Here’s what we learned about the Denver Broncos in the last nine weeks.
ENGLEWOOD, Col. — So much was done.
Weight lifting, sprints, stretching, pass routes, plays against air, a voluntary minicamp, Lloyd Cushenberry-dominated Kahoot! games, the draft, rookie minicamp, more conditioning and plays against air, 10 OTAs, two mandatory minicamp practices (but not three) and a fun-packed Field Day.
And while the Broncos were conducting their 9-week offseason program, a couple executives upstairs, Joe Ellis and Rich Slivka, were overseeing the team’s sale to Rob Walton, his daughter Carrie Walton Penner and his son-in-law Greg Penner.
Although resources never seemed to be a problem during the nearly decade-long reign of the Pat Bowlen Trust (coaches and quarterbacks were another matter) the perception is the Walton-Penner wealth will help bring better days ahead.
The team is now on break until reporting back for the start of training camp on July 26, with the first camp practice on July 27.
As for the team Walton and the Penners just bought, here are 9 observations from the eight combined media-viewed Broncos’ OTAs and minicamps:
1. Russell Wilson is driven
I interviewed Drew Brees at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii following the 2006 and 2008 seasons. Both times, Brees acknowledged Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were the two best quarterbacks in the game. Both times, Brees said he hoped to join them as the best of the best.
Deep down, I thought Brees was inflating his expectation. He was good, sure. Very good. But how could a 6-foot quarterback stand near the same company as the 6-5 Manning and 6-4 Brady?
The next season, 2009, Brees was the best quarterback in the game, outdueling Manning in that season’s Super Bowl. In the 11-season period from 2006 to 16, Brees was the league’s most prolific passer.
Russell Wilson seems to emulate the Manning ways, but he reminds me most of Brees, even if their styles are divergent. Yes, Wilson brings more athleticism to his game and Brees would be considered a better pure passer from the pocket. But both are short in stature as quarterbacks go – Wilson at 5-11 is an inch shorter than Brees.
Brees was driven to be the best and for a time he was. Wilson has been considered a top 3 to 7 quarterback through his first 10 seasons with Seattle but it’s clear he is truly motivated to be No. 1.
He has his own personal fitness and coaching staff – aside from the Broncos’ coaches he works with. The football calendar and schedule, apparently, isn’t full enough for the dedicated Wilson.
“The fans they can expect to see the same guy every single day,” said Jake Heaps, Wilson’s personal quarterback’s coach. “The same intensity, the same obsession to be great. But I think Russell is just getting started in terms of what he can do with his career. And I’m really excited for him to get this opportunity with coach (Nathaniel) Hackett and the rest of his staff and I truly believe the best is yet to come.”
Wilson understands a QB is foremost measured by Super Bowl wins. He has one and should have had two. Brady is now all but indisputably the best because of his 7 Super Bowl rings with No. 7 coming without Bill Belichick.
There was some talk after the trade that brought Wilson from Seattle to Denver that he isn’t the same quarterback he once was. That’s not what I saw during OTAs and minicamp. He looked real good, especially with his ability to pivot, scramble and make an impact throw. His focus in practice was constant. Every play of every practice brought Wilson’s full attention. He wore game pants at practice. He stayed after most practices to work extra with his guys.
Although he is 33, Wilson said at his introductory press conference in March that he wants to play 10 to 12 more years and win three or four more Super Bowls. When he said this, deep down, I was skeptical. But I was wrong about Brees and maybe Wilson can make me 0 for 2.
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I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying it’s different. First-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett doesn’t lord over the practice. He doesn’t stand away from the play and silently observes, popping in once every few plays for a word or two, the way so many football head thinkers do.
Hackett’s preference is to all but jump in and join the play.
During the individual drills separated by positions, Hackett will bounce from group to group and actively participate. He may not try to catch the ball with his receivers, but he’ll try to swat it away. Early in the first minicamp practice, Hackett lined up at running back and ran through the fake handoff as Wilson and the quarterbacks were practicing their play-action passes.
Between practice periods, Hackett often jogs from one drill to the other. He ran sprints with the rookies at the end of each minicamp practice.
But where Hackett separates himself from this “one of the guys” approach is he does instruct and usually delivers a tip after each play.
Again, none of this is bad. But because of their inexperience at so many coaching levels, Hackett and the coaching staff represent the Broncos’ biggest question mark entering the 2022 season. Hackett is a first-time head coach. Justin Outten and Ejiro Evero are first-time coordinators. Marcus Dixon and Butch Barry are first-time defensive and offensive line coaches.
But Hackett and his assistants have so much energy and know-how, it’s hard to believe they won’t succeed. You gotta start somewhere. In 1954, the New York Giants hired a first-time head coach in Jim Lee Howell and a first-time offensive coordinator out of the Army named Vince Lombardi. That same year, Howell had his All-Pro safety Tom Landry double as his defensive coordinator.
RELATED: New-look Broncos offense under Hackett/Outten means passing on run
3. Might not need one more cornerback
The Broncos have three good ones in Pat Surtain II, Ronald Darby and K’Waun Williams, who was signed away from San Francisco and free agency to play the slot. The No. 4 corner is currently scheduled to be either Michael Ojemudia, a third-round pick from the 2020 draft, or Damarri Mathis, a fourth-round rookie from Pitt.
Maybe that’s all the Broncos need. Ojemudia especially had a good offseason as he rebounds from injury. Or maybe a proven veteran who can play the outside corner will wind up on general manager George Paton’s radar sometime between now and the setting of the 53-man roster around Aug. 30.
There are still a bunch of accomplished corners still available in free agency like Xavier Rhodes, Kenny King, Joe Haden, AJ Bouye and Chris Harris Jr. All but King from this group, though, are well into their 30s.
4. Bradley Chubb looks good
Because of injuries, the Broncos have only had one season of the real Bradley Chubb and that was his first year of 2018 when the outside linebacker’s 12.0 sacks broke Von Miller’s rookie team record.
Since then, there have been surgeries to repair a torn ACL and each ankle, operations spaced over two years. While even the most successful surgeries can steal some flexibility here, strength there and quick-twitch here and there, Chubb looked better this offseason than he has in a while. With the Broncos’ other starting edge rusher Randy Gregory spending the offseason rehabilitating from shoulder surgery, a Chubb return to double-digit sacks will be key for a Denver D that must confront Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr twice a year.
5. Offensive line is competitive, unsettled
The most common top 5 through the offseason were, from left to right, Garett Bolles, Dalton Risner, Cushenberry III, Quin Meinerz and Calvin Anderson.
But Netane Muti got his share of No. 1 reps at both left and right guard, veteran returning starting Graham Glasgow, returning gradually from surgery to repair significant ankle and lower leg injuries, mixed in at center and left guard, and veterans Tom Compton and Ben Braden worked in at the tackle positions.
And somehow, somewhere, Billy Turner is expected to play. An experienced starter at four positions – with right tackle considered his best – Turner sat out the offseason to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery. He is the blocker most familiar with Hackett’s wide-zone blocking system.
6. Wide zone system is easy on the eyes
The offense Andy Reid employs for the Chiefs features plenty of misdirection where it seems everyone is moving one way, only for the quarterback and one receiver to sneak off the other way. Hackett and offensive coordinator Justin Outten emphasized all offseason that every play, run or pass, must look the same off the snap. Wilson’s ability to move, roll and throw makes him an ideal quarterback for the system.
Wilson operated this version of the West Coast offense for the first time last year when Seattle made Shane Waldron, a Sean McVay disciple, its offensive coordinator. In his first four games last year, Wilson threw 9 touchdown passes without an interception while leading the Seahawks to an average of 25.8 points a game. The Broncos would take that. They haven’t averaged better than 20.8 points since 2016.
Then came the finger injury to Wilson’s passing hand that required surgery. After missing three games, Wilson may have returned a bit too early as he struggled in his first two games back. But he finished strong, throwing 15 touchdown passes against just 3 interceptions in his final seven games.
7. Surtain, Javonte are ready for more
While safety Justin Simmons was the Broncos’ best player overall last season, he was the top two drafted rookies who most dazzled the Broncos’ fan base. Pat Surtain II’s rare combination of length, speed and quickness will one day make him a top 3 cornerback in the league. Herbert may already put him there after Surtain picked the Chargers’ QB off twice in a late-November game, returning one for a 70-yard touchdown. Surtain should have made the Pro Bowl team as a rookie and based on how good he looked during the offseason, he’s a cinch to make it this year.
Williams’s ability to not just break tackles but carry tacklers made him beloved among the Fantasy-bent media last season. He rushed for more than 900 yards while evenly splitting carries with veteran Melvin Gordon III. The expectation is Williams will bump up to the 1A role this year. He got plenty of No. 1 reps this offseason as Gordon didn’t participate until the final two mandatory minicamp workouts.
8. Jeudy needs to put a challenging offseason behind him
The Broncos’ first-round draft choice in 2020, Jeudy stirred buzz in each of his first two offseasons through his outstanding route running that created sizable separation. His regular seasons, though, didn’t measure up to expectation. A high ankle sprain in the season opener at the New York Giants last year put a major crimp in his production.
So maybe Jeudy will have his breakout season in 2022 because his offseason didn’t go as planned. A non-physical quarrel with the mother of his newborn daughter led to Jeudy’s arrest and a night in jail. Charges were dropped by the district attorney and judge less than three weeks later. Jeudy then missed at least one OTA practice because of a bad back and later missed the final two weeks of OTA/minicamp with a groin injury.
The Broncos have a good top 4 receiver group in Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, KJ Hamler and Jeudy. Coupling third-round rookie Greg Dulcich with Albert Okwuegbunam has the potential to give Wilson a formidable 1-2 tight-end punch. But Jeudy’s well-rounded skill set gives him the best chance to have an 80-catch season.
Thanks to Wilson, there is considerable hope and excitement associated with the Broncos this year. But then you read or hear how the Chargers are ready to take the next step with Herbert moving into his third season and the defensive additions of Khalil Mack and JC Jackson.
The Raiders, who swept the Broncos each of the past two years, added pass rusher Chandler Jones and receiver Davonte Adams.
The Chiefs lost impact receiver Tyreek Hill, but they’ve never been threatened as AFC West Division champs since Mahomes became their starting quarterback in 2018. And JuJu Smith-Schuester and Marques Valdes-Scantling aren’t slouches as receiver replacements. The Chiefs also had four draft picks before the Broncos made their first selection, Nick Bonitto at No. 64.
So while the Broncos may be greatly improved this year, especially on offense, they will have to be three or four wins better to climb out of the bottom half of the incredibly strong AFC West.
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