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Early theme of free agency crystal clear for Broncos: let Russ breathe

The Sean Payton era of the Denver Broncos is off and running, as the team has made it a clear priority in week one of free agency that protecting Russell Wilson is a must

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the disaster that was the 2022 Denver Broncos regular season, several egregious incidents took place, and perhaps there was none worst than the fact the offensive line simply could not protect Russell Wilson.

Like, at all.

This isn’t to give a full pass to the highly paid QB, who objectively underperformed in his first season with his new team, but it’s difficult for any QB, regardless of level of talent, age, etc., to perform at anything close to a high level when he spends a substantial portion of the game on his back and picking grass out of his helmet.

Due to the ineptness of the offensive line, Wilson spent a significant time in that precise position. The Broncos would finish the season as the team who allowed the most sacks to its QB, 63 in total. 55 of those were to Wilson. To provide a visual to just how bad that is, the five best units at protecting their QB all surrendered fewer than 30 sacks on the season.

Yes, the group faced its share of injuries, and yes, Wilson sometimes held onto the play too long, but the frequency in which the unit did its best matador impression throughout the season was simply something that should never happen.

Luckily, general manager George Paton and new head coach Sean Payton (with the latter having significant influence) have made it known early on in free agency that they do not intend to allow dark history to repeat itself.

So far in free agency, five of the eight signings by the team have been players who have made names for themselves as protection specialists.

Offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive guard Ben Powers, tight end Chris Manhertz, fullback Mike Burton, and running back Samaje Perine have all signed deals to make them a part of the Denver Broncos moving forward. And Russell Wilson should be breathing a deep sigh of relief.

The 6-8 McGlinchey is regarded as a mauler in the run game, which should open up space for whoever ends up in the Broncos backfield, and while his tall frame may lead to questions about his ability to block shorter, more slippery edge rushers, but he ranked 12th overall among tackles in ESPN’s pass blocking win rate statistics. In any regard, he’s the surest thing the team has had at right tackle in several years.

Powers, expected to line up to the inside of Garret Bolles on the left side of the line, is just as impactful of a signing, if not more so, than McGlinchey. He ranked as the fourth-best offensive lineman in the league, third in run blocking and 15th in pass protection, according to Sports Info Solutions (as tweeted out by Zac Stevens). He will take over for outgoing Dalton Risner, and the foursome of Bolles, Powers, Quinn Meinerz, and McGlinchey should prove a significant upgrade from last season.

Sean Payton spent his first season in New Orleans building by starting with the offensive line, and it appears he’s taking the same approach in Denver.

Not necessarily an offensive lineman, but close to it, is the tight end Manherz. More of a sixth offensive lineman than a pass catcher, he is primarily known for his run blocking abilities, but should be able to keep Wilson on his feet as well.

In the backfield, Perine and Burton will be the last line of defense for Wilson, and they are two good bodies to have in front.

Perine is a good enough ball carrier in his own right who can help move the chains for the offense, but he might be more valuable for his protection skills. His former offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Brian Callahan, referred to him as one of the best pass blocking backs in the league. That’s something that Wilson sorely lacked last season.

Burton is a run blocking specialist who played for Payton in New Orleans in 2020, and his ability in that area should allow Wilson and the passing offense some breathing room as the ground game does its job.

Wilson was sacked at least three times in 13 of the 15 games he appeared and never was sacked fewer than twice. These early moves should be indicative that Payton has every intention of keeping his QB upright and showing himself worthy of his massive contract (and also hopefully to prevent any more sideline photos where he has a knot the size of a tennis ball on his forehead).

Yet, it’s not just keeping him upright and giving him time to throw that will allow him to breathe. All these moves also suggest Payton plans to make the run game a focal point of the offense, which will take some of the load off of Wilson. Last season it seemed he was relied on to do more than he could handle, and Payton is making it known with these moves that it won’t be the case this time around.

Now, all attention turns to whether or not any receivers will be incoming our outgoing and if any true ground threat will be brought in to allow Javonte Williams more time to recover.

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