DENVER — George Paton never retreats from a challenge.
As a walk-on, he earned a scholarship at UCLA as a 180-pound wedgebuster on special teams. He coached freshman and high school football, leading his team to an undefeated season. He jumped from the prep ranks to the NFL, convinced by friends to follow a dream that landed him sleeping on a friend’s coach for two years in Chicago as a Bears intern.
From the Bears to the Dolphins, where he became an advance scout, to the Vikings, Paton prepared 25 years for Tuesday's moment, a path that began as a 4-year-old watching his father coach high school ball. It did not matter that he had never held a press conference. He was ready — he is known for being detailed and organized — and embraced the task of restoring the Broncos glory as its new general manager.
“I wanted this job badly,” Paton said. “From the four days I have been here, there are some special people in the building. We are going to need all hands on deck to get where we need to go.”
Paton views the Broncos through a broad lens, made easier with a six-year contract to help provide security if the ownership situation unravels in two seasons. He talked with CEO Joe Ellis about that during the interview process and was not dissuaded from taking this position after interviewing with the 49ers, Jets, Browns and Lions in recent years.
"Listen, they have everything we need here to win. It's not a concern of mine," Paton said. "You can't worry about things out of your control. We just need to win."
Paton sees the Broncos as an iconic franchise, a winner of a three Super Bowls, not as a team that has missed the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, tied for the second-longest active streak in the NFL, and endured four straight losing campaigns for the first time since 1963-72. He likes the young talent, which plays into his blueprint. Paton believes the key to this rebuild is having good bones.
"I think we have to draft and development," said Paton, who spent the past 14 seasons in Minnesota. "There will be no shortcuts. We will embrace the grind. Draft and development will be the cornerstone. We will be aggressive, but we will not be reckless. We are going to be progressive and innovative in our thinking."
His words resonate because they match his resume. The Vikings selected 13 Pro Bowlers over the past 10 seasons, tied for the most in the NFL. They award their best players with second contracts as often as any franchise. That becomes the foundation. And the Vikings were aggressive in moving in the draft to "acquire more darts, which is something I would like to continue here," Paton said. A stable of young players and draft picks allows for a team to kick the tires in trades.
"We’re going to be in every deal," Paton said. "And if it’s right for the Denver Broncos, we’re going to make that deal."
However, good drafts cannot overcome inefficiency at quarterback. Paton did not run from this premise, calling it the most important position in sports. He inherits Drew Lock, who has tantalizing potential, but finished last in completion percentage in his first full season as a starter, posting a 4-9 record while leading the league in interceptions.
The Vikings advanced to the playoffs six times with six different quarterbacks. It shows there are many avenues to win, but instability at the position is not ideal. Paton is not ready to draw any conclusions about Lock, keeping an open mind about the former Missouri star and the position as a whole.
"I liked Drew coming out of the draft. Big arm. Athletic. Playmaker. I haven’t studied him (yet with the Broncos). He’s talented. He can develop,” Paton said. "I think we all want the franchise quarterback and that’s the No. 1 goal. You try to draft and develop and acquire one any way you can. Obviously, we are looking.”
President of football operations John Elway, who will function as a "sounding board" for Paton on big decisions, remains bullish on Lock. He was inconsistent last season, one complicated by COVID-19 protocols that prevented OTAs and preseason games. However, Elway admitted that the choice at quarterback will fall back on Paton.
"I am still high on Drew. I think he has the physical abilities to do it. This was essentially his rookie year. It wasn’t by any means an ideal situation for Drew. We are always going to look at opportunities at that position. If there is an ability to get better, then we can make the decision. But a lot of thought will go into it," said Elway, whose Broncos have had 10 starters since Peyton Manning retired following the Super Bowl 50 victory.
"Those are the things that George will have to look at. The quarterback doesn’t necessarily have to be franchise guy, but he has to make plays to help us win. It’s a very difficult position to find. Drew did a nice job this year. But George will continue to look to fill that spot if he doesn’t think Drew is that guy."
Fangio explained that Paton will take a "sterile look" at Lock's film to form an unbiased assessment. From there, they will move forward. The most probable path is providing veteran competition for Lock to protect the team if he is ineffective or injured. Posed with the hypothetical question if Paton wanted to trade three first-round picks and a young player for a quarterback — Houston's Deshaun Watson, hint, hint — Elway said that would be Paton's call.
"I am going to add input when it has a huge impact, when we have something that big. Ultimately, it will be George’s decision. I will support him, give him everything I look at to be able to help him," said Elway, who gave Paton his office at UCHealth Training Center. "He will still be the one making that decision."
Tough choices loom on the futures of Von Miller and Justin Simmons. Simmons has been the team's best player the past two seasons, playing last year on the franchise tag. Will the Broncos prioritize signing him to a longterm deal since the franchise tag could represent a paycut with the salary cap projected to fall? And with Miller dealing with an investigation by the Parker Police and coming off a lost season because of an ankle injury, will the Broncos move on from the eight-time Pro Bowler?
If Miller returns — a decision must be made on his club option by March 17, guaranteeing him $7 million — it will likely not be at his current $18 million salary.
Paton said he needs more time on the job before tackling those challenges.
"All those tough decisions start when I can start meeting with the coaches and the scouting staff. And that's where you get your plan for the offseason. I haven't been with the coaches yet or the scouts yet," Paton said. "So until you have those meetings and develop your needs and your plan for free agency, that's when it all starts, when we can all get together and have player evaluations.
For Paton, this job represents an intersection of his experience and skillset, one that began with his family's love for football (father Tom, mother Carole, brothers Tom and Frank and sister Camille).
Paton buried himself in film for years, became a trusted scout and personnel man, weighed in on trades, oversaw an analytics department and helped build a roster. After turning down opportunities for nearly a decade, he found the right fit in Denver.
"How long it takes? I don't know. We have to do our part. I just think they have some pieces in place. It's a young team, a healthy cap position," Paton said. "Typically in this league, you don’t have a lot of time to turn things around. You don't have six years. I am not going to give you a timetable. But they have a lot of reasons to be optimistic."