clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What the 2006 Saints can tell us about the 2023 Broncos

Denver can learn from Sean Payton’s history.

New Orleans Saints v Denver Broncos Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The 2005 New Orleans Saints finished 3-13 which led to the firing of their head coach, Jim Haslett. Sean Payton was hired as their head coach after spending three seasons as the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants during which the Giants ranked 15th, 21st and 22nd in points scored. This was more a function of the head coach and his philosophy than it was a function of their OC, but I was surprised at how poorly Payton’s offenses fared BEFORE he was hired as a head coach.

Jim Fassel was about as conservative of a head as you could get in terms of his decisions. But with Sean Payton as his OC, he led the Giants to records of 12-4 (SB loss), 7-9, and 10-6 (WC loss) based largely on the strength of their defense not their offense. The Giants were 5th in points allowed in 2000 and 3rd in 2002. The Giant defense was led by Michael Strahan and Jason Sehorn, but only had one Pro Bowler on defense in 2000 when they won the NFCC - Jessie Armstead (ILB). Enough about the Giants though...

Sean Payton completely revamped the Saints’ offense for the 2006 season. Of the 11 starters on offense from 2005, only three were starters in 2006: FB Mike Karney, WR Joe Horn and OT Jammal Brown. Two others of the 2005 offensive starters were still on the team in 2006, but they did not start enough games at their positions to be considered starters: TE Ernie Conwell and OG Montrae Holland. The guys who left:

  • QB Aaron Brooks to the Raiders.
  • RB Antowain Smith retired.
  • WR Donte’ Stallworth to the Eagles.
  • LT Wayne Gandy to the Falcons
  • C LeCharles Bentley to the Browns
  • LG Kendyl Jacox to the Dolphins

Bentley would never play another NFL snap due to a freak injury and the infection that resulted. Brooks and Jacox would only last one more season in the league.

The starters for the 2006 Saint offense (* = Pro Bowl, + = First Tm AP All-Pro)

  • QB Drew Brees*+
  • RB Deuce McAllister
  • FB Mike Karney
  • WR Marques Colston
  • WR Joe Horn
  • TE Mark Campbell
  • LT Jammal Brown*+
  • LG Jamar Nesbit
  • C Jeff Faine
  • RG Jahri Evans
  • RT Jon Stinchcomb

Brees was pursued by both the Dolphins and the Saints after the Chargers refused to increase their offer to retain the free agent. The Saints won the bidding ware for Brees giving him a six-year, $60 million deal on March 14, 2006, with 10 million guaranteed. The Dolphins decided to trade for the former Viking Daunte Culpepper to be their 2006 QB. Supposedly the decision to not sign Brees is why Nick Saban left the Dolphins and took the head coaching job in Tuscaloosa which completely changed the shape of college football over the last two decades. But back to the Saints...

McAllister had been a high draft pick of the Saints and had been injured for most of the 2005 season. Colston was almost undrafted because he played at Hofstra. He was taken with the 252nd pick in the 2006 draft. He would finish second in offensive rookie of the year voting in 2006 (to Vince Young). Colston had 115 targets, 70 catches, 1038 yards and 8 receiving TDs as a rookie.

TE Mark Campbell was brought in as a free agent from Buffalo to ostensibly be the blocking TE, but he ended up leading their TEs with 29 targets. The 2006 Saints TE room included former Bronco 7th round pick, Billy Miller, but none of the TEs were much involved in the passing game.

WR Joe Horn was on the downside of his career and had lost a step. He still was a large part of the offense, but would only last one more season in the NFL after 2006.

LT Jammal Brown was moved from the right side and flourished earning his only first team All-Pro selection. Rookie fourth round pick, Jahri Evans, immediately cemented himself as a stalwart on their OL. While he didn’t earn post-season honors as a rookie, the member of the all-decade team for the 2010s did play every offensive snap for them as a rookie.

Left guard Jamar Nesbit had been on the 2005 Saints as the flex OL guy. He had the ability to play all five spots on the OL and was their starter at LG for the 2006 and 2007 seasons

Center Jeff Faine was brought over as a free agent from the Browns (who swapped centers with the Saints) and highly drafted OT Jon Stichcomb was back from missing the entire 05 season with injury.

Whether by design or necessity the 2006 Saints got a huge number of snaps from their rookies - 4567 snaps on offense and/or defense.

Year Rnd Pick Player Rookie snaps
2006 1 2 Reggie Bush 573
2006 2 43 Roman Harper 1097
2006 4 108 Jahri Evans 1105
2006 5 135 Rob Ninkovich 909
2006 6 171 Mike Hass 0
2006 6 174 Josh Lay 0
2006 7 210 Zach Strief 128
2006 7 252 Marques Colston 755

Despite having two rookies that did not play at all, Mike Hass and Josh Lay, the Saints got a huge contribution from their rookies in 2006 both on offense and defense (see above).

For comparison the Bronco rookies in 2022 combined for 2211 snaps with the largest chunk of those coming from Damarri Mathis.

Rnd Player Rookie Snaps Pick Pos
2 Nik Bonitto 357 64 OLB
3 Greg Dulcich 497 80 TE
4 Damarri Mathis 795 115 DB
4 Eyioma Uwazurike 165 116 DE
5 Delarrin Turner-Yell 0 152 S
5 Montrell Washington 78 162 WR
5 Luke Wattenberg 90 171 OL
6 Matt Henningsen 229 206 DE
7 Faion Hicks 0 232 CB

So what does this mean for the 2023 Denver Broncos? Well, Sean Payton is not averse to starting rookies, something he has done 24 times as a head coach, using a rookie as the primary starter at position on offense or defense. Some of those who he used (or was forced to use) were undrafted guys.

Year POS Player Draft Slot
2006 WR Marques Colston 252
2006 RG Jahri Evans 108
2008 LG Carl Nicks 164
2008 RDT Sedrick Ellis 7
2011 FB Jed Collins UDFA
2011 C Brian De La Puente UDFA
2011 LDE Cameron Jordan 24
2013 WR Kenny Stills 144
2013 SS Kenny Vaccaro 15
2014 WR Brandin Cooks 20
2015 LDE Bobby Richardson UDFA
2015 MLB Stephone Anthony 31
2015 RLB Hau'oli Kikaha 44
2015 LCB Delvin Breaux UDFA
2016 WR Michael Thomas 47
2016 DB Vonn Bell 61
2017 RT Ryan Ramczyk 32
2017 RCB Marshon Lattimore 11
2017 FS Marcus Williams 42
2018 WR Tre'Quan Smith 91
2019 C Erik McCoy 48
2020 RG Cesar Ruiz 24
2021 LG Calvin Throckmorton UDFA
2021 LCB Paulson Adebo 76

Brian De La Puente was technically a rookie, but he was three years removed from college ball at Cal.

The most common position for Payton to use a rookie starter has been wide receiver with five of those:

  1. Colston
  2. Kenny Stills
  3. Brandin Cooks
  4. Michael Thomas
  5. Tre’Quan Smith

So it would not be surprising is Marvin Mims Jr ends up as one of the two (three?) starting WRs on the team. Of course this brings up another point, that most teams use three starting wide receivers not two as was common 40 years ago. Stills, Cooks and Smith were all able to start as rookies because of the abilities that they added to the Saint’ WR room.

Stills averaged 20.0 yards per reception as a rookie (leading the league in 2013). He never matched that in any other season. Cooks in 2014 was the slot guy that the 2013 Saints were missing (kind of). Despite only playing in 10 games, he finished fourth on the team in targets with 69. Getting almost seven targets per game as a rookie speaks to Cooks immediate connection with Brees. Brees had some serious weapons to throw to in 2014 with Jimmy Graham, Colston and Stills each having 83 or more targets (Graham had 115 to lead the team). Interestingly enough the fifth, sixth and seventh most targets on the Saints in 2014 all were RBs: Pierre Thomas, Travis Cadet and Mark Ingram.

Michael Thomas(the WR not the S) was the 47th overall pick in 2016. He burst onto the scene as a rookie with 121 targets, 92 catches, 1137 yards and 9 receiving TDs. He led their team in targets, catches and receiving TDs. Cooks had more receiving yards as he had become the deep threat with Stills having been traded to the Dolphins. Thomas was more of the possession receiver for the Saints as a rookie. Despite Thomas’ great rookie year, he got zero offensive rookie of the year votes as those all went to Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot in 2016.

Tre’Quan Smith appeared in 15 games starting 7 as a rookie in 2018. While he only had 28 catches as a rookie, his 15.3 yard per catch was second best on the team (Keith Kirkwood had 13 catches and average 16.1 yds/catch), but only four of his 13 receptions were on deep throws. Nine of his catches gained 10 or more yards, but many of those were short throws that he turned into long gains with YAC. Compare that to Smith who had 9 plays that gained 15 or more yards as a rookie and 8 of those were on deep throws.

Interestingly enough the Broncos have a QB who is great at throwing the deep ball along with a number of wide receivers who are already good (or at least were) on deep throws. Both Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick were both at their best pre-injuries on deep 50/50 balls. Their deep game was not built on separation, but on an ability to out-compete the DB for those deep 50/50 balls and come down with a catch. Bronco deep ball receiving 2018-2022 shown below

Player Tgt Rec Ctch% Yds TD 1D
Courtland Sutton 132 57 43.2% 1689 8 57
Emmanuel Sanders 30 16 53.3% 517 2 16
Jerry Jeudy 80 35 43.8% 1088 5 34
Tim Patrick 58 26 44.8% 779 3 26
Noah Fant 35 14 40.0% 368 1 14
KJ Hamler 27 9 33.3% 325 2 8
DaeSean Hamilton 36 8 22.2% 192 1 8
Greg Dulcich 14 6 42.9% 168 1 5
Demaryius Thomas 13 4 30.8% 140 1 4
Kendall Hinton 9 4 44.4% 120 0 4
Jeff Heuerman 6 3 50.0% 91 0 3
Jalen Virgil 2 1 50.0% 66 1 1
Freddie Swain 1 1 100.0% 52 0 1
Eric Saubert 7 2 28.6% 47 1 2
River Cracraft 2 1 50.0% 44 0 1
Seth Williams 1 1 100.0% 34 0 1
Tyrie Cleveland 6 2 33.3% 33 0 2
Andy Janovich 1 1 100.0% 32 0 1
Andrew Beck 2 1 50.0% 27 0 1
Albert Okwuegbunam 8 1 12.5% 25 1 1
Jake Butt 3 1 33.3% 22 0 1
Fred Brown 1 1 100.0% 16 0 1
Eric Tomlinson 1 1 100.0% 16 0 1
Melvin Gordon 1 1 100.0% 16 1 1
Devontae Booker 1 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Troy Fumagalli 2 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Diontae Spencer 2 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Matt LaCosse 3 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Brandon Johnson 5 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Mike Boone 1 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Brian Parker 1 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Nick Vannett 2 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Montrell Washington 4 0 0.0% 0 0 0
David Moore 1 0 0.0% 0 0 0
John Brown 1 0 0.0% 0 0 0

KJ Hamler, on the other hand, has a deep game that is based on using his speed (when he is healthy) to blow past the defender and (hopefully) catch the ball. According to, Russell Wilson attempted 114 deep passes in 2022 completing 43.0% of those. They define deep as landing 15 yards or more from the LOS. Stathead only has deep and short, not middle for some strange reason. The Bronco receivers performance on those deep passes in 2022 is shown in the table below.

Player Tgt Rec Ctch% Yds TD 1D
Courtland Sutton 32 19 59.4% 451 1 19
Jerry Jeudy 24 12 50.0% 410 3 11
Greg Dulcich 11 5 45.5% 152 1 4
KJ Hamler 7 3 42.9% 149 0 3
Kendall Hinton 6 3 50.0% 97 0 3
Jalen Virgil 2 1 50.0% 66 1 1
Freddie Swain 1 1 100.0% 52 0 1
Eric Saubert 5 2 40.0% 47 1 2
Andrew Beck 2 1 50.0% 27 0 1
Albert Okwuegbunam 2 1 50.0% 25 1 1
Eric Tomlinson 1 1 100.0% 16 0 1
Mike Boone 1 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Montrell Washington 4 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Brandon Johnson 3 0 0.0% 0 0 0
Tyrie Cleveland 3 0 0.0% 0 0 0

Now there is no guarantee that Sean Payton will call plays that have a deep route for Russ to exploit, but it makes sense given Russ ability and the abilities of Patrick, Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler and Mims. Late in Brees’ career, his arm strength limited Payton’s ability to call deep routes.

According to Brees attempted 63 deep passes (they actually have intermediate throws delineated) in 2016. That season Ben Roethlisberger had the most in the league with 88. According to SIS, Russ had the most deep attempts in 2022 with 75. SIS calls an attempt deep if it lands 20 yards or more from the LOS. In their rating system (IQR), Russ had a rating of 68 on deep throws in 2022. With a minimum of 100 total passing attempts, Joe Burrow was the best deep passer in 2022 with an IQR on deep throws of 115. Russ’ rating of 68 was 27th among starting QBs. Does that mean he can’t throw the deep ball anymore?

Russ had an IQR of 90 on deep passes in 2021 which was 12th best in the league that season (Tyrod Taylor was the best with an IQR of 110 - on only 12 attempts). Among starters the best deep passer in 2021 was Carson Wentz with an IQR of 109. I would argue that Russ poor showing on deep throws was a function of his injuries and the $hitshow that was the 2022 Bronco offense. He can probably still throw the deep ball well (and we should see this in 2023).

In 2020 when Drew Brees was a shadow of his former self (his final season), he only attempted 16 deep passes, which is a far cry from the 77 he attempted in 2015. In 2018, which was his final season starting 15 or more games, Brees attempted 50 deep passes. In fact if we look at Brees deep passing by season (first season at SIS is 2015) we find some interesting things (below)

Season att comp IQR total passing attempts deep %
2015 77 30 98 627 12.3%
2016 63 31 102 673 9.4%
2017 62 30 88 536 11.6%
2018 50 26 124 489 10.2%
2019 29 14 94 378 7.7%
2020 16 8 96 390 4.1%

Brees didn’t throw deep as much as he normally did in 2019 and then almost completely stopped throwing deep in 2020.

Comparing that to Russ deep passing data is informative.

Season att comp IQR total passing attempts deep %
2015 60 26 98 483 12.4%
2016 65 31 79 546 11.9%
2017 85 31 100 553 15.4%
2018 61 29 121 427 14.3%
2019 71 31 118 516 13.8%
2020 60 22 95 558 10.8%
2021 69 28 90 400 17.3%
2022 75 29 68 483 15.5%

Russ’ least frequent deep passing season (2020) was about what Brees averaged in terms of deep throw percentage. Both QBs were equally as good in terms of IQR with the exception of 2016 until 2022. So for Russ, 2022 appears to be the anomaly (no idea what explains the 2016 results). It stands to reason that Payton should be able to get Russ’ back to his 2021 deep ball form and results and that could bode very well for Mims (or KJ Hamler or whoever ends up being the speed/deep threat on the 2023 Broncos).

Defensive rookies in 2023

The ILB and the DB groups appear to fairly set right now, so I don’t know how much we should expect in terms of defensive snaps from Drew Sanders, Riley Moss or JL Skinner in 2023. But that assumes Sanders is being used like a traditional ILB, which I doubt is how he will be employed.

Given Alex Singleton’s limitations, I would not surprised for Sanders to quickly supplant him and/or Josey Jewell as the every down ILB, particularly since Sanders could be more of an assets as a pass rusher than Singleton or Jewell has ever been in their NFL careers.

Sanders started his college career as a light edge defender and only moved to off-the-ball LB when he went from Bama to Arkansas. While playin edge in the SEC in not comparable to the NFL, the SEC does provide the highest level of OL play that you will face in college in terms of rushing the passer. So Sanders, who played the 2020 and 2021 seasons for the Crimson Tide, has faced some really good pass blockers in games and in practices. In the last three drafts, five OL players have been drafted from Bama

  • Tyler Steen - 67th pick in 2023
  • Evan Neal - 7th pick in 2022
  • Alex Leatherwood - 17th pick in 2021
  • Landon Dickerson - 37th pick in 2021
  • Deonte Brown - 193rd pick in 2021

and that doesn’t count any OL guys who could be drafted out of Bama in 2024 that Sanders may have faced on a daily basis.

While there is not a great deal of precedent for off-the-ball LBs to get heavy usage in the pass rush in the modern NFL, the example of Micah Parsons is informative.

Parsons is little heavier than Sanders, but both were off-the-ball LBs in college (for Sanders it was only in his final college season). Parsons finished his college career with 6.5 total sacks and while he has become one of the most effective pass rushers in the NFL, there was no guarantee that he could become that when Dallas used the 12th overall pick on him. In fact as a rookie, he didn’t rush the passer all that often - only rushing the passer on about half of the passing plays for which he was on the field. Last season, in his second NFL season, he rarely DIDN’T rush the passer - dropping into coverage only 14% of the time on passing plays.

So with the health questions that surround Randy Gregory and the effectiveness questions that surround the rest of the Bronco 2023 pass rush, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to think of a time where Sanders could be the best pass rusher on the team in 2023.

Similarly health concerns in the secondary could have both Moss and Skinner playing much more as rookies than any are projecting right now. If you project Caden Sterns as the other starting safety next to Justin Simmons, you have to remember that Sterns missed 12 games last season to injury and Simmons missed five. If you predict Kareem Jackson instead as the other starter, you have to wonder how long the body of the now 35 year old DB can hold up. KJ played 1139 defensive snaps last season which was a career high for him (data only goes back to 2012). Even if he is capable of playing that much in 2023, he was not as effective in 2022 as he was in 2021. For players that rely on speed and quickness like defensive backs, rare is the player that can hold off the “ravages of time” and continue to play at a “starter level” into their late 30s.

At cornerback health should be much less of a concern as Patrick Surtain, Damarri Mathis and K’Waun Williams have all been relatively healthy during their careers so far (knock on wood).

So assuming the injury issues that have plagued the Broncos over the past six or seven seasons are over with the departure of the previous strength and conditioning staff, the starting three CBs on the team all have a good history of staying healthy. So for Moss or Skinner to get defensive snaps in 2023, they might have to do so only as dime CBs or if one of our three top safeties goes down with injury.

The depth chart is close to useless at this point, but right now Moss is penciled in as PS2’s backup while Skinner is third string at free safety behind Simmons and Sterns.


Which Bronco rookie draftee will end the 2023 season with the most non-special team snaps?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Marvin Mims
    (81 votes)
  • 48%
    Drew Sanders
    (125 votes)
  • 11%
    Riley Moss
    (30 votes)
  • 1%
    JL Skinner
    (5 votes)
  • 6%
    Alex Forsyth
    (16 votes)
257 votes total Vote Now