhaps even better.
Now let’s zoom back a year and a half, and see what the Broncos said about Siemian when they surprised everybody still awake on Day 3 of the NFL Draft:
"There was just something about the way he played, his footwork, his release, I liked the way he went about things," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said.
"We looked at him on tape and as far as the quarterback position, he plays well, his feet, his technique and everything that he can do is pretty darn good," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said.
Out of college, I saw nothing about Siemian that made him look like a pro quarterback. But Kubiak and Elway both identified pure mechanical elements about Siemian: his footwork, release and technique.
Looking at Siemian's play throughout the preseason, I must admit that I've been impressed with his accuracy, ball placement and decisiveness. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and allows his playmakers to do the work on the perimeter... Speaking to a few Broncos players and coaches during the offseason, I frequently heard them rave about Siemian's command of the offense and how quickly he got the ball out.
There’s an emphasis there on "getting the ball out," and quickly.
It seems the Broncos have eliminated a lot of the hesitation from Siemian’s game. Considering one of his greatest flaws was his steadfast dedication to bad choices, it’s not surprising that the key to making him a passable pro was eliminating overthinking from his repertoire. He no longer has time to ignore good options, he’s too busy getting the ball to them.
Kubiak and Elway saw the basic building blocks of an NFL QB in Siemian and saw that his talents could be adapted to what they were trying to do. He was stripped down to the mechanics that made him useful, and trained to be eliminate the worst aspects of his game.
Is it possible that Kubiak and Elway — both former NFL quarterbacks -- are skilled at assessing the technical merits of what could potentially make a future NFL quarterback? Is it possible they’re more skilled at that than I am?
Let’s just say it’s possible.
A lot of things factor into a college quarterback’s success. Siemian looked really bad as a senior, but the team around him lacked offensive firepower and the play calling seemed to rarely put him in a position to succeed. That might have caused the rest of us to ignore him while Kubiak and Elway honed in on the things they needed to see in a potential draftee. And they might have found a diamond in the rough, or at least a cubic zirconia that can get the job done.
The Broncos QB situation is so weird, Siemian might be their best option
The Broncos of last year were very, very strange. In a pass-heavy league, they were Super Bowl champions with a glaring weakness at quarterback. It was even stranger, since they willingly opted to play their second-best quarterback, soon-to-be-Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, over an option who clearly outperformed him on the field: backup Brock Osweiler.
All things told, the Broncos had some of the worst quarterback play in the league in 2015 ... and then they lost their best two quarterbacks.
They were left with Siemian, Mark Sanchez, and Paxton Lynch. Sanchez looked like the obvious starter — for all the Buttfumble jokes, he was roughly acceptable the last two years in Philadelphia, and he’s gone on deep playoff runs with run-first, pass-second defense-focused squads in his career.
But Sanchez looked borderline unplayable in his brief preseason appearances, tossing a bad pick, looking completely befuddled by pressure (a theme that would be constant with a line as makeshift as the Broncos’) and losing two fumbles. The Broncos merely need a quarterback who will not self-destruct. Sanchez looked like he might. He also has a $4.5 million salary, which has probably played a factor in his quick drop from the presumptive starter’s role to the trade block. And $4.5 million for a decent quarterback is worth it ... $4.5 million for a backup, who looks more troublesome than a seventh-rounder, is not.
So, that left Siemian and first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch. The consensus was that this year’s draft featured two obvious top quarterbacks in Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, and then there was a bit of a chasm, and then there was Lynch. Neither Goff nor Wentz has been deemed ready to start Week 1, and Goff and Wentz are on teams with a lot less to lose than a Broncos squad hoping to contend for another Super Bowl.
It is eminently weird that the Broncos will start Trevor Siemian. But the Broncos are eminently weird. Last year, their best QB options were a guy itching to begin life as a full-time pizza salesman and his career backup, and both left. They turned to an imminent catastrophe in Sanchez and an un-house-trained puppy in Lynch. Sanchez will burn the Broncos’ house down and Lynch will poop all over it. Trevor Siemian might really be the best call.
The Broncos might still be fine
Let’s remember something about last year’s Broncos: Peyton Manning was a very, very bad quarterback in 2015. He was 29th in yards per attempt and nearly led the NFL in interceptions despite missing six games. QB rating is a bad stat, but he finished 34th out of 35 quarterbacks who qualified for the league lead in QB rating. (One more time: That’s very bad.)
The second is that THE BRONCOS STILL WON THE FREAKIN’ SUPER BOWL. They had such an outrageously good defense that Manning could play like farts and they’d still win. In the Super Bowl, Manning went 13 of 23 with 141 yards and an interception while getting sacked five times, which is a pretty bad line. But Von Miller battered Cam Newton until the Broncos had won.
Can Trevor Siemian be the NFL’s best quarterback? My goodness, no. No no no no no.
Can Trevor Siemian be merely bad and not horrific? Possibly. And in a run-heavy offense coupled with a world-beating defense, that might be enough for the Broncos to stay in serious contention.
It is weird.
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