Believe it or not, the Denver Broncos are now past the quarter-way point of the 2022 NFL regular season, having played 5 of their 17 scheduled games.
Following an offseason featuring the most hope and optimism since #18 was still in uniform, the 2022 Broncos are a far cry from the lofty expectations set upon them. At 2-3, the team still isn’t clicking offensively and it can be argued that each of the 3 losses is completely self-inflicted (as in, the opponent didn’t win, the Broncos just lost).
Yet, despite the offensive woes and horrible stroke of luck with injuries with a league-leading 12 men on IR, there have been some positives and reasons to believe the season can still be salvaged.
Given that many schools across America are going on fall break and having the first parent-teacher conferences of the year, let’s do the same here and grade some of the units and personnel for the Broncos through 5 games.
Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room.
When it was announced back in March of 2022 that Wilson was being acquired for a pair of first-round picks, a pair of second-round picks, a fifth-rounder, and a trio of Broncos, fans celebrated what appeared to be the end of the QB drought, as the team was perceived to finally have a franchise QB.
Through 5 games, Wilson has been anything but. He has started his Broncos career throwing for 1,254 yards on sub-60% completion for 4 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and abysmal career-lows in passer rating (82.8) and QBR (36.9).
At his best this season, he has teetered between above average and good, and at his worst, he’s made himself look no better than Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock on their most average days.
He has certainly had moments where he shows flashes that he is still among the game’s elite, but the 5-year, $245 million contract given to him wasn’t for flashes. The team could have just kept Lock if it was sold on flashes.
In his defense, pass protection has been sub-par, his WR corps has been both dinged up and has had their share of dropped passes, and most importantly, it was reported he suffered a partially torn lat near his throwing shoulder vs. the Raiders. If healthy, though, the man needs to start earning his keep.
Fans sipping on the optimism juice continue to point out Peyton Manning started out 2-3 in Denver as well, but his offense was second-to-last in the league in scoring and dead last in red-zone scoring.
One has to begin to wonder how he is fitting in the locker room given the miscues on the field and whether he is meshing with his teammates as well as Michael Scott did with the warehouse workers in The Office.
Grade: C-. Wilson is owed the benefit of the doubt given his stellar career and the fact he played injured on Thursday, but the leash extended to him only goes out so far. It’s too early for buyer’s remorse, but without significant improvement in the next 4 games, not having those first-round draft picks is going to start to sting.
This one is tough to grade, as the focal point of the run game, second-year bowling ball Javonte Williams, is lost for the season with a devastating knee injury, and it is hard to predict if he even comes back the same.
He, along with veteran backs Melvin Gordon and Mike Boone have the Broncos right in the middle of the NFL, ranking 15th in rushing yards per game with just over 112. It isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible.
Gordon played well against Indianapolis on Thursday while Boone showed some grit as well as he hoped to secure more playing time in the backfield in the absence of Williams.
The biggest issues plaguing the running game are run blocking, play calling, and individual discipline.
While he did play well on Thursday, Gordon’s fumbling issues have plagued the Broncos, and his costly one against the Raiders on the prior Sunday completely shifted momentum away from the team, setting the tone for Las Vegas. Yet, the push up front has been nothing to help the backs, and head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s insistence on plays like pitches to the backfield continue to be head scratching.
The biggest red mark against the unit to this point, though, is their inability to convert short-yardage situations and score in the red zone. The group has left points on the board and has ended series when they just couldn’t convert, but again, that lies with the offensive line as well.
Newly signed running back Latavious Murray should be ready to go for the team’s trip to Los Angeles to face the Chargers next Monday, and his addition should hopefully bolster the unit’s production.
Grade: C. Between the 20s, the running back group hasn’t been great, but they haven’t been bad, either. Gordon’s fumbling issues have killed offensive drives, though, as has their inability to convert on short-yardage situations and in the red zone. Losing Williams will be a major blow, but the old vet Murray should be able to provide boost.
Despite Wilson being erratic in his first five games, his wide receiver group has been responsible for the offense’s biggest plays thus far in the season, most notably Courtland Sutton.
The 5th-year receiver has been the unquestionable first-quarter offensive MVP for the Broncos, and through the first four games of the season, he was top-10 in the league in both receptions and yards receiving. He also has 4 catches of 30-or-more yards, second only to Jaylen Waddle of the Miami Dolphins.
He has also had some costly drops, but for the most part, he has been one of the few bright spots on the offense.
His teammate on the other side of the field, Jerry Jeudy, has not been quite the difference maker Sutton has been but has showed off some chops as well.
The third-year former first-round pick out of Alabama is responsible for the team’s longest play this season, a 67-yard touchdown reception in the opener at Seattle, and despite being a non-factor in the Houston and San Francisco games, he has started to get into more of a rhythm the past two games. Drops remain an issue, but despite his reputation built in earlier seasons, he only has two reported on the season.
The biggest issue with this group is depth and getting the attention of their QB. Losing Tim Patrick in the offseason was a brutal blow to the unit, and KJ Hamler, now healthy and in the lineup, has failed to be utilized (including Wilson completely missing him for a go-ahead, likely game-winning touchdown vs. the Colts).
The issues with this group is more on the QB at this point for overthrows and miscues, but the unit and Wilson need to start getting on the same page sooner than later.
Grade: B+. Sutton and Jeudy are proving to be one of the more formidable receiving duos in the NFL, but Hamler needs to be more involved, and the unit and their QB may need to have an old-fashioned work retreat to get on the same page.
Through the first 5 games, 2 things can be said about the offensive line: Mike Munchak is no longer on the sideline, and the unit’s improvement over the past couple of seasons was much more due to him than the personnel on the field.
The group isn’t necessarily among the worst in the NFL, but they are among the most penalized, as they have continually stalled drives with false starts, holds, and chop blocks. They also continue to miss basic assignments and get Russell Wilson nearly killed. His shoulder injury can possibly be tied back to the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby having a completely clean look at him from the edge due to a blown assignment.
No one has really been blown off the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis, but the issue for the group has mainly been about simple discipline. Unfortunately, the competition will only grow in quality in the coming weeks, and the group will no longer be able to overcome a lack of discipline with the personnel that they will have moving forward.
The interior of the line has been a weak spot thus far, and now the team will be without starting left tackle Garrett Bolles for the year. Things were already not great for Russell Wilson, and now the uphill battle to get into rhythm only gets steeper.
Grade: C-. Wilson has been sacked to often, and the group has committed too many penalties, but there have been sequences when the unit has looked like they still have what it takes to do enough of a job to let the offense get into a rhythm. Discipline, though, must improve.
There isn’t much to say about this one, simply because there hasn’t been many sightings on the field.
Albert Okwuegbuna hasn’t had to worry about any announcers mispronouncing his last name much this season because the third-year tight end has barely seen the field.
Following Noah Fant being sent off to Seattle (where he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, by the way), the third-year receiver out of Missouri was expected to take a major leap forward with the new-look offense. Instead, he has just 7 catches in 5 games, 5 of which were in week 1. He received zero offensive snaps in the week 4 matchup at Las Vegas.
Rookie Greg Dulcich has the potential to be an immediate impact in the passing game, but he has yet to receive a clean bill of health to see the field.
At this point, the best tight end for Denver has been Eric Saubert, who has been...okay, at best. But at least he has a touchdown to his name.
As mentioned above, the receivers need some help with depth, and getting anything at all from the tight end position would go a long way.
Grade: D-. The offense needs to get more from this group than an occasional catch and being quicker offensive tackles.
Like so often back in high school and college, group projects typically figured a majority of slackers and one or two people doing the majority of the work. That is what the defense has been doing for the offense.
The secondary as a unit has been excellent this season, allowing fewer than 177 yards passing per game, and they have also been efficient safety valves on the second level in the run game.
Filling in for an injured Justin Simmons is no easy task, but Caden Sterns and Kareem Jackson (second on the team in tackles), have been solid at the safety position, but the MVP of the secondary has been second-year defensive back Pat Surtain II.
PS2 has essentially made his side of the field a non-throwing option for opposing QBs, and in his matchup vs. one of the game’s best receivers in Davante Adams, he played admirably, preventing several big plays.
As has been the case this season too often, though, the group will have to sustain another injury with Ronald Darby, who was playing very well, out for the season. Through 5 games, though, this group has held up well.
Grade: A-. We’ll see how this group does without Darby and once they face off against the likes of Pat Mahomes and Justin Herbert, but thus far, there is very little to complain about here.
Perhaps no group has been better for the Broncos than the outside linebackers this season.
Randy Gregory, prior to injury, was among the league’s best in pass rush efficiency, Bradley Chubb is second in the league (which could change following today’s matchups) with 5.5 sacks on the season, and Baron Browning is showing himself to be a hidden gem rushing from the edge.
When completely healthy, there may not be a better pass rushing defense in the NFL.
Inside, Josey Jewell has been his usual reliable self, leading the team in tackles, and Alex Singleton and Jonas Griffith, while lacking consistency, have been effective as well (mainly Griffith).
Up front, DJ Jones, Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, and Deshawn Williams have all made their presence felt the first five weeks.
The group as a whole has been as fierce as can be with regards to pass rushing and getting into the backfield, but their one big red mark was allowing Josh Jacobs of the Raiders to render them completely ineffective. In that contest, Jacobs accounted for 144 of his team’s 212 rushing yards. The Broncos didn’t have to face a similarly talented back in Jonathan Taylor on Thursday, but it does beg the question if the unit will continue to struggle against better backs.
The effectiveness of the pass rush game, though, as the team leads the league with 17 sacks (which, again, could change after today and tomorrow’s games), has the unit passing with flying colors.
Grade: A. If the unit can overcome injuries and be more efficient in stopping the run, there are not many in the NFL who can say they are better.
A pretty straightforward group here, there has not been a ton of flash, but there have not been any reasons to groan, either.
Kicker Brandon McManus has not missed any field goals inside the 50 this season and has mainly done what is expected of a kicker. The return game hasn’t produced any major highlight reel plays, but rookie Montrell Washington has been effective when called upon. And the coverage unit has not allowed any highlight reel returns or touchdowns. All around, there is nothing to really praise or critique.
The unit’s most valuable asset to this point in the season may just be punter Corliss Waitman, who has 11 punts pinned inside the 20, tops in the league. He has given the defense breathing room and bailed out the offense when called upon, but the latter unit could do their part more to keep him off the field.
Grade: A-. The unit has been good if not flashy, and Waitman’s contributions put them in the “A” category.
Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero
Given Nathaniel Hackett has nothing to do with the defense, Evero will be considered here as the head coach of the defense of sorts. And he has delivered in that aspect in just about every way that can be asked of a first-year defensive coordinator.
After a sloppy first half in the opening game at Seattle, his unit has proven themselves, as evidenced in the sections above, as one of the best in the NFL.
The defense under Evero’s guidance is ranked 5th in total offense, 6th in passing offense, and 4th in scoring offense. The anomaly is in the run game, where the team ranks 17th, much of which can be attributed to the aforementioned Josh Jacobs punch in the gut.
Without his defense’s contributions this season, it’s very likely this team is looking at an 0-5 record at this point, and if he can get past the injury bug and continue to execute successful game plans, he may find himself up for assistant of the year.
Grade: A. Outside of some first-game sloppiness and a Josh Jacobs feasting, Evero has proven to be a home run hire for the Broncos.
Head Coach/Offensive Play Caller Nathaniel Hackett
The second elephant in the room is being saved for last, as there is really no use in producing back-to-back groans with the first two grades.
Hackett, though, has instilled essentially zero confidence thus far that he was the right person to replace Vic Fangio as Broncos’ head coach.
His play calling has been head-scratching, his team looks largely unprepared on a weekly basis, and all-in-all, he has looked completely in over his head. He essentially admitted as such when he hired Jerry Rosburg as his game management efficiency expert following early blunders in the season, most notably his decision to kick a 64-yard field goal to lose the opening contest at Seattle.
It is not all on him, of course. Wilson has to make the plays he is expected to make, and these are grown men professionals, not high school kids. It shouldn’t take significant coaching effort to ensure you know assignments and don’t commit stupid penalties.
Still, though, the performance of the team ultimately falls on the shoulders of the head coach, and not once has his team put together a performance that makes him look like anything but a questionable hire.
5 games is still probably too early to put him on the hot seat, but thus far he has looked completely in over his head in a role that is appearing more and more likely to be too big for him. He needs to produce a complete 180 in the coming weeks, or the murmurs calling for Sean Payton to become the next coach will only grow louder.
Grade: D-. The fact cheesy sayings like “Hackett can’t hack it” have become a running joke says about all that needs to be said about his first attempt at being a head coach.
The team as a whole to start the season has been a Ryan Leaf-level bust.
This was the year the team went back to an offensive philosophy following two failed defensive minded coaches in Vic Fangio and Vance Joseph. It was the year that was supposed to produce offensive fireworks once more and the year where a franchise QB would FINALLY take the field again.
Instead, what the Broncos have been faced with are far more questions than answers, and this Broncos team looks no more ready to compete than the ones led by Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock, and Case Keenum.
Each week it seems the team is this close to clicking offensively only to produce more jeers than cheers. “This close” is only tolerable for so long, and as was seen during the debacle vs. Indianapolis on Thursday night, fans are going to start checking out at a higher rate if nothing changes.
As far as report cards go, this appears to be a case of a student having the resources and intelligence to be an honors student, but the lack of focus and preparedness is having him thinking summer school. It’s time for mom and dad start to helicopter a bit more to keep the GPA to come crashing down to failure.
The team is fortunate to not be 0-5 at this point thanks to the defense, and 2-3 doesn’t have to be a season killer, but based on the evidence on the field thus far, it doesn’t feel far from it.
Grade: D-. The defense is the only thing keeping this from being a complete failure, and the offense has the weapons to produce, but it needs to start actually doing it instead of theoretically having the ability to do it. Things may not be completely lost, but no one would have likely guessed that general manager would have the phrase “buyers remorse” on his mind this point in a new era of Broncos football.