Denver Broncos 2023 NFL Preview: They need the Sean Payton-Russell Wilson relationship to work

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Sofia Villar)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Sofia Villar)

At Sean Payton's introductory news conference, he was asked about Russell Wilson having his own personal quarterback coach, Jake Heaps, in the Denver Broncos' facility last season. Payton said he was unfamiliar with that.

Yet, the answer he gave set the tone for what will be a fascinating relationship between a coach whose ego has never been in question and a quarterback who was treated as a savior last offseason but looked broken.

"That's foreign to me," Payton said about Wilson having his own staff in the building.

It's hard to know where to start with the disastrous 2022 Broncos season. Wilson was supposed to fix the Broncos never-ending quarterback issue that hadn't been solved since Peyton Manning's retirement. Instead Wilson was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL and the Broncos' mega-trade to get him looked like it could be one of the most disastrous ever. Former head coach Nathaniel Hackett's approach to Wilson was to treat him like a superstar. He was probably too accommodating. Wilson had his own office on the second floor with coaches and executives. He had his own support staff that included Heaps, who had unusual access in the team facility. When talking about the offense and Wilson last offseason, Hackett said the Broncos "want to build this thing completely around him."

All of that would have been fine if the Broncos won. Even Payton said, "If they have success last [year], I don't think the upstairs meeting room matters to anybody." They didn't win. The offense was horrendous. Hackett was fired before his first season was even done. Wilson was ridiculed all season. All the stories about the preferential treatment started coming out.

Now steps in a coach who, when asked about indulging a star quarterback, offered a blunt and purposeful, "That's not going to take place here."

"A lot was made of that, and it was just an honest answer," Payton said at the scouting combine, weeks after his introduction. "I know what I'm familiar with and what I'm expecting."

The Broncos need the relationship to work, and not just because Wilson just signed a five-year extension worth a little less than $243 million last year. The Broncos know what it's like to start over at quarterback. They spent 2016-21 failing to make the playoffs because they never properly replaced Manning. They'd be overjoyed if Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler, looked reborn this season. Then they could just blame 2022 entirely on Hackett and move on.

For what it's worth, Wilson seems to be buying in.

"Sean is one of the best coaches to ever coach this game," Wilson said. "He's intense. He's focused. He's such a great teacher of the game. All of us are learning every day."

It could work well. Wilson is also intense and focused and should be humbled after a miserable season. Everyone knows the magic Payton made with Drew Brees, who has a similar stature to Wilson (although was a much different type of QB). Payton can turn Wilson around and get him back on a path that could lead to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There's a reason the Broncos traded first- and second-round picks to the Saints for Payton. Payton is a proven commodity. But will Wilson be on board with hard coaching and a new offensive approach after reportedly bristling that he didn't get enough input at the end of his time with the Seattle Seahawks?

Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton, right, chats with quarterback Russell Wilson, left, as Payton's wife, Skylene, looks on from courtside seats during a Denver Nuggets playoff game. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Broncos were supposed to be good last season, and many of the same pieces are in place with a far, far better coach. The targets in the passing game are intriguing, the offensive line got help in free agency and the defense was a bright spot in a rough 2022 season.

No matter what's going on with the rest of the roster, the Broncos' success for this season and beyond rests on that Payton/Wilson partnership. Just to raise the stakes a little more, Denver signed backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham to a significant two-year, $10 million deal. That seemed to be yet another message. It's not like Wilson is injury prone. He has missed four games in 11 seasons. And yet, the Broncos made Stidham a priority.

Get ready Denver. Good or bad, this season isn't going to be boring.

Offseason grade

When Sean Payton was with the New Orleans Saints, the organization's philosophy on the salary cap was to worry about it another day. The Broncos seem like they'll follow that plan. Denver spent big in the offseason. There were 12 players who got deals of more than $44 million to switch teams in free agency, and Denver gave out three of those contracts. They signed defensive lineman Zach Allen to a three-year, $47.75 million deal. They built the offensive line with right tackle Mike McGlinchey (five years, $87.5 million) and guard Ben Powers (four years, $51.5 million). Those were just the mega-deals. They also signed backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham, running back Samaje Perine and then added pass rusher Frank Clark later in the offseason. Defensive lineman Dre'Mont Jones departed to Seattle, but it was quite an impressive free-agent haul. The draft was thin due to the Russell Wilson and Sean Payton trades, but top 100 picks in receiver Marvin Mims Jr., linebacker Drew Sanders and cornerback Riley Moss were all good prospects.

Grade: B+

Quarterback report

Among 384 quarterbacks with 300 attempts in a season since 2012, Russell Wilson's passing success rate last season ranked 374th, according to TruMediaSports. Among the QBs near Wilson on that list are guys like Mike Glennon, Blaine Gabbert, DeShone Kizer, Zach Wilson and Josh Rosen. If you saw Wilson at all last season, you don't even need stats to tell you how lost he looked. If Wilson and Sean Payton don't work out, Denver will have to decide if it can stomach (gulp) $85 million in dead money on the cap by cutting him before June 1, per Payton doesn't seem like the type who would keep trying to make it work just because of cap ramifications, but eighty-five million? Everything about the Payton-Wilson dynamic this season is fascinating.

BetMGM odds breakdown

Oddsmakers like the Broncos' ability to bounce back this season with Sean Payton, somewhat. Denver's win total is 8.5, though taking the under has -125 odds. Finishing above .500 would be at least a four-win improvement from last season. But replacing Nathaniel Hackett with Payton, a possible Hall of Fame coach, might be worth at least four wins. This is a team that many people were excited about before last season and they added a lot in free agency. I don't mind the over for Denver.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Denver’s offense was such a mess for most of 2022, you might have missed what Jerry Jeudy did in the final third of the year. Returning from an ankle injury, Jeudy posted a 37-523-3 line over his final six games. That grades out as the WR7 in standard scoring for that period, and the WR6 if you pivot to PPR scoring. Perhaps he was finally putting things together at the end of his third pro season.

"Now Jeudy steps into his age-24 campaign, and the Denver offense might be on the upswing. Maybe Russell Wilson isn’t as cooked as he looked last year. The addition of offensive wizard Sean Payton can only help. Jeudy is actually somewhat pricy in early NFFC drafts, carrying a current ADP of 42; he’s almost 40 picks cheaper in the first wave of Yahoo drafts. Grab that Yahoo discount as long as it’s available."

Stat to remember

After 2016, Sean Payton started to shift the focus of the Saints' offense. Drew Brees had more than 5,000 yards in 2016, but the Saints went 7-9 and Brees was entering his age-38 season. Payton had to make concessions. The Saints went from second in the NFL in passing attempts to 19th in 2017. New Orleans' ranks in rushing attempts in Payton's last four seasons there: fifth, 17th, fifth and fourth. Rushing and passing attempts can be misleading — teams that win more games run the ball more at the end of games — but it seemed like a shift to work around the quarterback, who was still effective but not as a high-volume passer. The Broncos invested heavily in the offensive line this offseason. Russell Wilson is coming off a miserable season. Could Payton rely heavily on the run game the way he did with an aging Brees, perhaps making Wilson more efficient in the process? Maybe that's the plan.

Burning question

How good can the Broncos defense be?

Even with the offense crumbling around it last season, the Broncos' defense finished 10th in Football Outsiders' DVOA. That includes a 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in which the defense seemed to give up on Nathaniel Hackett and the offense. A lot of that success was due to a great season from coordinator Ejiro Evero, who moved on to the Carolina Panthers after Sean Payton was hired. Former Broncos head coach Vance Joseph was hired as defensive coordinator in an odd reunion, and Joseph should be fine. He has talent to work with. Patrick Surtain II is one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. Justin Simmons is an elite safety. The Broncos are solid at linebacker and the interior of the line. If the Broncos can get edge rushing contributions from 2022 disappointments Randy Gregory (five-year, $70 million addition in free agency) and Nik Bonitto (second-round pick), or this year's veteran addition Frank Clark, the defense could possibly be in the top five.

Best-case scenario

The Broncos had a long, messy coaching search but ultimately landed a star in Sean Payton. The Broncos, and particularly Russell Wilson, did look better in the two games after the team fired Nathaniel Hackett. Hackett had about as bad of a season as a non-Urban Meyer coach can have. The Broncos have a lot to like: a strong defense, deep receiving room led by Jerry Jeudy after his productive 2022, a proven coach and, yes, a quarterback who went to nine Pro Bowls in his first 10 NFL seasons. Nobody should make the mistake of picking the Broncos over the Chiefs, but a second-place AFC West finish and a playoff berth? Broncos fans would sign up for that.

Nightmare scenario

There's a simple test: If you see Jarrett Stidham starting this season instead of a healthy Russell Wilson, things have gone really bad. The Broncos clearly were preparing for that possibility when they gave Stidham a two-year, $10 million deal. It would be a sign that Denver probably needs to find the eject button on Wilson no matter the cost. An $85 million dead cap hit is unfathomable, but what else would the Broncos do? This feels like a make-or-break season for Wilson, and maybe what we saw last season is just what he'll be going forward.

The crystal ball says ...

Among the 32 predictions in this year's team previews, this one is the most volatile. It might as well just be a shrug emoji. How do you figure out what comes next with Russell Wilson? You can make reasonable arguments for him being a top-10 quarterback with one of the biggest coaching upgrades we've ever seen that doesn't include Urban Meyer, or him being absolutely finished as a starting-level NFL player. The Broncos' offense was unwatchable last season, and while it's hard to believe it will be that bad again, it might not be good enough to keep the Broncos in playoff contention. I'm a bit down on the Broncos, just because Denver was legitimately horrible last season and I can't believe Nathaniel Hackett was the only problem. But good luck figuring out what this season will bring.

Other team previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

19. New England Patriots

18. New York Giants

17. Minnesota Vikings

16. New Orleans Saints

15. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Cleveland Browns

13. Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

11. Seattle Seahawks

10. Baltimore Ravens

9. Miami Dolphins

8. New York Jets

7. Detroit Lions

6. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

4. Buffalo Bills

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Philadelphia Eagles

1. Kansas City Chiefs