ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Let's make one thing clear. The Broncos did not arrive at a seven-year playoff absence, the second longest active drought in the NFL, by accident.
First, they wandered into chaos at head coach, settling on Super Bowl winning champion Sean Payton as their fifth boss in eight years. Secondly, they have yet to produce acceptable, functional quarterback play as Russell Wilson, the 12th starter since Peyton Manning retired, aiming to rebound this season. Third, their lack of discipline has been stunning — they ranked second in penalties a year ago. Fourth, they have not performed above the league average on special teams since 2015, losing consistently in the margins, if not completely sabotaging themselves.
And lastly, this team has lacked elite talent. It's impossible to win without good players. For the first time in some time, this roster appears ready to take a step forward after a $247 million spending splurge in free agency.
As someone who covered the Rockies for nearly two decades, I can tell one thing for certain about teams who operate with little margin for error. The best players must play well. That is amplified in a salary cap sport where a contract does suggest, if not scream, the performance required from a player. There is often confusion that paying a player makes him better. Nope. You hope your scouts, general manager, and coach — and Payton has his fingerprints on everything roster related — made the right calculation on a player's ability, character, and desire to foster a winning culture.
So, let's look at who must play elite for the Broncos to restore their glory, emerging as the MVP of the offensive position groups.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. The Broncos signed Wilson to a five-year, $242.5 million extension with $161 million guaranteed last August. He stepped on a rake, humbled in every way imaginable with career lows in completion percentage (60.5), touchdowns (16) and wins (four). Wilson, 34, began slumping at the end of his Seattle run. Over his last 24 games, he boasts 31 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That won't work. Wilson must post a 3-to-1 ratio, say 27 touchdowns and nine picks, something along those lines or he could struggle to keep his starting job. Wilson wanted to play for Payton. The guardrails will go back up. The plays he runs best will return. Wilson, who was working out with his receivers at CU on Monday, has lost weight and appears more mobile. With Payton committed to running the ball to create an offensive identity, Wilson should find success with quick hitters, play action and bootlegs. With an improved offensive line and proven play-caller at head coach, there are no excuses for Wilson. The onus is on him to bounce back, otherwise the team must strongly consider moving on after this season.
The Broncos ranked 21st in rushing yards per game. They allowed an NFL-worst 63 sacks, including 55 of Wilson. Simply put, Denver's offensive line did not gel as hoped, submarined by bad coaching and injuries. Fixing it became Payton's top priority, adding right tackle Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers in free agency, guaranteeing them a combined $81 million. Left tackle Garett Bolles after missing the final 12 games of last season with a broken leg/ankle. Quinn Meinerz anchors right guard and should fit this brutish style well. Llloyd Cushenberry is favorite to remain center but must improve. At season's end, McGlinchey needs to be the MVP of the group. The right tackle position has been a revolving door of inconsistency and instability. McGlinchey should spearhead the run game, and he's already emerged as a leader, a mayoral type in his ability to relate to everyone. There will be moments he allows sacks. But if this team runs as they want to, it will be because McGlinchey reaches his potential.
Teams that jump from five wins to nine or 10 have common traits. They receive contributions from barren spots. The Broncos tight end group has been underwhelming for years. However, second-year prospect Greg Dulcich could change that. Payton envisions him in a potential Joker role, an X-factor position where mismatches rule. Chris Manhertz can block. Adam Trautman brings experience. With game now won over the middle of the field, Dulcich’s emergence could provide rocket fuel for the offense in the red zone and on third downs.
Samaje Perine projects to start until further notice. He has profiled as a third down back for years. But this could work to the Broncos’ advantage if Perine can carry the load for the first month, with Javonte Williams providing quite a rush over the final three months. Williams told Denver7 he will not return timid or scared. When he’s cleared – he believes he will be ready to go for training camp following ACL surgery – he plans to run with violent intentions. They need Williams to emerge as the top player in this group.
This room is more crowded than a Taylor Swift merch line. Multiple intriguing talents will be left without a chair when the music stops when the preseason ends. Jerry Jeudy is the easy answer on who must be the best of the group. I believe nuance is required. Jeudy will be tops statistically – 1,200 yards, eight touchdowns – but Tim Patrick’s healthy return is required. I will take 700 yards and six scores because of the discipline, passion, and intensity he brings to the field. If he’s productive at his previous level, his intangibles will make him the MVP of the room.