Broncos still searching for their next Peyton Manning

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It's not that the Denver Broncos haven't tried to draw up, and follow, a plan at quarterback.

It's not like they haven't written a big -- really big -- check or used premium draft picks to find a quarterback. But now in his eighth season on the job, John Elway still finds himself looking for the answer at the team's most important position.

So much so that he has consistently tied the chance for the Broncos to change their current state of affairs -- a 5-11 team that has now missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons -- to what happens in the coming weeks at quarterback.

"For us to have a chance to get better, we have to get better at that position," he said.

Elway's first major move at quarterback as an executive was to sign Peyton Manning to the team's biggest-ever contract at the time, an all-in bet for a future Hall of Famer coming off his fourth neck surgery. And what did Manning change about the Broncos? Well, everything.

In Manning's four seasons they won four division titles, went to two Super Bowls and won Super Bowl 50. Manning's presence changed the franchise.

"It puts you with those teams that always think they're in the mix, because with Peyton we're always going to be in the mix," Champ Bailey once said.

Manning's retirement left a huge hole the Broncos are still trying to fill.

Again, not that they haven't tried. Elway has used five picks over the past seven drafts on quarterbacks.

Last season one longtime general manager said he had "never" seen a situation like Denver's, rotating three quarterbacks in the starting lineup almost weekly with all three having been drafted by the team. The Broncos even had a fourth quarterback they drafted -- rookie Chad Kelly -- on injured reserve.

They've used premium picks -- Paxton Lynch was a first-round pick in 2016 and Brock Osweiler was a second-round pick in 2012. And they've used depth picks, grabbing Zac Dysert, Trevor Siemian and Kelly in the seventh round during Elway's tenure.

Siemian advanced enough after spending one season with Manning and Osweiler to have won the job in back-to-back training camps. But right now the Broncos are left trying to decide if they picked the wrong guys, had the wrong developmental infrastructure in place, were jamming square pegs into round hole because the coaches were stubborn, or all of the above. They need another franchise-altering decision to be made, and they need it to be the correct one.

Siemian, Lynch and Kelly are all under contract for the 2018 season, but it would be difficult to find anyone -- including those three -- who believes any of them will get more than tepid consideration for the job. Elway and coach Vance Joseph have talked about the need to match the team's offense to its personnel better than the Broncos did this past season.

Elway has called it "giving us a chance."

The Broncos haven't had a pick as high as the No. 5 pick they have in April's draft since they selected Von Miller at No. 2 in Elway's first year on the job in 2011. They also haven't been in position to spend big in free agency on a quarterback since they signed Manning in 2012.

Elway paired the draft and free agency in 2012 when he signed Manning and then weeks later used the 57th pick on Osweiler. But, when Manning retired after the 2015 season, Osweiler was also poised for free agency.

There were some hard feelings in Osweiler's camp because when Manning returned from injury that season, Osweiler was pulled from the regular-season finale and Manning started through the Super Bowl 50 win. And in the end Elway stopped bidding when the Houston Texans kept piling on the money in their offer to Osweiler.

So Manning was gone, the developmental prospect groomed to replace him was also gone and now, two playoff misses later, the Broncos are staring at the draft and free agency again as they try to find the right guy to lead their offense.