This past March, Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson joined the Denver Broncos in one of the biggest trades in NFL history. This immediately forced us all to beg the inevitable question: Does the Wilson trade finally make Denver a Super Bowl contender again?
I don’t believe in grandiose takes before the regular season begins but I also can’t answer with a vehement “no.” Wilson brings superstar pedigree and exceptional veteran leadership to the most important (and in Denver’s case, the most elusive since 2014) position. Together with new coach Nathaniel Hackett—who’s had plenty of experience with stud quarterbacks—and a roster that’s deep and dynamic, Broncos fans should be excited about their team’s potential.
Before the 2021 campaign, many pundits predicted that Denver would have a sterling year. Ascending young talent led by seasoned pro Teddy Bridgewater gave the Broncos hopeful faith that the new regime could turn around their franchise. However, that wasn’t the case. After starting off the year 3-0, Denver fell quickly in the NFL’s hardest division, ending with a 7-10 record and covering against the spread in only eight of those contests.
Let’s break down why this year’s campaign presents a more formidable future.
Current Projected Win Total: 10
Schedule Difficulty: Medium-Hard
Power Rating: 76.1
Top to bottom, the Broncos own a very talented roster, and I expect significant improvement from their offense this season—particularly in the passing game.
Russell Wilson needs no introduction, but I’ll let former NFL coach Marc Trestman expand on why he’ll be such an incredible asset for Denver. I completely agree with his assessment. One area that Wilson is probably excited about this year: a trustworthy offensive line. Wilson was sacked a staggering 427 times over the past 10 seasons with the Seahawks–a frequency of 42.7 sacks per season—but that should change in his new post. The Broncos were okay in pass protection last year, but they also faced the highest rate of stacked boxes.
Wilson adds an elusiveness Denver hasn’t had, not to mention an ability to stretch the field and force defensive backs to play further back. Denver’s offensive line is young but able and they’re certainly more skilled than what Seattle offered Wilson.
Denver boasts an exceptional running back tandem. Both Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III handled the ball 203 times last season for Denver, but it was Williams who shined. The second-year back averaged 4.4 yards per carry and earned 1,219 scrimmage yards in his rookie campaign—that’s impressive.
Gordon added 1,131 scrimmage yards on 4.5 yards per carry himself, but it’s clear that Denver sees Williams as “their guy.” Gordon will enter free agency at the end of this season and just doesn’t have the same burst, power, and energy as the 22-year-old Williams. Either way, having an above-average veteran like Gordon as your No. 2 two back isn’t a bad thing.
Denver’s wide receiving group took a hit when “big boy” target Tim Patrick went down with an ACL tear in early August. Patrick provided great depth behind Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy—a combo of receivers itching to provide more production. Now, Denver will turn to KJ Hamler to fill that role. Small, quick, and built for the slot receiver position, Hamler was a 2nd-round pick for the Broncos in 2020 who only played in three games last season due to injury. He’s on track to rejoin the team in full capacity.
Sutton and Jeudy, on the other hand, are probably dying to discover their potential in the new Russell Wilson era. Sutton is a physical, 6-foot-4 receiver who struggled statistically thanks to choppy quarterback play last year, while Jeudy somehow managed to avoid the endzone completely in 2021.
Predicting that their production will positively regress this season with Russ at the helm feels fair, to say the least.
Denver’s general manager George Paton set an aggressive tone in free agency when he signed Wilson. He double-downed on that approach with assertive acquisitions on defense, too. Denver signed defensive end Randy Gregory from Dallas this offseason, adding more pass rushing depth to a 3-4 defense that’s composed of mainly run stoppers (Dre’Mont Jones and DeShawn Williams, for example).
Gregory has yet to play a full season in his five-year career, but he’s been a borderline elite pass rusher whenever we’ve seen him on the field. A new beginning for Gregory, alongside former Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb, feels like a duo that could wreak havoc if injuries don’t crumble their potential once again. Chubb should be over his ankle issues after a frustrating 2021 season where he didn’t earn a single sack. He burst onto the scene in 2018 with 12.5 sacks and snagged 7.5 sacks in his Pro Bowl year; maybe this is the season he can regain some steam.
New signings in DJ Jones (DT), Alex Singleton (LILB), and Josey Jewell (RILB) provide more depth and experience to a group that aims to be better in 2022.
The Broncos secondary is, in our opinion, one of the most elite groups in the NFL. They’re poised to breakout and perform even better this season. Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby, Justin Simmons, and Patrick Surtain II round out an exceptional unit, but it’s Simmons and Surtain II that we’re most interested to watch. Surtain has a palpable energy that any team would love to have, and his rookie season was above-average. Aggressive and physical, the cornerback had 4 INTs and 45 solo tackles in 2021. Justin Simmons is a dangerous, roaming free safety who’s officially in the league’s “most elite” category and looks to put the league on notice this season.
Coaching Staff and Intangibles
Like we stated in our article on Assessing New NFL Coaches, Nathaniel Hackett might have the best new head coaching gig in football.
His young reign in Denver is already garnering excitement—with players seemingly responding early and often to his style. It helps that he’s accustomed to working with star quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers. The coach and quarterback working together to create an offense that works is not only a positive for any team, but it must be particularly exciting for Wilson. Wilson didn’t have the same authority in Seattle, where the infamous “Let Russ Cook” tagline erupted amidst a forced rushing scheme.
If the offense produces at a higher level like we expect, it also takes pressure off the defense. Denver’s defense is historically the force that keeps them competitive—and new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero plans to keep that legacy going—but I love the idea of the Broncos becoming an “offense-first” operation.
In general, it’s hard to find any negative sentiment from the Broncos franchise preseason. The energy and the chemistry seem to be there. As Wilson says, let’s ride!
Wilson’s presence on the Denver Broncos is not one to understate.
He brings poise, exceptional leadership, and all the tangibles and intangibles a team needs to win a championship. Meanwhile, new coach Nathaniel Hackett is acclimating well, their defense is poised for a big year and they have all the talent of a team that should be a prime contender this season.
Still, this is the AFC West. Patrick Mahomes is reportedly more motivated than ever to lead the Chiefs to a title, and the Raiders and Chargers revamped with more dynamic talent on both sides of the ball. There are plenty of winnable games in the first half of this season, including contests against Seahawks, Texans, Jaguars, and Jets. The latter part of the season is not so giving. Besides Carolina, there’s a chance that nine out of their final ten games will be played against teams with a winning record.
The Broncos are loaded with talent, and we love the moves they’ve made in the offseason, but I’d still lean under on their win total.