The Denver Broncos are at the beginning of a new era and set to embark on what could be a transformative offseason. Now that George Paton has left what some call his “redshirt” year under John Elway’s guidance, he’s begun to make the moves to set a new course for the franchise. With Vic Fangio out and Nathaniel Hackett in, hope springs anew among the fanbase, which dampens the cacophony of short- and long-term questions hanging over the team.
What follows is an early look at those questions, along with a few of my thoughts on potential obstacles and solutions. Some of these will look awfully familiar, and for good reason: they simply remain unanswered from last July.
1. Who will buy the Broncos?
2. How will the new boss put his/her stamp on the franchise?
The Broncos look as if they’ll have new ownership in place before the 2022 season, and while the timing suggests most of the early moves will occur around the periphery of the franchise, there’s no guarantee they’ll fully believe in Paton’s vision.
NFL could create “one-time exception” to rules to promote Black ownership of the Broncos - ProFootballTalk
The NFL has never had a Black owner. With franchise values skyrocketing, and with NFL rules requiring the controlling owner to hold 30 percent of the equity and to have less than $1 billion in debt associated with the team, it’s difficult to find many people (regardless of race) with the money to purchase majority interest in a team.
Via Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal, the league could waive that rule for the purposes of facilitating Black ownership of the Broncos. It would be, as Fischer explains it, a one-time exception that would allow someone like Byron Allen, who apparently lacks the financial standing to secure the winning bid in the traditional way, to purchase a team.
3. Is there a real long-term plan?
4. How does the uncertainty with ownership impact decision-making?
A year after Paton took over a roster that finished fourth in the AFC West, the Broncos finished fourth in the AFC West. Once again they have the ninth pick in the NFL Draft, and questions about how to close the gap between them and the rest of the division. A new staff and two extra day two picks distracts from the fact that the current roster is weaker than what the general manager inherited in 2021.
5. Is the new staff up to the task in front of them?
6. How does Hackett incorporate analytics into his approach to gamedays?
To call the Broncos’ new staff inexperienced isn’t a slight so much as a statement of fact. Nathaniel Hackett is a first time coach surrounded by first time coordinators and Dwayne Stukes, who coordinated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers special teams for one season in 2011. That callowness isn’t reserved for those occupying the top jobs either, as the vast majority of the new hires have not yet proven they can lead their respective position group at the NFL level.
Joe DeCamillis Brock Olivo Tom McMahon Dwayne Stukes make the units special?
8. How does special teams impact roster construction?
9. Is Diontae Spencer retained?
10. Is Sam Martin safe in the last year of his contract?
Outside of Denver, special teams performance by Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric DVOA tends to be really volatile from year to year. Meanwhile, the Broncos have finished each of the last six seasons with one of the eight worst special teams in the NFL. It’s an issue that preceded the since departed Tom McMahon, which suggests there’s more at play than his incompetence.
Paton made special teams value a noteworthy priority during his first year as general manager, bringing in players such as Mike Ford, Jonas Griffith, and Mike Boone in large part for their value to the kick coverage and return units. Their individual play didn’t necessarily lead to the unit-wide results anyone hoped for, but each showed promise. It remains to be seen if Sam Martin showed enough to stave off cheaper competition in the last year of a contract he signed with John Elway. The Broncos could save $2.250 million if he’s released while incurring just $483,334 in a dead cap hit.
11. How does the new system impact scheme fits?
12. Is Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Nate Hairston, and/or Mike Ford retained?
13. Is Kareem Jackson or P.J. Locke retained?
14. Is Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, Kenny Young, and/or Jonas Griffith retained?
15. What tender does Malik Reed receive?
16. Is DeShawn Williams or Jonathan Harris retained?
17. Will Mike Purcell return for 2022?
18. Does the young core take the next step in their development?
19. How does Paton add to the defense?
Ejiro Evero is a first time defensive coordinator who has learned and worked under Wade Phillips, Vic Fangio, Brandon Staley, and Raheem Morris. There’s bound to be adjustments for the defense, even if the underlying philosophy remains in line with what the Broncos have used over the last three seasons. What’s more, Evero’s new staff provides fresh eyes to evaluate every layer of the defense so change is inevitable as the Broncos evolve to fit his vision.
Beyond pending free agents, one Broncos defender to keep an eye on this offseason is Mike Purcell. The soon-to-be 31-year-old is a potential cap casualty if the new staff believes his $4,347,695 cap number is rich for a nose tackle who missed 14 games over the last two years. Moving him creates $2,799,361 in cap space.
“You don’t want to do anything until the coaches [have a chance to evaluate],” Paton said. “Do they fit our scheme? I think the scheme is going to be similar, but you never know. I mean, there’s not a better teammate, not a harder worker, someone with better intangibles than Malik. I know we want Malik back.”
20. How does the new system impact scheme fits?
21. Is Bobby Massie, Cameron Fleming, and/or Calvin Anderson retained?
22. Is Melvin Gordon retained?
23. Is Eric Saubert retained?
24. Is Austin Schlottmann retained?
25. Will Brett Rypien return?
26. Is Teddy Bridgewater retained?
27. Does Paton trade Drew Lock?
28. How does K.J. Hamler look after his second straight season ended on Injured Reserve?
29. Can any of the developmental talent take a notable step during the offseason?
30. Does the Broncos “big three” return for 2022?
31. How does Paton add to the offense?
32. How does Paton solve the QB conundrum?
While the core system will bear similarities to Pat Shurmur’s West Coast scheme, the Broncos look poised for a dramatic evolution under Nathaniel Hackett. All signs point to the new offense sharing similarities to what Hackett and Matt LaFleur ran with the Green Bay Packers to great effect the last three seasons. That means a shift to more zone blocking up front mixed with duo concepts, as well as rub routes and screens in the passing game. This overhaul and fresh eyes to evaluate talent mean there could be some big changes as far as personnel goes.
Ultimately Hackett’s tenure will be judged by what Paton can do to solve the quarterback conundrum that ultimately doomed Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio. If the Broncos are able to trade for Aaron Rodgers, they will immediately enter a Super Bowl window that lasts as long as the reigning MVP is wearing orange and blue. If Paton does not acquire Rodgers, the expectations drop off precipitously.