ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos’ churning and spinning started in 2016. Gentle at first, hardly frightening beyond the inability to find a longterm answer at quarterback. Then, it became an increasingly spiral of turbulence as coaches, coordinators and quarterbacks became fungible pieces.
By the time Sean Payton arrived in early February, he represented the fifth head coach in eight years, charged with reviving the career of Russell Wilson, the franchise’s 12th starting quarterback since Peyton Manning retired, and snapping the streak of six consecutive losing seasons.
Payton’s place brings optimism.
His 15-year resume need not be placed on LinkedIn. Job interviews found him as he sat out last season while working for Fox Sports. He landed in Denver with an opportunity to become the first coach to lead NFC and AFC teams to Super Bowl titles. If Payton reaches a Super Bowl, it cements his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Payton and Wilson have a lot at stake. Both talk in terms of winning as an obsession. Payton calls it an “addiction.” Wilson calls it a lifestyle.
Can the Broncos figure it out, and stop this alarming decline, the type of which has not been seen around here since 1963-72?
The veterans reported on Tuesday and there will be workouts on Wednesday and Thursday before the first public practice on Friday at 10 a.m. Let’s preview the Broncos:
They cannot be worse — not after averaging a league-abyss 16.9 points per game in 2022. Payton brings a reputation that suggests the retina-burning Sundays where punts have outnumbered points are finally over.
In 15 years, Payton’s offense averaged more than 25 points 12 times. For the first time since Super Bowl 50, the offense will have an identity. It will be a clinched fist. Every move this offseason was designed to make this team more physical and tougher upfront to power a strong running game.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey leads a group that features brutes Ben Powers, Quinn Meinerz and Garett Bolles. Center Lloyd Cushenberry is the only question mark, but remains the favorite to start.
Payton wants to run and will commit to it if you believe his final five seasons in New Orleans. The Broncos added burly running back Samaje Perine, a man so strong he once lifted a Smart Car as a flat tire was changed.
Perine provides three-down versatility and will likely share the role with Javonte Williams initially as the latter returns from ACL surgery. Williams avoiding the PUP list gives him a good chance to be ready for the season opener.
Don’t believe Payton’s desire for a ground game? Remember, he signed blocking tight end Chris Manhertz and fullback Michael Burton.
If the Broncos run, they can win. Why? It plays to Russell Wilson’s strengths of play-action, bootlegs, RPO and deep drops to set up moon balls. Wilson has 31 touchdowns and 16 interceptions over his last 24 games. It’s fair to wonder if his regression is real or the byproduct of a coach who was over his skies last season. If Wilson posts numbers, say 30 touchdowns and 12 picks, Denver will be in the playoff race. The onus is on Wilson because he wanted Payton as his coach. Now, he must show he can run a system customized to his strengths.
For Wilson to get off the mat, he needs Jerry Jeudy to flourish. All signs point towards Jeudy posting career numbers — 1,200 yards, eight touchdowns are my prediction — after his strong finish and fit in this offense. Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton remain firmly in the mix, but their roles are uncertain. Will Patrick rebound from ACL surgery? Can Sutton regain his 2019 Pro Bowl form?
Keep an eye on Brandon Johnson and Marquez Callaway as sleeper contributors in camp. As for slot receiver, K.J. Hamler profiles best, but availability remains an issue. He will start camp on the Non-Football Injured list as he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle. Hamler believes he will practice soon – so does Kendall Hinton, who had his knee scoped in June – leaving him in position to compete for a roster spot in a crowded room that includes second-round rookie Marvin Mims Jr., the likely punt returner, and Jalen Virgil.
At tight end, Payton said he envisions Greg Dulcich in a “Joker” role, which centers on creating mismatches in space as he did for Darren Sproles and Alvin Kamara. Dulcich must prove he can become a functional blocker, or it will clear a path for more playing time for Adam Trautman.
Payton is a proven play-caller. If he can get Wilson and the Broncos back on the rails, it will go a long way toward shaping the final chapter of his legacy.
Vance Joseph returns as the defensive coordinator five years after his last season as the team’s head coach. Removed from the drama of being the voice of the organization, Joseph should thrive with a talented defense. He will keep the 3-4 scheme, which will be anchored by first-team All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain II and second-team All-Pro safety Justin Simmons.
Surtain was too good for his own good last season, rarely targeted. That will change if the Broncos can secure leads, forcing opponents to take more chances.
The continued development of cornerback Damarri Mathis, who was solid as a rookie, is critical. He dealt with a knee injury during OTAs but told Denver7 he would be fine for camp. Rookie Riley Moss could push Mathis in camp.
Simmons is the sport’s Andruw Jones, a premier center fielder. He boasts 16 interceptions over the past three seasons. Alex Singleton is a tackling machine at inside linebacker paired with Josey Jewell, and Joseph will look for ways to use rookie Drew Sanders as an impact pass rusher.
The Broncos are thin at defensive line and became leaner when defensive end Eyioma Uwazurike was suspended indefinitely on Monday for betting on NFL games during the 2022 season. Look for them to add someone at this position.
Nose tackle D.J. Jones delivered as a run-stopper in his first year in Denver but was not the consistent force he was in San Francisco.
Free agent Zach Allen signed with Denver, in part, because of Joseph, following him from Arizona. He is considered a more versatile run stuffer than Dre’Mont Jones, but he will be asked to provide an inside rush. Why? The Broncos feature concerns at outside linebacker following Baron Browning’s knee surgery that will likely sideline him for the first few weeks of the regular season.
Randy Gregory was disruptive, but only played in six games because of knee surgery. Denver needs eight sacks and 13 games played from him. Nik Bonitto, last season’s second-round pick, and Jonathon Cooper need to step up.
If the Broncos run the football as expected, a more-rested Denver defense should finish top 10 in takeaways and close out games better.
Payton viewed the Broncos’ special teams with disgust. He changed almost everything, bringing in new coordinator Ben Kotwica and assistant head coach Mike Westhoff.
Westhoff told Denver7 he didn’t come out of retirement to “rank 23rd or any crap like that.”
The team moved on from punter Corliss Waitman, bringing back Riley Dixon. They cut Brandon McManus, the last tie to the Super Bowl 50 team, and enter camp with Brett Maher competing against Elliott Fry for the job. There’s no guarantee the kicker is on the roster, though, as Payton will monitor others around the league.
DE Zach Allen
FB Michael Burton
P Riley Dixon
RT Mike McGlinchey
RB Samaje Perine
LG Ben Powers
QB Jarrett Stidham
CB Ronald Darby
DE Dre’Mont Jones
K Brandon McManus
LG Dalton Risner
published 2023-07-28 15:01:34