Former first-rounder Paxton Lynch's time with Broncos may be running out

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Paxton Lynch's current predicament was in full view one morning this week as the Denver Broncos closed out a joint practice with the Chicago Bears.

The Broncos’ offense scurried through the final practice period, an end-of-game scenario in which the team needed a field goal to win. Case Keenum was behind center for a Broncos drive and then Chad Kelly was behind center for another Broncos drive.

When the air horn sounded and practice was over, Lynch didn’t get his chance to lead the Broncos' offense.

In his third training camp since being the Broncos’ No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, a player they traded up in the opening round to select, Lynch is now the team’s No. 3 quarterback. And the No. 3 quarterback doesn’t always get his chance in practice if time runs out.

And there is the bottom line for Lynch. He now has lost back-to-back training camp battles with Trevor Siemian to be the team’s starter in his first two seasons and now appears to be losing a battle to be Keenum’s understudy. So, there is the possibility that if Lynch is neither the Broncos’ starter nor the Broncos' backup, the 24-year-old might be facing his last stand with the team that drafted him.

“He understands it’s a performance business,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said when officially moving Kelly up the depth chart this week, ahead of Lynch. “He has great potential -- physical potential -- but it’s got to equal performance eventually. He understands that. It’s a performance league, and everything we do is graded and it’s counted.”

Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway said he wouldn’t get into hypotheticals about Lynch’s future if he didn’t win the backup job. But Elway hasn’t ruled out Kelly's viability or signing a veteran quarterback in the weeks to come -- Elway said that was a possibility on the first day of training camp. And time is now an issue for Lynch given the Broncos will play their second preseason game Saturday night against the Bears. Keenum figures to get at least a quarter of work, perhaps a little more, and Kelly then figures to take the second-teamers into the second half.

And Lynch will get whatever is left over on the clock to show what he can do.

“We’re going to see Paxton against their thirds, too,” Elway said. “... I hope Paxton takes advantage of it.”

In the end, neither Kelly nor Lynch may show enough to prevent the Broncos from signing a veteran quarterback to be Keenum’s backup. But whether the Broncos will come right out and say it or whether Lynch will admit it, he’s on the shakiest of ground.

“Right now I’m just working my tail off to get better every day,” Lynch said after this past Saturday’s preseason loss to the Vikings. “[The game] just didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but I can’t do anything about that now, so you’ve got to put it behind you and move past it.”

Two days after Lynch was 6-of-11 for 24 yards and an interception in seven possessions against the Vikings, Joseph announced Kelly would get his chance to be the No. 2 QB. It meant Kelly had outplayed Lynch in a scrimmage to close out the first week of training camp, and Kelly was 14-of-21 passing for 177 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against the Vikings.

“It’s really more about Chad,” Joseph said. “Chad has competed and Chad’s played well. If Chad’s not playing well, [Lynch] is still the 2. It’s really more about what Chad has done from the spring to now.”

Privately, several personnel executives who have reviewed Lynch’s play, including this preseason, say that Lynch is still too quick to pull the ball down and run if his first read on a play isn’t available. They also say he isn’t consistent enough on throws in the middle of the field and he's too slow to bounce back from on-field mistakes.

They also see the athleticism and arm strength, but as Joseph said, the “potential -- physical potential” has “got to equal performance eventually.”

The Broncos face a developmental question with Lynch after an injury-marred 2017 with four largely uneven starts. And because Lynch can’t go to the practice squad, the Broncos have to wonder if he can develop enough to keep him on the roster.

And at that point the choice won't be hypothetical any longer -- it will be staring the Broncos squarely in the face.