2022 NFL Preview: At long last, Broncos find a QB as Russell Wilson era begins

·13-min read

On March 6, 2016, Peyton Manning retired. Everyone knew he was retiring many weeks before he announced it.

From then to March 8 of this year, the Denver Broncos were in the abyss. They searched hopelessly for a quarterback. Here is the list of quarterbacks who started a game for the Broncos from 2016-2021: Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Teddy Bridgewater. And we all remember the Kendall Hinton game (which was technically started by running back Phillip Lindsay in a wildcat formation). This will shock you, but none of those QBs took the Broncos to the playoffs.

There's more excitement in Colorado for this Broncos season than there has been for many, many years. Russell Wilson got the Broncos off the often-depressing quarterback carousel.

On March 8, shortly after it was reported that Aaron Rodgers would return to the Green Bay Packers, news broke that the Broncos had swung a big trade for Wilson. Sports talk radio in Denver wouldn't have debates like "Siemian or Lynch?" 365 days a year anymore. There should have been a parade downtown.

For so many years, the refrain with the Broncos was they had a playoff team but the quarterback position had dragged them down. We're about to find out. Wilson has been one of the great quarterbacks of this era, a magician who can consistently make something happen when everything breaks down in front of him. He helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl and many other big games. Seattle went 104-53-1 in his regular-season starts. It's still stunning the Seahawks would give him up when, at age 33, he should have many good years left. Ask the 2016-21 Broncos: It can be very difficult to replace a great quarterback.

The Broncos have good talent. That's a reason Wilson waived his no-trade clause for the Broncos.

"It's been a blessing just to come here, just to come to an amazing city like Denver, to be a part of it with so many amazing teammates and great coaching staff," Wilson said, via Zac Stevens of DNVR Sports. "But also, once the trade was going to happen, I said, 'Hey, listen, I want to make sure that I go to a city that wants to win. I want to make sure I that I go to a team that wants to win. And I want to go to a city that knows how to win.' And all those three things were checked off the box here in Denver and so I think we've got a chance."

Wilson comes off as a politician at times, a pre-packaged ideal of what a quarterback should be. But his commitment is genuine. When he says he spent 19 or 20 hours a day rehabbing after finger surgery last season, he actually might have done that. He'll be ready with his new team and he'll change the culture too.

"You have to set the tone every day. There is no other option," Wilson said after an OTA practice, via the team's transcripts. "If you want to win, and if you want to win it all and be the best in the world as a team and everything else, there is no other option. That’s what we have to do. It’s a wild obsession every day.

"It’s a lifestyle. Winning is a lifestyle."

Quarterback Russell Wilson came to the Denver Broncos after many successful years with the Seattle Seahawks. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Quarterback Russell Wilson came to the Denver Broncos after many successful years with the Seattle Seahawks. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Elite quarterbacks have changed teams before and had immediate success. Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Joe Montana all transformed new teams in their 30s. Wilson can do the same.

It has been an offseason of change in Denver. The addition of Wilson has overshadowed that the Broncos have a new coach. Nathaniel Hackett comes over after being the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator. There's a new owner too, as another unsettled situation finally got an overdue resolution. Rob Walton bought the team for $4.65 billion. It's truly a new era of Broncos football.

It would be a disappointment if Wilson and Hackett don't lead Denver to the playoffs, especially after Broncos fans have waited so long for competent quarterback play. There are good receivers, two good running backs, a mid-tier offensive line and a defense that has some talent, especially in the secondary.

Wilson gives the Broncos a chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since Manning's final game, Super Bowl 50. Denver fans can finally feel good heading into a season.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Russell Wilson should still have a few good seasons left, and there have only been a few great quarterbacks traded in their prime. Credit general manager George Paton for finally figuring out how to fix the QB position and doing it with a flourish. The Broncos sent first-, second-, and fifth-round picks this year, 2023 first- and second-round picks, TE Noah Fant, DE Shelby Harris and QB Drew Lock to Seattle for Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick. That's a hefty price but nobody in Denver minds. The rest of the offseason barely mattered. Still, Denver added pass rusher Randy Gregory on a five-year, $70 million deal. There's a lot of risk there, but the Broncos defense was looking for more pass-rush pop. They also signed defensive tackle D.J. Jones to a three-year, $30 million deal. Denver shuffled some other pieces on defense, like adding cornerback K'Waun Williams while losing Kyle Fuller. Four of the team's first five draft picks were spent on defense, with the top pick being edge rusher Nik Bonitto in the second round. It really doesn't matter what else the Broncos did; when you end a six-year search for a QB by landing a future Hall-of-Famer still in his prime, there's only one possible grade.

GRADE: A

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

It's possible Russell Wilson is closer to the end of his career than we think. The Seahawks are a perennial winner and they traded Wilson instead of working things out. Maybe they know something we don't yet. Wilson did struggle for a short stretch last season but that seems entirely related to a gnarly finger injury that required surgery. He came back too fast. He was fine pre-injury and in his final seven games he threw for 15 touchdowns and three interceptions with a 104.7 passer rating. Still, the running element to his game that helped make him a star is all but gone, and he is at an age in which we could see some decline as a passer too. It seems premature to worry too much about Wilson hitting the wall, however.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

As of early July, the Broncos were BetMGM's biggest liability in the Super Bowl market. The Broncos are 16-to-1 to win the Super Bowl and a lot of bettors have taken Denver. It's easy to see why. This is a talented team that finally has a top quarterback. Earlier in the offseason, Russell Wilson was getting by far the most money in the MVP market, and his odds moved from +3000 to +1400. That's understandable too. The Broncos' win total is a heavy 10.5 and it's tough to take the over, especially in a rugged division. However, their +260 odds to win the AFC West look pretty good. If you believe in the Broncos, there is still value in the betting market.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "I wish I had a great answer on who Russell Wilson’s primary target will be — I see arguments for both Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. I wish I could perfectly forecast the backfield, with emerging sophomore Javonte Williams pushing veteran Melvin Gordon. Heck, I even like third receiver Tim Patrick, and the Broncos have talent at tight end, too. There’s a lot to draft into here.

"So maybe we focus on the player who connects with all pieces — and that’s Wilson.

"I realize Wilson hasn’t run as much in recent years, and occasionally his wizardry in pocket leads to a bad decision and a soul-crushing sack. It’s part of the gig with him. But he wasn’t always fully supported in Seattle, be it from the play design or the overall supporting cast, and I think he’s getting a fresh start — and a loaded set of teammates — at the perfect time. Remember what that did for Tom Brady, the move to Tampa? I see Wilson primed for a monster year.

"There are so many potential right answers at quarterback — and it’s just a single position for fantasy — that sometimes a QB endorsement feels a little sheepish. In this instance, I don’t care. Wilson is currently the 11th quarterback off the board in Yahoo ADP, and you can make a juicy profit at that buy-in. He’s one of my proactive picks. I will be seated near the front of this bandwagon."

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Broncos defense didn't allow many points or yards, ranking third and eighth in those categories, and was OK in yards allowed per play as well (tied for ninth in yards per pass allowed and tied for 13th in yards per rush allowed). But they were 20th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, indicating that unit might be a little overrated coming into this season. DVOA factors in things like game situation and opponent. One other reason the Broncos ranked lower in DVOA than their traditional counting stats was a lack of big plays. They forced six fumbles, the lowest figure in football. They had 16 interceptions, which was in the middle of the pack. Their 36 sacks were 18th in the NFL. There's a lot to like about the Broncos defense. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II will be a star, safety Justin Simmons is fantastic and there's pass-rush potential with Bradley Chubb (who needs to be much better after posting zero sacks in seven games), Randy Gregory, Dre'Mont Jones and Malik Reed. But, with a change in defensive philosophy from longtime defensive guru Vic Fangio to new coordinator Ejiro Evero, it's fair to wonder how good Denver's defense will be.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Who will shine around Russell Wilson?

The pre-Wilson Broncos relied on the run game, and for good reason. They had Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, and those two each topped 900 rushing yards last season. Williams was particularly impressive as a rookie, and perhaps he takes on a bigger role in his second year. Even with those two effective backs, the Broncos will obviously have a philosophical shift on offense. Nathaniel Hackett will run his offense, and he's unlikely to limit Wilson like the Seahawks did. Courtland Sutton could end up having a huge breakout, or perhaps it's 2020 first-round pick Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy has been criticized for a poor 2021, but he suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 1 and that was a reason for his quiet season. Tim Patrick might be the most underrated receiver in the NFL. Albert Okwuegbunam is in for a breakout at tight end with Noah Fant off to Seattle. And backups like receiver K.J. Hamler and rookie tight end Greg Dulcich could emerge with an opportunity. Williams and Sutton seem to be the best bets to star (though Williams' usage might not be enough for fantasy football players, considering Gordon isn't going anywhere), though multiple players could take a big step with Wilson conducting the offense. It's a deep group.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Russell Wilson isn't one to publicly make many waves, but by the end of his Seahawks career there were some stories that indicated he wasn't pleased with being held back by an outdated offense. Like Tom Brady going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wilson should be excited to go to a new team and show that he was the one carrying the Seahawks all along. He rarely needs extra motivation. Wilson has never gotten an MVP vote, a factoid that has been shared a few thousand times by now, but he could win it this season. New coach Nathaniel Hackett has already said this will be Wilson's offense.

"We want to build this thing completely around him and make sure that he’s comfortable and watch him come alive," Hackett said, according to the team's transcripts.

It would be no surprise, especially given the Broncos' offensive talent, if a rejuvenated Wilson has a career year. If he does, the Broncos can win the AFC West. Any team that wins the 2022 AFC West, one of the better divisions that we've ever seen on paper, can win a Super Bowl too. The Broncos have some 2020 Buccaneers vibes.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Russell Wilson isn't a conventional quarterback. He often plays off-script and does it exceptionally well. That was a great fit in Seattle, but what if it's not such a good mix with Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos? We've seen very good players switch teams and it never clicks, for whatever reason. I don't think that'll happen with Wilson in Denver, but there might at least be some adjustment time. It's also possible that the Broncos are very good but don't capture a playoff spot playing in a ridiculous AFC West. The division is so good that it's possible Denver finishes in last place. If that happens, it would be a devastating stomach punch to Broncos fans who have waited a long time for their team to be relevant again.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

My optimism over the Broncos is held back a bit by the division they play in. I don't think the Broncos win the AFC West, but believe they'll find a way into the playoffs. It sounds crazy to question whether Denver will be a playoff team, but the AFC is really strong this season. Russell Wilson will be everything the Broncos are signing up for, but it's a division with some serious talent at quarterback — and every other position, really. We might get a chance to see if Broncos fans will be satisfied with a quantum leap in quarterback play and a long-awaited playoff berth, but no division title or deep playoff run at the end.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers

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