ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Like two winding paths, Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston have traveled very different roads to arrive at the same place.
In 2015, Winston came out of Florida State University as one of the most heralded quarterbacking prospects of the last decade. The leadership ability, championship experience, quick wit, and rocket arm he displayed in college rightfully got him selected as the No. 1 overall pick in that draft.
Siemian, meanwhile, stood on the opposite side of the spectrum. Misused at Northwestern, he was ranked by CBS sports as the 448th best prospect in the draft class. ESPN ranked him as the 24th best quarterback in his class, 23 spots behind Winston. One scouting report said Siemian had about as much chance of being drafted as a blind man has of finding a one ended stick.
“Siemian struggled with his decision making at times this year and really struggled with the deep ball,” the report reads. “At times, Siemian looked uncomfortable in the pocket…he’s not a particularly agile runner and won’t make defenders miss.”
Yet, despite these two starkly different paths into the NFL, Winston and Siemian, the first and last quarterbacks taken in 2015, are set to face each other on the same field this Sunday when Denver travels to Tampa Bay.
Broncos’ head coach Gary Kubiak stumbled upon Siemian while watching tape of Northwestern’s 2014 upset victory over Notre Dame wherein Siemian fought sub-par conditions to throw for more than 240-yards and a touchdown, guiding his team to one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.
That tape impressed Kubiak enough to invite Siemian to workout at the team facility before the draft. That workout led to an interview. That interview led to him being selected with the 250th overall pick. He was the seventh and final quarterback off the board.
Just over a year later, Siemian is the starting quarterback for a Denver Broncos team on a quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and the Broncos’ seventh round selection of Siemian has already proven to be one of the steals of that draft.
“I think the biggest thing with that is, as a coach, it just tells you to work your tail off,” Kubiak said. “Whether you’re studying the guy who is coming out of college listed as the 30th quarterback or you’re studying the guy who is supposed to be first, you study them all. There is a difference sometimes going from college to pro in some of the things they do. You may see a guy’s ceiling get a little bit higher. You have to be right on those guys early and it’s sure fun to be right on those guys late that you think have a chance to come in and play. You have to give the kid credit. He’s the one that has done the work.”
Last week, Siemian had the best statistical game of his young NFL career, throwing for 312-yards and four touchdowns, leading the Broncos to a 29-17 win in his first road start against the Cincinnati Bengals. That performance led to him being selected as the offensive player of the week in his conference, an award Winston won for the first time just three weeks ago.
“It’s a great honor no doubt, but I think it’s more of a testament to what we do as an offense and the team,” Siemian said. “A lot of guys stepped up and made some plays for us.”
Siemian not only impressed on the stat-sheet in that win over the Bengals, he impressed his teammates as well. After the game, Kubiak awarded Siemian a game ball and the locker room erupted in celebratory hooping and hollering.
“I think they’re watching him grow and they’re excited for him,” Kubiak said. “They know we have a good football team and they know we have a young quarterback. To watch him grow a little bit and to go out and play like that on the road, I think it brings everybody together. That’s the guy pulling the trigger every week. One thing about Trevor is he’s very sharp and very low-key from a standpoint of, ‘hey, tone this down and keep going.'”
Even Winston’s teammates in Tampa Bay seem impressed by Siemian’s performance thus far this season.
“He looks like a seasoned vet—very, very, very comfortable out there” Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “He makes really good decisions. He made some mistakes to where you’ll see his lack of experience, but it’s not mistakes like, ‘oh, that was a dumb decision,’ it’s just something that he probably hasn’t been exposed to yet. For the most part, he’s been dominant and it’s something that we’ll really have to deal with. Opening day, he shocked everybody and he’s been rolling ever since. I’m happy for him. I read a little bit and heard a little bit about his story so I’m happy for him. We’re going to have a tough one on our hands on Sunday.”
Much of Siemian’s success this season can be credited to Kubiak, the man who brought him into the league in the first place.
“I think Gary has always done a great job with whoever has been at quarterback,” Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said. “The Siemian thing is an awesome story. Very rarely in the NFL does a guy go from third-team on the depth chart to starting the next year. It’s quite a story and he’s certainly living up to his part.”
However, Kubiak would tell you that he hasn’t done anything special coaching Siemian. He’s simply done his job.
“I think that’s our job as coaches with every player, not just that player,” Kubiak said. “You hope you are putting your players in the best possible position. They have to go play, they have to do the things, make the tackles, cover, throw and catch. They have to go do those things. It’s your job as coaches to figure out what they do best and try to keep them in that comfort zone. Once the whistle blows, a lot of things happen that you can’t practice. Guys have to adjust.”
Meanwhile in Tampa, Winston has lived up to his end of the bargain for the Buccaneers. Through the first year plus of his career, he has established himself as one of football’s brightest rising stars.
He’s already been a Pro Bowler and NFL Rookie of the Year. However, his greatest asset might have nothing to do with his on-field acumen.
“Leadership is one of Jameis’ strong points as evidenced by the fact that he was a unanimous captain, as voted on by the players,” Koetter said. “Jameis did a really good job last year, as a rookie, of giving the veterans their space and easing his way in. When you’re the quarterback, you’re somewhat of a leader regardless of if you’re anointed by the players. There was a point last year where he took over as a leader of the offense. He’s just a real outgoing guy that has been very well coached throughout his years; his early years by his father, and the Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. He really knows how to handle himself, how to handle the huddle. He is a vocal leader, but also he earns the player’s respect by how he competes on the field and how he shows up and works hard every single day.”
Kubiak and the Broncos know Winston will present them with unique challenges that can only come from a player of his quarterbacking pedigree.
“He’s just a tremendous talent,” Kubiak said. “I think they’re averaging throwing 45-46 times a game. That’s a lot of throws, but yet you notice he’s not going down a bunch. That’s credit to him. He’s getting rid of the ball. When you do get there, he’s hard to tackle and hard to handle. He can make plays off schedule. Obviously, he’s a big time talent. He’s put up some really big numbers. It’s another big challenge for us.”
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib echoed his head coach’s sentiments.
“I see a confident quarterback,” Talib said. “He’s confident in his arm and he’s trying to make all the throws. He’s trying to make every throw that he can make.”
Yet, the fact remains that Siemian, who came into the league under far less favorable conditions, will have the chance to level the playing field with Winston this Sunday. After all, in football, a player’s ability is the great equalizer. Draft order, hype, and pedigree all fall out the window once the cleats hit the grass.
“I have a lot of respect for Jameis and Marcus,” Siemian said, referring to Winston and Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota, the second player off the board in that draft. “Those guys getting thrown in that position right away and they’ve had success right away. I think that’s pretty special and those guys are doing really well. I’m happy for them.”