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State of the 2023 Denver Broncos: Can Sean Payton get Russell Wilson, team back on track?

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Broncos organization, Broncos fans around the world and those who are starting to wonder if Drew Lock was really all that bad?

He was. And you know who else was bad last season? Russell Wilson. But I don't want to be one of those people who's taking victory laps over Russ' downfall. There were plenty of people who thought this was a great move for the Broncos. It didn't work out. Now it's time to look at 2023 with a brand new football coach. But, as always, before we move forward, let's take one last look back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: The Russell Wilson trade. It was exciting. It was kind of like when you heard that Michael Keaton was going to be Batman again in the new The Flash movie. How could you not be fired up for that? Don't be ashamed for being thrilled to land one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade.

One low from last season: That buzz lasted about a week into the NFL season.If that.The Broncos played in Seattle to open the season onMonday Night Football. It did not go as expected. The Broncos were not only outplayed, but even with a chance to salvage the game, they looked out of touch in the final sequence, letting so much time slip by on the final drive, waiting what seemed like forever before calling a timeout and settling for a long field-goal attempt -- that missed. Even Peyton and Eli Manning did not paint the Broncos in a great light in that moment on theManningCast. And it never got better, resulting in head coach Nathaniel Hackett's firing after 15 games (4-11).

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Russell Wilson. Call me crazy -- they call me worse on the internet -- but I'm still a big believer in Russ. All right, a believer. Last year was pretty rough. It was the first time in his career that he had double-digit losses. He had a career-low 84.4 passer rating. Nothing about it was good. And hey, maybe we're all guilty of romanticizing how good Russell was in Seattle. Like maybe he was a bit overrated. Like Starbucks coffee. But at the same time, while it's maybe not as great as it's made out to be, it's certainly not as bad as the haters are trying to make it seem like.

Projected 2023 MVP: Russell Wilson. He is 10-19 over his last two seasons (remember, he went 6-8 during his final season in Seattle). But he was also 98-45-1 over the first nine seasons of his career. His teams made the playoffs in eight of his first nine years. I don't want to lay everything at the feet of Hackett, who seemed out of place coaching the Broncos last season. But even if Russell has been getting by with great coaching all of these years (and maybe Pete Carroll should be given more credit), he's now linked with one of the best in the business in Sean Payton. And it's up to the veteran quarterback to take advantage of this.

New face to know: Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle. The Broncos paid a heavy price to get Wilson, who was sacked a league-leading 55 times in 2022. The lack of picks in the 2023 draft might have forced them to overspend on a protector like McGlinchey. The Broncos paid nearly $90 million over five years to get him when there weren't a lot of tackles on the market. The trouble, however, is McGlinchey has looked great in the running game but really needs to improve in pass protection after giving up six sacks on 529 pass blocking snaps in 2022, per PFF.

2023 breakout star: Greg Dulcich, tight end. The fantasy community went nuts for Albert Okwuegbunam last year, hoping he was going to break out with Russ at the helm. Well, he had 10 catches for 95 yards and a score. But, Dulcich -- a third-round pick from 2022 -- proved to be the guy who we should have wanted. The former UCLA Bruin didn't play the first five weeks of the season (or the final two for that matter), but he did score a touchdown in his first career game against the Chargers. He ended up having five-plus targets in six contests and at least eight in four of them. He could be a real wild card for Payton's offense this year.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Sean Payton
General manager George Paton
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph
Special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica
  • Sean Payton might be the perfect guy to come in to salvage what happened with the Broncos last season. I mean, this wouldn't be the first time he's had to save a team after a disastrous tenure by its previous head coach. After joining the Saints in 2006, Payton led the Saints to a 10-6 record and the NFC Championship Game after the team went 3-13 the previous year under Jim Hasslett. The Saints lost that title game to Rex Grossman, but we don't need to tell that part of the story. The Saints made the playoffs in nine of the 15 years with Payton at the helm. And the Broncos are coming off a seven-year skid of missing the playoffs.
  • Vance Joseph was fired as head coach of the Broncos in 2018. Now he returns to run the defense under Payton. That always comes off as a bit awkward to me. You know there are some longtime staffers who were there in 2018, and those conversations must have had some awkward small talk. Like moving back into your ex's house five years after the breakup. But what's interesting to note here is this isn't the first time this has happened in Denver. Wade Phillips was fired as head coach of the Broncos after the 1994 season. He returned to run the defense in 2015 and helped lead the team to a Super Bowl victory that same season. And Von Miller was like the best defensive player in the league.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Broncos' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Marvin Mims Jr., WR, Oklahoma (2-63) Jarrett Stidham, QB Latavius Murray, RB
Drew Sanders, LB, Arkansas (3-67) Samaje Perine, RB Andrew Beck, FB
Riley Moss, DB, Iowa (3-83) Marquez Callaway, WR Cameron Fleming, OT
JL Skinner, S, Boise State (6-183) Adam Trautman, TE Billy Turner, OT
Alex Forsyth, OL, Oregon (7-257) Mike McGlinchey, OT Dalton Risner, C/OG
Ben Powers, OG Dre'Mont Jones, DL
Zach Allen, DL DeShawn Williams, DL
Alex Singleton, LB Ronald Darby, DL
Kareem Jackson, S

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Broncos be able to ...

... rely on Javonte Williams? Williams was pretty good during his rookie season in 2021, when he had 1,219 scrimmage yards. He forced 63 missed tackles on runs that season, second in the NFL, per PFF. He has been most effective when given a heavy share of touches. In his eight career games with more than 15 scrimmage touches, he posted 102.1 scrimmage yards per game with four touchdowns. He wasn't as effective when he wasn't given the ball at least 15 times (52.5 scrimmage yards per game, three TDs). I mean, that seems pretty simple right? Like Michael Scott once said, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take." Or was that Wayne Gretzky? Either way, it applies. Williams is recovering from tearing his ACL, LCL and PCL in Week 4 last season. The good news is he is expecting to be ready for the start of training camp and he will avoid the PUP list. The team did add Samaje Perine for depth.

... get to the quarterback? The Broncos had 36 sacks in 2022, which was tied for 23rd in the NFL. The team they were tied with? The Arizona Cardinals -- who were led by Vance Joseph. Dre'Mont Jones led the Broncos with 6.5 sacks and he's in Seattle now. The team traded Bradley Chubb to Miami midseason, and he had tallied 5.5 sacks before the trade. Baron Browning, who will start the season on the PUP list due to a knee issue, is the only player still on the team who had more than five sacks last season. The team should have a healthy Randy Gregory back this fall and also signed Frank Clark to a one-year deal this offseason. Patrick Surtain II was a first-team All-Pro corner in 2022, but you have to give him a little help, guys. The Broncos allowed 31 points per game in Weeks 14-18 (30th in the NFL) after allowing just 17 per contest through the first 13 weeks (second in the NFL).

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The receivers are kind of loaded. Jerry Jeudy led the Broncos with 67 receptions for 972 yards and six touchdowns last year, averaging 91.6 yards per game over the last five weeks. Courtland Sutton recorded 829 yards but just two receiving touchdowns. The guy I low-key loved, however, was Tim Patrick, who missed the entire season with an ACL tear sustained during training camp. I really do believe he was on the cusp of a huge breakout campaign. He's been cleared to do everything, and if that wasn't enough, the team traded up in the draft (because they had so many picks to burn) to select Marvin Mims Jr. in the second round. He led Oklahoma in receiving yards in each of the last three seasons.

For 2023 to be a success, the Broncos MUST:

Make a playoff run. I know some people online hate the vagueness of "make a run" in these pieces. I'll say this: The Broncos need to win a Super Wild Card Weekend game. Fall behind by 10 in the Divisional Round. Rally to take a brief lead. Then fall to the eventual Super Bowl champions in overtime. Is that specific enough? Will that quell your thirst?

But in all seriousness, you made the deal for Russell Wilson. You trade for Sean Payton (move over Rams, the Broncos really do hate them picks). Winning at least one playoff game (maybe two) is the absolute minimum for this team. Merely making the playoffs isn't enough of a return for what you have spent. Maybe even a trip to the AFC Championship Game should be considered the minimum.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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