The Broncos lifted the veil of darkness in March. In one of the biggest trades in NFL history, Denver acquired nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks.
The Broncos have had 11 starting QBs since Peyton Manning retired. The carousel of madness has mercifully stopped. Overnight, the Broncos became relevant again, answering their biggest question at the most important position. Now, the pressure is on Wilson — something he embraces — and new head coach Nathaniel Hackett to return the Broncos to the playoffs for the first time since they won Super Bowl 50.
An underwhelming offense remains the common thread in the Broncos' run of misery — five straight losing seasons for the first time since 1963-72. The Broncos have not averaged 21 points per game over the last six seasons, and they did not do anything well last season other than protect the football. The pairing of Wilson and Hackett, the team's first offensive head coach since Gary Kubiak in 2016, changes everything. Wilson is something of a Peyton Manning 2.0, a star charged with restoring a franchise's glory while cementing his own legacy as a Hall of Famer. He chose to come to Denver — he waived his no-trade clause — because he believes in the franchise's rich history. It does not hurt he will have significant input in the offense for the first time in his career.
Wilson and Hackett spent OTAs and mandatory minicamp blending zone run schemes and West Coast principles to fit the quarterback's strengths. Hackett, whose energy and connection with players stand in contrast to the previous regime, has made it clear that while he will challenge Wilson — he did that as Aaron Rodgers' offensive coordinator in Green Bay — his job is "to make him comfortable." Finding the sweet spot on the number of passing attempts will become critical. While Broncos Country wants Hackett to "Let Russ Cook," throwing 35 times per game is not a formula for sustainable success.
Weapons will flank Wilson. There will be no more excuses for a receiving group that underachieved last year. Courtland Sutton will look to regain his burst and catch more 50-50 balls in his second season removed from ACL surgery, and Jerry Jeudy aims to live up to his first-round potential after failing to score a touchdown in 2021. He finished last season with a laughable three red zone targets. It's time for Hackett to maximize his potential and for Jeudy to deliver. Tim Patrick is the steady contributor, and dynamic slot receiver KJ Hamler, coming off knee surgery, remains the wild card. The Broncos are counting on tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to replace Noah Fant, traded to Seattle, to emerge as a third-down threat, and rookie Greg Dulcich, a vertical mismatch, could challenge him for playing time.
While Wilson will be asked to caffeinate the Broncos' offense, the running game remains carbonated. The Broncos boast one of the league's best one-two punches in second-year pro Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon III. The pair split carries evenly last season, finishing with 1,821 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns. This season, offensive coordinator Justin Outten hinted that the team would let the game dictate playing time while riding the hot hand.
The offensive line was ordinary a year ago, and it's unclear if the mobility required in the zone-blocking scheme will benefit this group. Left tackle Garett Bolles requires a rebound after regressing in the first year of his $68 million contract extension, and he is motivated to help Wilson. Billy Turner, a former Packer, provides versatility at right tackle, and the team also will keep an open mind on how to use interior linemen Lloyd Cushenberry III, Dalton Risner, Quinn Meinerz and Graham Glasgow.
Wilson takes sacks because he extends plays. But his creativity, obsession with winning and leadership have been embraced by the Broncos like a long-lost friend.
The Broncos tried hard to convince critics that their defense was great last season, bending statistics into pretzels to prove their point. It was not. The Broncos ranked third in points allowed (18.9) but fizzled on third down and ranked 21st in takeaways and tied for 18th in sacks. They also could not stop the run in the fourth quarter in multiple losses.
Having a lead with a Wilson-powered offense should inspire more aggression from first-time defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. Evero will keep Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme but plans to make it more nuanced to "pressure the quarterback." The expectation remains that the Broncos will play more nickel and dime, leaning on the strength of the secondary.
Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons is a premier center fielder who consistently makes big plays, and strong safety Kareem Jackson returns as the soundtrack of the defense and a sounding board for teammates. Pat Surtain II is more polished than Pledge and is poised to make a Pro Bowl in his second season. After that, there are questions. K'Waun Williams will man the slot and is a sneaky blitzer. However, he's had some injury issues, as has Ronald Darby, who is a solid player but has not intercepted a pass in his last 30 games.
For the secondary to prosper, the Broncos need pressure from outside linebackers Bradley Chubb and newcomer Randy Gregory. Nowhere on the roster is there more risk and potential reward. Chubb has reached a crossroads in his career. A star as a rookie and a Pro Bowler in Year 3, Chubb failed to produce a sack last season, a year defined by surgery to remove bone spurs in both ankles. The Broncos need Chubb to bounce back because Gregory, whom the Broncos guaranteed $28 million as part of a five-year deal, has missed more games than he has played in his career. Gregory, a former Dallas Cowboy, is explosive and dynamic but will be returning from rotator cuff surgery. Rookie Nik Bonitto could be asked to play a significant role if Chubb and Gregory are unavailable.
The club trusts its inside linebackers to be available and improved. Despite Josey Jewell's limitations in coverage, the Broncos moved quickly to re-sign him, with Evero saying, "He's the epitome of what you want in terms of running the huddle, leading the charge and getting the communication done."
One player who should pop is defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones. He posted 5.5 sacks in 2021 and will benefit from the addition of free agent D.J. Jones, who is an elite run-stuffer and agile enough to play outside at times. With the Broncos equipped to finally play complementary football, it will be a disappointment if they do not finish in the top 10 in takeaways and sacks, defining hallmarks of a stout defense.
The Broncos' special teams have been a tire fire for five seasons. New coordinator Dwayne Stukes brings intensity and will demand his players are "violent and physical." Kicker Brandon McManus, the last remaining member of the Super Bowl 50 team, anchors special teams as a captain and performer. He has converted 15 field goals of 50 yards or longer over the past two seasons. Punter Sam Martin was good, but given that his home field is at altitude, the Broncos need him to be great. And for this group to solidify its standing, the Broncos must find functional punt and kick returners.
No more rebuilding and relying on hope as a strategy. Wilson has changed everything from expectations to the vibe in the building. There will be growing pains with the coaching staff, with Hackett and his coordinators all serving in their roles for the first time. Hackett has energized the players and the fan base, leaning on slogans like "The Storm Is Coming" and "Win the West." He talks fast, moves fast and thinks fast. And he needs to win fast; patience will not last with Wilson now the face of the franchise.