The Denver Broncos can talk about a three-man quarterback race all they want. What they can't do is convince anybody that Mark Sanchez isn't going to be their best option under center come fall. He's the only signal caller on the roster with NFL experience and he was the first man in the door when the team's quarterback situation blew up nearly three months ago. He's also making all the right moves for a franchise that desperately needs him to raise his game.
Sanchez isn't the ideal man to lead the Broncos -- this team watched Brock Osweiler leave in free agency and couldn't engineer a trade for San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- but you have to respect the way he's carried himself thus far. He's talked like a man eager to make the most of another opportunity to start. He already has led training sessions with the Denver receivers in California. He also showed up to the latest phase of offseason training and practiced a week and a half after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.
To say Sanchez is committed would be an understatement. He's realizing that he has to impress his teammates and his coaches any way he possibly can, regardless of the challenges he is facing.
"That's competition," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "It's open competition at the quarterback position, and he wants to win the job. He's got to do whatever he can to prove to us and to prove to the team that he's willing to sacrifice whatever to come out and win the job. That's what you like to see as a competitor."
Before we go any farther down this road, let's put this idea of competition into perspective. The Broncos have two other quarterbacks on the roster taking significant repetitions during their OTA sessions: second-year man Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch, the 26th overall pick in this year's draft. Lynch is the quarterback of the future in Denver, a player who probably won't play unless he makes substantial strides in his development in the coming months. Siemian, a seventh-round pick in 2015, is in the picture because he was the only quarterback left on the team after Peyton Manning retired and Osweiler signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Houston Texans.
It's been well-documented in this space that the Broncos made a huge error in letting Osweiler walk. Now that Sanchez is their most seasoned quarterback, it's time to think about what he can do to help this team win. It's easy to say that he's fighting for a job with two quarterbacks who don't bring as much to the table as he does at this stage. However, it looks more like he's competing with himself -- to show he's not the underwhelming option he appeared to be when the Broncos acquired him in a trade with the Eagles.
This is why Sanchez's presence is so impressive this week. Instead of waiting for his injury to heal -- he hurt the thumb while working out in the team's weight room earlier this month -- he was displaying his toughness and his sense of the moment.
"I thought it was huge, and I think our training staff here and the weight staff knew how to help me recover from this injury the best way I possibly could without pushing it too hard and being really smart," said Sanchez, who wore a soft cast on his surgically repaired thumb and didn't take any snaps under center. "Obviously we're still in May. It's not like we're in August getting ready for a game. This was exactly where I wanted to be with this minor setback. It's no big deal. I'm just taking it week to week. Hopefully I'll be ready to go next week."
The steps that Sanchez has taken also will mean more the deeper we get into the summer. Every Broncos fan knows by now that general manager John Elway wanted to make that deal -- at the right price -- for Kaepernick. Kap offers more upside than Sanchez, and he was the first player Elway looked to once Osweiler was gone. That meant Sanchez already was coming into Denver with the deck stacked against him, as something of a consolation to the true consolation prize.
It's no secret what Sanchez has to battle at this stage of his career, either. At 29, he is on his third team and entering his eighth season in the league. He was at his best in his first two years, when he joined the New York Jets as the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and helped that team reach two consecutive AFC title games. Inconsistency and interceptions derailed Sanchez's career after that point, as the Jets dumped him after the 2013 season and he spent the last two years as a backup in Philadelphia.
Few people could've predicted that Sanchez would be an option for the Broncos, but his strongest selling point is apparent: He knows how to do what they need him to do. Sanchez benefitted from being a conservative game manager with a great defense in his early years in New York. The Broncos clearly want the same thing from their quarterback this coming season, as they just won a Super Bowl without exceptional play from either Osweiler or Manning.
When asked how this Broncos defense compares to those Jets units he played with, Sanchez said: "It's a real similar group, with a great savvy secondary, guys that are athletic and physical. Not just the guys that can cover, but they'll come out and pop you. You see it on film from last year. They'll come and hit running backs or receivers. And then a D-line that puts pressure on the quarterback quickly and disrupts your passing lanes. And then a linebacker group that can feed off of both ends, really, the first level and then that third level ... They're pretty similar, but obviously I'm here now, so these guys are the best that I've ever seen."
That last line also speaks to Sanchez's savvy. He doesn't merely need to build bonds with his receivers and fellow offensive teammates. He has to have that defense backing him from Day 1, especially as this season nears. There have been some great teams that had to deal with rifts between defense and offense -- the Seahawks just went through that following their Super Bowl loss in the 2014 season -- and the Broncos have to be wary of a similar plight tainting their own organization. It's one thing to tolerate turnovers from a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, but the patience won't be so high for someone like Sanchez.
The good news is, there is plenty of time for Sanchez to show what he can do on the field. That opportunity will come in the preseason, and he's been around long enough to know there's no need to get ahead of himself. This time of year is when smart quarterbacks show their intangibles. As Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said in discussing Sanchez's participation, "We knew he was going to do something, and [he] actually did more than we thought. It's important to Mark. You can see it every day."
Kubiak also spent ample time talking to reporters about the overall quarterback competition. It was the type of press conference that is fairly common at this time of year, as the general mindset revolves around getting everyone to buy into the idea that opportunities abound.
However, Kubiak had to be excited by what he saw from a veteran quarterback who's already playing hurt. It was the kind of statement that could make it easier for everyone to believe in Mark Sanchez when it really does matter.