ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos‘ offense of 2021 became a testament to underused talent on the way to the team’s sixth consecutive playoff miss.
The Broncos had and have committed to a strong, young depth chart. They drafted Javonte Williams (21 years old) in the second round, giving them — along with now free-agent Melvin Gordon — two frontline running backs last year. They used a first-round draft pick on wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (22) during the 2020 draft and in one November week last season committed $95 million in contract extensions for wide receivers Courtland Sutton (26) and Tim Patrick (28).
But for all of their commitment, the Broncos’ offense was a mishmash of ill-fitting ideas in 2021. Jeudy finished without a touchdown, Sutton had nine games with two or fewer catches and the Broncos finished tied for 24th in the league in scoring.
The blockbuster trade for quarterback Russell Wilson is a quality starting point to fix the Broncos’ offensive woes, but new coach Nathaniel Hackett’s biggest challenge might be wringing more production out of a group of skill position players who have been somewhat lost in the Broncos’ playbook.
“Those guys are good football players,” Hackett said when asked specifically about Sutton and Jeudy at the scouting combine. “We’ve got Tim Patrick, too. … There’s a lot of good skill position [players]. I’m excited to be able to do a lot of different things with those guys. For them it’s how fast can they learn everything and how much can they do and what do they do good.”
Hackett’s promise to match the playcalls to the players might be the most important thing he has said during his honeymoon period. Too often the Broncos have tried to do things that have not matched their ability to protect the quarterback or play to their strengths.
People inside the Broncos’ complex pointed to the continued use of Jeudy in motion before the snap last season, with an often outsized fake as if he were going to catch a direct snap even though the Broncos never snapped him the ball. One opposing defensive coach said he told his players not to acknowledge it because Jeudy would never get the ball.
The Broncos’ protection issues in the three-wide receiver set have been an issue through the past three offensive coordinators — the Broncos had seven games last season when they surrendered at least two sacks in a three-wide receiver set.
Sutton had one game after Halloween last season with more than 40 yards receiving. Jeudy didn’t have an 80-yard receiving game all season (he missed six games with an ankle injury) and Patrick had one game after Nov. 7 with more than 42 yards receiving.
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It’s Hackett’s job to fix all that.
“We’re going to make it look very complex to the defense, but we keep it simple for our guys so they can play fast,” said offensive coordinator Justin Outten. “The goal is to identify each guy’s talents and make them come to life on Sundays. That’s my part.”
Many have said those words, but offensively the Broncos have not lived them since Gary Kubiak was calling plays — three head coaches ago.
Wilson’s arrival certainly improves the chances of the ball going to the right places far more often, but in the big picture the key for the Broncos will be to avoid the sort of we-do-what-we-do syndrome they have suffered on offense through much of the past five seasons.
“It’s about my scheme being able to adapt to them,” Hackett said. “It’s about having a dramatic enough playbook that you can do the things that fit the players that you’re going to have.”
There’s already a sense things are changing. Jeudy might have summed it up for the Broncos’ skill position players when, shortly after Wilson’s arrival became public, he took to Twitter to post:
“Oh we lit.”