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State of the 2022 Denver Broncos: Russell Wilson puts postseason in reach again

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? 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 were like, I know we once had John Elway, Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning, but we REALLY deserve a franchise quarterback:

I mean, it's been, like, two seasons since Manning left (OK, six), and now you've added one of the best to ever do it? Did the Broncos' very good offseason make them contenders, not only in the AFC West but in terms of the Super Bowl? Let's take a look.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Starting 3-0. You began to think, Hey, maybe ... Denver looked really good, winning its first three games by an average of 16.7 points.

One low from last season: Losing four in a row (twice). At this point, you remember those first three victories came against the Giants, Jaguars and Jets. The Broncos lost four straight from Week 4 through Week 7, climbed back up to 7-6 -- then lost another four straight to close out the season.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Nathaniel Hackett. After consecutive last-place finishes in the AFC West under the defensive-minded Vic Fangio, Denver made a change at head coach, bringing in Hackett, who was the Packers' offensive coordinator over the past three seasons. It might be tempting to get extra pumped for Hackett based on Aaron Rodgers' performance during his time in Green Bay, which included a pair of MVP awards and three Pro Bowl nods. But it can be a bit of a dangerous game to read into a coach's work with a talent like that. Like, before Adam Gase compiled a 32-48 record as head coach of the Dolphins and Jets from 2016 through 2020, he was known for coaching Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler -- arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time and Peyton Manning. (OK, two Cutler references in one piece might be a bit much.)

Coaxing a career season out of Blake Bortles as Jacksonville's offensive coordinator in 2017, on the other hand, is a résumé item for Hackett to be proud of. And while Hackett as head coach is something of an unknown entity, we know a lot about Hackett's quarterback for 2022. So let's jump into that.

Quarterback: Russell Wilson. Seeing a report back in 2021 that Wilson listed the Bears as a team he would consider joining remains one of the highlights of my time as a Chicago fan. I believe in Wilson, who was ultimately traded from Seattle to Denver this offseason, and I'm not sure he gets the kind of love he deserves. Some might find him to be kind of a cheeseball; he did, after all, do invisible reps before a prime-time game. But none of that bothers me. He works hard, and he delivers. In each of his 10 seasons with the Seahawks, Wilson, 33, posted at least 20 touchdown passes, and he won 10-plus games eight times. Last season, when he missed time with a thumb injury, marked the only instance in which he won less than nine games. I know I teased Broncos fans about the team's quarterback lineage, but the fact is, Denver hasn't had a quarterback compile 10-plus wins and 20-plus passing TDs in the same season since Manning -- a player to whom Wilson will no doubt be compared -- in 2014.

For much of Russ' tenure in Seattle, the Seahawks focused on running the ball. The Broncos, meanwhile, are building the offense around what Wilson does best. And, believe it or not, what he does best isn't running for his life behind a bad offensive line. If the Broncos start dialing up deep shots, it could be an amazing year.

Projected 2022 MVP: Wilson. I mean, in case it isn't clear, I'll spell it out: I love the dude. But let me give you this little nugget of information: Three out of the last four quarterbacks to change teams after recording 250-plus touchdowns with their initial team have gone on to win the Super Bowl. The lone exception? Ex-Charger Philip Rivers, which should be super funny to Broncos fans. If you're wondering, Wilson threw 292 scoring strikes in Seattle.

New face to know: Randy Gregory, outside linebacker. I really loved the way Gregory's free agency saga worked out for the Broncos. Gregory was going to re-sign in Dallas, then was all like, "Psych!" and ended up in Denver, where he will replace Von Miller, who was traded to the Rams last season. (And Miller had an opportunity to go to the Cowboys, which would have been cool because he played at Texas A&M, but he ended up in Buffalo. I feel like I'm enacting that meme of Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia trying to work through all of these steps.) Gregory, 29, has never topped six sacks in a season, but he should have plenty of opportunity in Denver, which -- between Miller's trade and Bradley Chubb's zero-sack partial year -- just posted fewer than 40 sacks for only the second time in the past 11 seasons.

More new faces to know: The Walton-Penner ownership group. The group -- which now includes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- entered into an agreement in June to purchase the team for $4.65 billion, settling the question of who would take over the franchise following the 2019 passing of Hall of Famer Pat Bowlen, who bought the team in 1984.

2022 breakout star: Albert Okwuegbunam, tight end. I know the popular debate among fantasy players when it comes to Broncos pass catchers will be whether to draft Jerry Jeudy or Courtland Sutton first. But I have my eye on Okwuegbunam. The 2020 fourth-round pick ranked sixth on the team in targets last season, but he could play a huge role in this offense after Noah Fant was traded to Seattle as part of the Wilson deal.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

Will the Broncos be able to ...

... support all those great receivers? Figuring out how to feed multiple capable receivers -- including studs Sutton and Jeudy, plus Tim Patrick, who logged 50-plus catches, 700-plus receiving yards and five-plus TD catches in each of the last two seasons but kind of gets overshadowed sometimes -- is a nice problem to have. And it's not a new challenge for Wilson, who knew how to distribute the ball to players like Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf in Seattle. Three of the past five Seahawks seasons featured multiple players scoring eight-plus receiving TDs: Metcalf and Lockett did it in 2021 and 2020, and Baldwin and Jimmy Graham did it in 2017. And it's not like Wilson was even asked to throw all that much. No Broncos player, meanwhile, has notched more than six receiving touchdowns in a season over that span.

... turn cornerback Patrick Surtain II into the next Jalen Ramsey? I know some might have doubted the Broncos for passing on quarterback Justin Fields to take Surtain ninth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, but I think they ended up all right. Surtain led all rookies with four picks and 14 passes defensed last season. He had two more picks and allowed a lower passer rating in coverage (69.7) than Rams star Ramsey, a three-time All-Pro, did during his 2016 rookie season with the Jaguars (76.6), according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, Surtain allowed the second-lowest passer rating in coverage (69.7) among 42 players with 75-plus targets. Oh, and new Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero served as the secondary coach/passing game coordinator with the Rams last season, in case you were wondering why I cited Ramsey as Surtain's comp instead of a Broncos great like Champ Bailey.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: How awesome the Broncos' defense already was last season. The 7-10 finish and lack of sacks aside, Denver had a pretty good defense last year, ranking third in points allowed per game (18.9) and eighth in total yards allowed per game (326.1). In fact, the Broncos allowed 17 or fewer points in 10 games last year, which was tied for the most such games in the NFL (with Buffalo). The Broncos were 7-3 in those games (those three losses when allowing 17 points or fewer were tied for the most in the NFL, but that shouldn't be repeated with Wilson aboard). The Broncos were 0-7 when they allowed more than 20 points per game.

... people shouldn't overthink: Who's running the ball. My fantasy bias is a showing a bit here. Last season, rookie Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon each had exactly 203 carries for the Broncos, which is amazing. Williams, 22, finished with 903 rushing yards and four rushing TDs while leading the team with 1,219 scrimmage yards (he was a bigger force in the passing game, netting 43 catches). Gordon, 29, had 918 rushing yards, a team-high eight rushing TDs and 1,131 scrimmage yards. So the question of which back gets more carries in 2022 probably doesn't really matter to the team. But if you're wondering who to draft, well, I'd go for the re-signed Gordon, whom I'd expect will be selected many rounds later than Williams.

For 2022 to be a success, the Broncos MUST:

  • Reestablish themselves as real contenders. Giving up multiple first-round picks and established players for someone like Russell Wilson is a championship move, the kind of thing one does to compete for the Lombardi Trophy, not just the division title. But for a Broncos team that has finished in the bottom half of the AFC West five times since winning Super Bowl 50, returning to the postseason is a realistic goal at this point. After all, Peyton Manning didn't win a Super Bowl in his first season in Denver. Wilson is (hopefully) going to be there for a long time.

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