With the NFL regular season kicking off Thursday, The Messenger drops each of the 32 teams into an appropriate bucket based on expectations for 2023…
Each year, there are teams that look like they could go 17–0 or 0–17. The 2023 season is full of such unstable molecules. Will Tua Tagovailoa stay healthy and productive for the Dolphins? Where will lady luck take the Vikings? How does Lamar Jackson fit the new Ravens offense? Are the Browns stealth contenders or a cautionary tale? Is Sean Payton planning to build the Broncos around Russell Wilson or preparing for demolition? Oh yeah, and Aaron Rodgers is on the Jets now. A contender or two could rise from among these six teams, but we’ll have to wade through a whole soap opera
The Vikings broke the rules of probability and warped reality itself by winning 13 games despite allowing three more points than they scored (424 to 427) in 2022. Most observers expect some backsliding from a team that went 6–0 in games decided by four points or less and let several big-name starters leave (Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Eric Kendricks, Patrick Peterson, Za’Darius Smith) in a youth movement/cost-cutting campaign.
Just how far the Vikings fall depends on new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, rookie receiver Jordan Addison and the quarterback that football fans hate to love to hate.
Dear Lord, it’s still Kirk Cousins, the boring dream we can never wake up from. Cousins’ completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, touchdown and sack rate were all worse than his career averages last year, a sign that Cousins, always better than his reputation, is no longer as efficient as he used to be. Fifth-round pick Jalen Hall (BYU) is the franchise’s latest half-hearted attempt at a contingency plan.
Justin Jefferson. That’s it. That’s the offense. O.K., that’s not quite true. Addison overcame a springtime injury and traffic violation to earn positive notice in camp. He also played well in the preseason before sustaining a concussion. Replacing Thielen will be a tall order for a rookie, but Addison vacuumed up targets for both Pitt (with Kenny Pickett at quarterback) and USC (Caleb Williams) during his college career.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson has near-Travis Kelce-level talent but must cut down on mistakes (seven drops last year per Pro Football Reference, three holding and two pass interference penalties for the Lions and Vikings). Alexander Mattison takes over for Cook, which would be a bigger deal if the shaky interior Vikings offensive line (Ed Ingram, Garret Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland) wasn’t returning with no upgrades.
The Vikings got halfway through an age/salary purge on defense before stopping to re-sign linebacker Jordan Hicks and extend safety Harrison Smith and edge rusher Danielle Hunter, the latter on a shortened contract that will make him a free agent next year. Hunter is still a Pro Bowler, the others are just savvy (read: slow) veterans.
Marcus Davenport, a remarkable athlete who never lived up to his first-round selection with the Saints, replaces Za’Darius Smith as Hunter’s bookend edge rusher. Bryon Murphy arrives from Arizona to add some juice in the slot.
A cadre of unproven youngsters, including Andrew Booth (a second-round pick last year) and Mekhi Blackmon (a third-rounder from USC this year) are vying for the starting cornerback spots, which might be good news for receivers across the NFC North.
Flores’ ever-shifting fronts and madcap blitzes will be a welcome change from Ed Donatell’s static, droopy zone-coverage approach. (In Donatell’s defense, the Vikings defense was so overloaded with 30-somethings last year that it would have burst into flames if everyone wasn’t playing back on their heels.) Flores’ arrival even contributed to a change in how head coach Kevin O’Connell approached training camp: there was much more hitting in this year’s practices than last.
O’Connell is an old-school running-and-play-action game-planner. Watch enough Vikings film and you will be able to set your watch by the rollout passes to tight ends.
The Vikings committed just 689 yards in penalties in 2022. Their opponents committed 926 yards in penalties. That 237-yard net differential was the highest in the NFL, and it was one of many odd little advantages the Vikings enjoyed last season that are likely to evaporate (penalty totals fluctuate wildly year-to-year) this season.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS SUMMER
Safety Lewis Cine suffered a severe leg fracture at the start of last year. He spent his rehab downtime binge-watching One-Punch Man, Naruto and other anime. Cine looked like his typically explosive self throughout camp and in preseason action, giving the Vikings some much-needed defensive speed. Chalk it up to an awesome fitness routine of 100 pushups, 100 situps, 100 squats and a daily 10K run! (On second thought: don’t).
Ivan Pace Jr., an undrafted rookie who put up big numbers (137 total tackles, 10 sacks, 4 pass breakups) at the University of Cincinnati after transferring from Miami of Ohio last year, generated lots of camp buzz before recording six tackles in his preseason debut. The Vikings need both a successor to pokey Jordan Hicks and someone to inject some danger into their blitz package, and cheap young talent is always in short supply in Minnesota.
The oddsmaker’s win total of 8.5 actually feels inflated by last year’s record. The Vikings’ roster is thin at most positions, a few of the well-known names are past their primes, and Flores can only accomplish so much if two starting-caliber cornerbacks don’t immediately emerge. The Vikings could ride Jefferson and a weak division to another playoff berth. But if their luck has truly run out, they could end up with one of the worst records in the NFL.
New York Jets
Remember that vintage episode of The Twilight Zone in which an omnipotent little boy forces all the adults in a town to think happy thoughts, turning them into horrifying crimes against nature if they dare question him?
The Jets are that small town. You know darn well who the little boy is. (Hint: It ain’t Bill Mumy).
There’s a solid roster lurking beneath the Jets’ 1960s sci-fi allegory. But there are some real flaws that [author turns into living jack-in-the-box].
Aaron Rodgers posted his lowest yards-per-attempt rate in 2022 (6.8) since 2015. His interception rate (2.2) was his highest since 2017, and most of his other passing stats were his worst in three to four years. But Rodgers will be the first to send his surrogates to tell you that a) none of that was his fault and b) his age (he turns 40 in December) is nothing to worry about.
Non-Rodgers Approved Edit: Garrett Wilson is a quick-footed, sure-handed, wise-beyond-his-years all-purpose receiver who overcame suspect quarterback play to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2022. Corey Davis retired in August, but the Jets have veteran depth at wide receiver. Dalvin Cook arrived in August to increase the New York Dream Team vibe and allow them to take their time with second-year running back Breece Hall (2022 ACL tear).
The offensive line is a potential trouble spot. Left tackle Duane Brown, 37, spent training camp on the PUP list, while rarely-available forever-injured right tackle Mekhi Becton pulled himself from the Hall of Fame game due to injury concerns and was relegated to the second string. The interior line, led by center Conner McGovern, is sturdier.
Rodgers Approved Edit: Allen Lazard may not be Davante Adams, but he’s a huge target who earns the respect of his quarterback. Randall Cobb is a savvy slot receiver who is always where he’s supposed to be on third-and-medium. There are also a few holdovers from last year, including some kid from Ohio State whom the Packers probably should have drafted.
When it comes to age and injuries at both tackle spots: have no fear, because Billy Turner is here.
Sauce Gardner, the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year, leads an exceptional cornerback corps featuring D.J. Reed, Michael Carter (the Jets also have a running back by that name) and Bryce Hall (not to be confused with Breece).
Quinnen Williams, not to be confused with brother/linebacker Quincy Williams (the Jets are confusing, folks), earned a reported $96 million contract extension at the start of training camp. Williams is one of the NFL’s most disruptive interior defenders.
The Jets lack a marquee edge rusher, but Williams makes life easier for the defenders on the outside, and rookie Will McDonald joins Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers and Jermaine Johnson to give the Jets quantity to compensate for their lack of top-tier quality.
Rodgers coached the Green Bay Packers to three straight 13-win seasons, but his Super Bowl hopes were always sabotaged by bumbling subordinates like play-calling peon Matt LaFleur and personnel factotum Brian Gutekunst.
OK, that was a little snarky, even by the standards of this segment. But Rodgers is essentially running the Jets offense through coordinator/mouthpiece Nathaniel Hackett. And Rodgers, not head coach Robert Saleh, already has final authority over team messaging. (See: the Sean Payton/Hackett brouhaha, which Saleh tried and failed to downplay).
Saleh and coordinator Jeff Ulbrich turned the Jets’’ defense around in 2022 and will benefit from players like Gardner gaining experience this year.
The “spotlight” factor won’t impact Rodgers any more than a filthy fishbowl impacts a catfish. It’s everyone else on the roster that the Jets need to worry about. The entire franchise has been forced to remain relentlessly on message throughout Hard Knocks, the Sean Payton incident, the Hall of Fame Game hoopla and beyond. It’s easy to talk and think like a Stepford Wife when the games don’t matter. We’ll see what happens if someone puts a microphone in front of one of the veterans after Rodgers throws a game-ending interception and then blames the game plan.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS SUMMER
Tony Adams, a 2022 undrafted rookie who played sparingly last year, had an outstanding camp and is expected to start at free safety, adding even more depth to the Jets’ secondary. Adams even intercepted Rodgers in practice, an event which NO ONE DARED MENTION EVER AGAIN.
The Jets start the season facing the Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Chiefs, Broncos (GRUDGE MATCH) and Eagles. They’re likely to go 3-3 in that stretch, and Jets fans are already inoculating themselves against that possibility. (The national media will rip us, but we won’t p-p-p-p-panic).
Rodgers makes the Jets a playoff team, but he has not made anyone a Super Bowl team in a long time, and he’s no longer playing like a perennial MVP. Maybe a dozen wins and a playoff berth are all the Jets need after a 12-year postseason drought. But if Rodgers just makes the Jets a happy-to-be-here team like the Lions or Jaguars, then it’s hard to imagine that he’s worth all the hubbub and (coming soon) headaches.
Can Tua Tagovailoa stay healthy? And if he does, is he even all that good? Will Tyreek Hill face a suspension? Does Vic Fangio have all the pieces he needs on defense? Can the offensive line hold up? When will we see Jalen Ramsey on the field? Do the Miami Dolphins have the depth to overcome an injury to any front-line starters?
We’ll try to answer a few of those questions here. But we will be asking some of them all season long.
Tagovailoa is an accurate short passer with a quick release and deft touch. He’s a good decision-maker in a clean pocket with enough mobility to escape trouble. His deep passes are floaters, all bets are off when the pocket collapses, and of course, his 2022 concussions threaten to turn any sack into a career crisis.
Nearly everyone who watches football will agree with everything in the previous paragraph, making the debate over whether Tagovailoa is a Jalen Hurts/Joe Burrow/Justin Herbert-level franchise quarterback or a moldy parsnip nothing but a sports-talk-manufactured controversy.
Teddy Bridgewater is gone, so the Dolphins will turn to some combination of former Jets mirage Mike White and 2022 preseason sensation Skyler Thompson if anything happens to Tagovailoa.
Hill, who will not be disciplined by the NFL for his role in an offseason incident at a Florita marina, was his usual unstoppable Cheetah self in training camp. Jaylen Waddle is the most dangerous No. 2 wide receiver in the NFL.
And now for the rest of the Dolphins offense, such as it is …
Former Jets shifty guy Braxton Berrios replaces reliable Trent Sherfield (Bills) in the slot. Rugged blocking backup Durham Smythe replaces blocking-averse Mike Gesicki (Patriots) at tight end. Cedrick Wilson agreed to a re-worked contract as the rarely-used fourth receiver.
Raheem Mostert, Salvon Ahmed and Texas A&M rookie De’Von Achane (who may miss the start of the season with a shoulder injury) in a speedy but interchangeable backfield committee.
Left tackle Terron Armstead and center Connor Williams are known commodities. The rest of the offensive line — which buckled last season — was in flux during training camp.
The Dolphins want to force opponents into aerial shootouts and win the turnover battle on defense. But Ramsey suffered a knee injury in July and won’t return until December. Second-round pick Cam Smith (South Carolina) suffered a shoulder injury in August, further depleting the Dolphins’ depth at cornerback. Veteran Xavien Howard is still around but coming off an inconsistent year.
Jaelan Phillips, who tied for fifth in the NFL with 68 pressures (per Sports Info Solutions) in 2022, is the top edge rusher. Bradley Chubb was a banged-up disappointment as a midseason acquisition last season, but he will be a dangerous complement to Phillips if/when healthy.
Christian Wilkins is a stout run defender with some pass-rush juice. Middle linebacker Jerome Baker is solid in coverage and explosive when blitzing, making him an excellent fit in the new scheme.
McDaniel did a fine job modding his Kyle Shanahan-influenced offense to accommodate two receivers with connections to the Speed Force. He did a not-so-fine job keeping Tagovailoa out of trouble (especially after his first head injury) and reconfiguring the Dolphins offense when Bridgewater and Thompson started behind a banged-up offensive line.
Legendary defensive coordinator Vic Fangio replaces blitz-happy Josh Boyer on the other side of the ball. Fangio loves a hearty blitz, but he’s expected to use more nickel packages and two-deep safety concepts than Boyer.
The Dolphins led the NFL in deep (15-plus air yards) completions with 67 and in deep-passing yards with 1,825.
Tugavailoa threw for 1,508 deep-passing yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions in 13 games. Bridgewater and Thompson threw for 317 deep-passing yards, zero touchdowns and five interceptions in four starts and various relief appearances. The Dolphins can’t afford their greatest strength to become a major weakness if anything happens to Tagovailoa.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS SUMMER
Noah Igbinoghene appeared to have a roster spot sewn up due to a strong training camp and the injuries to Ramsey and Cam Smith, but he was traded to the Cowboys for Kelvin Joseph during roster cutdowns in what was essentially a swap of disappointing young cornerbacks.
Igbinoghene, a former first-round pick, never looked comfortable in man coverage under Boyer and Brian Flores before appearing to take a step forward this summer. Joseph was once challenged to “be a man” by Jerry Jones on talk radio after some rough performances last year.
Joseph now gets a fresh start on a team whose owner doesn’t double as a sportstalk troll, while Igbinoghene can take comfort in the fact that Jerrah will never learn how to pronounce his name.
Lamar Jackson is healthy and wealthy after an injury-marred 2022 season and a year-long contract squabble/morality play. Jackson is now also supported by the best receiving corps of his career, and he will operate a conventional offense after years behind the wheel of Greg Roman’s over-customized hotrod.
The Ravens possess the front-line talent to return to the top tier of AFC contenders. But they face a tough divisional schedule, some roster churn at key positions, concerns about several oft-injured stars (including Jackson) and a queasy feeling that they changed their scheme and turbocharged their receiving corps a year or two too late.
Jackson’s MVP season was way back in 2019. His completion rate and yards per attempt have declined in each of the three seasons since, as have his rushing yardage totals. Injuries ended his last two seasons prematurely. None of this is calamitous or insurmountable, and there are several other variables at play (the scheme, the receivers). But Jackson needs to be more efficient and consistent in the stretches between OMG highlights, and his lengthening injury history suggests that 10-plus carries per game is no longer a great idea.
Odell Beckham Jr. lost his 2022 season to the ACL injury he suffered in Super Bowl LVI, and his 2014-16 heyday is long gone. But Beckham is a significant upgrade from the DeSean Jackson/Sammy Watkins/Dez Bryant retreads the Ravens have cycled through over the last three years in search of a deep threat.
Rookie Zay Flowers, nicknamed “Joystick” because the folks who assign nicknames are all over 40 these days, was one of the NFL’s biggest training-camp superstars. Savvy Nelson Agholor rounds out the wide receiver overhaul, with Rashod Bateman in his familiar role as the guy who might contribute something if he’s ever healthy.
J.K. Dobbins started camp on the PUP list with an undisclosed injury which was probably a torn WPC (Willingness to Play under Contract). He was activated in mid-August. Dobbins missed all of 2021 and half of 2022 with injuries.
Pro Bowler Mark Andrews headlines a deep tight end corps. In the new offense, Andrews should be downgraded from “only receiver Jackson even looks at” to “one of Jackson’s favorite targets.”
Ronnie Stanley anchors the offensive line when he’s available, which has been 17 times in the last three seasons. Tyler Linderbaum took over at center as a rookie in 2022 and played well.
The Ravens are returning to their draft-and-develop roots on the defensive front after relying on aging mercenaries like Calais Campbell, James Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul last year. Justin Madubuike, Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo are all recent high draft picks in various stages of their development cycle. Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith played at, well, a Pro Bowl level after arriving at last year’s draft deadline. Patrick Queen is mistake-prone but has a knack for big plays.
Marlon Humphey’s August foot injury left the Ravens thin at cornerback. Newcomer Rock Ya-Sin, signed to replace Marcus Peters (Raiders), was also hurt for much of camp. Baltimore signed veteran Ronald Darby, who is basically Peters Lite (fine until he guesses wrong and gets toasted), in mid-August to quell the emergency.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken is the most important new arrival in Baltimore, Beckham and Flowers included. Monken served under Dirk Koetter for the 2016-18 Buccaneers and spent a lost year in Cleveland before a three year, two-championship run as Georgia’s offensive coordinator. Monken’s motion-heavy, play-action-and-RPO scheme clicked in Athens. (A roster full of NFL talent helped a bit.) Monken’s complex, diverse offense will cause more problems for defenses than Roman’s increasingly-stale option tactics and afterthought of a passing game.
The Ravens converted just 8-of-20 fourth downs last year, with ugly fourth-and-short failures in close losses to the Dolphins, Bills, Jaguars and Browns. The switch from Roman to Monken — the gift that keeps on giving — could lead to smarter play calls and sharper execution in high-leverage situations.
Justin Tucker remains the NFL’s only true difference-making kicker. Tucker was 9-of-14 on 50-plus yard field goal attempts last year. The Ravens need to rely upon him a little less.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS SUMMER
Jackson has been suggesting plays and route concepts to Monken, some of which he discovered on social media. It sounds a little silly — most play diagrams on the internet either come from 15-year old playbooks or Super Tecmo Bowl — but Monken takes player input seriously. “If you empower your players, and you’re receptive to their ideas, they put more time and effort into it,” he said. “When players have ideas or thoughts or suggestions, it’s been my background to say, ‘Hey, let’s take a look at it.’”
The Ravens will return to the playoffs if Jackson meshes with Monken and the new receivers come close to living up to their reputations. To reach the Super Bowl, lots of less-touted youngsters must step into bigger roles, the Ravens must solve their fourth-and-short woes, and it would not hurt if one of their AFC North rivals took an unexpected step backward. But the Ravens are doing what they do best: restocking their roster and reinventing themselves on the fly. And never overlook a team with a still-young former MVP at quarterback.
Forget last year’s glitchy beta version of the new-look Browns, which launched before all of the features were activated. This is the team co-owner Jimmy Haslam and general manager Andrew Berry wanted to put on the field when they guaranteed Deshaun Watson $250 million. And these Browns, forgotten or politely not talked about by a portion of the football world in 2022, could be stealth contenders in 2023.
More than two dozen women shared accounts of sexual misconduct by Watson, who served an 11-game suspension last season and settled with 23 of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits against him. No one is obligated to rush out and purchase his jersey or anything, but his past behavior will likely no longer have an on-field impact.
The relevant football question is now whether Watson can play well enough to justify the Browns’ unprecedented investment in guaranteed money and draft capital. Watson looked more like his 2019-20 self in August than the chunky/clunky player we saw last season, and Kevin Stefanski appears to have tweaked his offense to give Watson more spread formations and rushing opportunities.
Nick Chubb is that rarest of specimens: a reliable, durable running back who makes a real difference in his offense AND has a contract that is not better suited to the team’s weight room sanitizer. Longtime change-up Kareem Hunt is gone, with John Kelly and Demetric Felton now expected to lighten Chubb’s burden.
Amari Cooper dropped a dozen passes last season, per Pro Football Reference, but he also caught 78 passes for an offense that had trouble pushing the ball downfield. It feels like he has been around since the days of dial-up modems, but Cooper is just 29 years old. Donovan Peoples-Jones is an adequate possession target and punt returner who may get pushed by third-round pick Cedric Tillman. David Njoku and newcomer Jordan Akins allow Stefanski to use lots of two-tight-end sets.
The Browns interior line of Joel Bitonio, Ethan Pocic and Wyatt Teller may be the NFL’s best, with Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills getting the job done at tackle. Fourth-round pick Dawand Jones (Ohio State) is so big that he would be classified as a Class 4 vehicle in most municipalities. Don’t be surprised to see him in goal-line packages.
Last year’s pass rush consisted of Myles Garrett and wishful thinking, while the run defense allowed 135.0 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry. This year, the Browns grabbed edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and run plugger Dalvin Tomlinson from the Vikings’s estate auction, not to mention journeyman defensive tackle Shelby Harris and massive third-round pick Siaki Ika (Baylor), the only person big enough to ride a seesaw with Jones without being launched into orbit.
The extra beef on the line should keep blockers off speedy linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Sione Takitaki. Third linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. spent the offseason recovering from a quad injury.
Newcomers Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod join Grant Delpit on a deep safety corps. Denzel Ward leads a group of cornerbacks that will look much better once the pass rush improves.
Stefanski prefers his quarterbacks under center so they can execute lots of seven-step drops, plenty of rollouts and some play-action deep shots. Watson is better in shotgun-spread formations, allowing him to make quick decisions and throws (and offer open spaces when it’s time to run). Stefanski worked with Watson during the offseason to incorporate plays the quarterback is more comfortable with into the offense.
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to split a pair of big edge rushers wide and let them attack the quarterback while the secondary plays man coverage. The new Browns additions will give Schwartz the manpower he needs.
Elijah Moore — acquired from the Jets when the team realized it needed to fill its receiving corps with former Packers — never settled into a role in New York and sometimes vanished from the game plan. The Browns see Moore as a combination slot receiver/third-down back, and they lined him up in the backfield often in camp and the preseason. Cleveland needs a shifty motion threat if it plans to spread the field more often.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS SUMMER
The Browns spent much of training camp in West Virginia (you can’t blame them for wanting to disappear into the mountains for a few weeks after last offseason). They returned to Berea for some very physical practices against the Philadelphia Eagles, whose defense reportedly both manhandled the Browns offensive line and intercepted Watson and his backups multiple times. The Browns got the final word by out-performing the Eagles in their preseason matchup, with Ohio State rookie safety Ronnie Hickman (three preseason interceptions) and 2022 practice squad receiver Austin Watkins standing out.
The Browns, short on draft picks and long-range cap space, assembled the best roster possible around Watson for 2023, and it’s pretty darn good. It’s not quite on par with the AFC powerhouses, however. But if Stefanski refreshes the offense, Schwartz unleashes the rebuilt pass rush and Watson holds up his end of the bargain, the Browns will reach the playoffs and make a lot of noise when they arrive.
The 2022 Broncos story revolved around Russell Wilson, his invisible high-5’s, his bizarre practice-field and in-flight rituals, his Denver mansion, his cringy sandwich-chain commercials, and finally his role in a dreadful season in which the Broncos finished dead last in the NFL in points scored, and rookie coach Nathaniel Hackett failed to finish the year.
The 2023 Broncos story is all about how Sean Payton plans to revive Wilson and restore order while himself becoming a bit of a loose cannon who fires stray criticisms at the Jets (or rambles about The Office, or complains about “Gilligan hats”) during interviews.
The Wilson-v.-Payton: Dawn of Egos storyline, while fun, may not matter much if the Broncos roster cannot recover from a rash of training-camp injuries.
The good news, after a season in which Wilson finished 27th in efficiency rating (84.4), tied for the NFL lead with 55 sacks and sometimes failed to notice wide-open receivers in the end zone, is that Wilson has shown signs of neither steep athletic decline or chafing under Payton.
The bad news is that Wilson looked skittish and careless with the football in extended preseason action. Training camp reviews were also mixed and guarded, with Payton issuing “nothing to see here” assurances after practices full of interceptions and non-contact scrambles.
Jerry Jeudy suffered a late-August hamstring injury that is expected to shelve him for the start of the season. Tim Patrick tore an Achilles early in camp, and fellow receiver K.J. Hamler was diagnosed with pericarditis. Hamler could be back early in the season, but Wilson’s receiving corps behind Courtland Sutton is depleted. Speedy second-round pick Marvin Mims will be pressed into a significant role sooner than expected.
In better injury news: Javonte Williams returned to the field for the second preseason game after tearing an ACL last October, and left tackle Garett Bolles is back after breaking a leg in Week 5 of last year. Greg Dulcich showed potential as a receiving tight end last year, though his blocking needs work.
Even with Bolles on the field, the Broncos’ starting offensive line looked like a dry-rotted picket fence in the preseason, which contributed to Wilson’s woes.
Summertime injuries took their toll on defense as well as the offense. Edge rusher Baron Browning suffered a wrist injury in OTAs and missed much of training camp, while versatile linebacker Jonas Griffith is lost for the year after an August ACL tear.
Newcomers Zach Allen (Cardinals) and Frank Clark (Chiefs) beef up a pass rush led by Browning and oft-injured Randy Gregory.
Cornerback Patrick Surtain and safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons give the Broncos arguably the NFL’s best secondary. Surtain and company are why the Broncos lost games by scores like 12–9, 16–9 and 10–9 last year, and they offer hope that some of those games can turn into 19–16 or 17–10 victories if Wilson rebounds.
Payton’s staff, like his new public persona, is rather eccentric.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was the Broncos head coach in 2017-18. It’s odd for an NFL coach to return in a reduced role, but at least Joseph is a respected defensive mind. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, a long-time Payton lieutenant in New Orleans, is best remembered now as the man who nearly ruined Justin Herbert by rarely letting him throw more than five yards downfield.
Quarterbacks coach Davis Webb went straight from being an NFL third-stringer to his new role without the traditional in-between step of working for his alma mater or making Sean McVay’s coffee for three years. Making Wilson take advice from an inexperienced, unaccomplished 28-year old is like forcing Eric Clapton to take orders from a dude strumming Grateful Dead covers at a farmer’s market. But maybe that’s the point.
The Broncos’ offense quietly improved in the second half of last season, after most folks stopped paying attention to them. As a result, Denver climbed from the bottom of the league to the bottom 10 of the league in many offensive categories. But they remained dead last in the NFL in third-down conversion rate at just 29.1%. A few conversions can go a long way, and third-down efficiency could be an easy fix for a team going from the hapless Hackett to the seasoned Payton.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS SUMMER
Brett Maher, best known for coming down with a case of the mega-yips in the playoffs for the Cowboys last year, appeared to beat Elliot Fry for the Broncos’ kicker job. But after Maher missed a 47-yard field goal and had a 52-yarder blocked in the preseason opener, Payton made it clear that he was keeping an eye out for alternatives. Wil Lutz, who kicked for Payton’s Saints, lost his camp battle (and/or was a cap casualty in New Orleans) and joined the Broncos during cutdown week. Worth noting: Lutz, who spent his whole career with the dome-bound Saints, has an 86.8% career field goal conversion rate indoors but an 80.6% rate outdoors.
Everything about the Broncos’ 2022 offense was so scuffed that it’s tempting to predict a 2023 rebound. The offense should at least line up correctly and get plays off in time this year, but trading for and paying Wilson left the rest of the roster thin, especially when compared to the AFC contenders. Wilson would have to return to MVP level to make the Broncos anything more than Wild-Card fodder. And the Wilson we saw this summer didn’t look poised for an MVP season.