Lingering questions that will define the 2022 Denver Broncos on offense

Denver Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy catches a long pass against Atlanta. Credit: Kendall Scheffield, USA TODAY Sports.
Jerry Jeudy catches a long pass against Atlanta. Credit: Kendall Scheffield, USA TODAY Sports.

Football is the most popular television product in America because it is the greatest and most unpredictable reality show there is, and the Denver Broncos certainly aren’t the exception to that rule.

Sure, adding a top-end quarterback helps solve a lot, but there are still massive unknowns permeating much of this roster, and how those unknown variables shake out will ultimately determine how the 2022 season plays out for the Broncos.

What are these grand X-factors that will shape football in Denver for 2022? Let’s look.

What version of Russell Wilson are the Denver Broncos getting, and how will the marriage with Nathaniel Hackett play out?

As has been the case with the Denver Broncos for a long time now, the most important question about the team relates to the quarterback. However, this time Broncos Country can rest easy considering the question is, ‘whether or not their quarterback can be elite,’ as opposed to, ‘can their quarterback somehow find a way to be passable.’

Prior to 2020, Wilson was a consistent top-five quarterback in the league, leading many to demand the Seattle Seahawks, ‘let Russ cook’, only for the kitchen to be engulfed by inferno. 2020 and 2021 were two of the worst seasons of Wilson’s career, and although the Seahawks were still a top-10 passing attack (via DVOA) it wasn’t firing with the same potency it once had.

So, will the Broncos get the dominant Wilson, or just the really good version of Wilson?

Along with that, what will the offense look like? During his time in Seattle, Wilson played with several different offensive coordinators who came from a variety of different philosophical trees, and yet the offense never really changed all that much. So, how much of the attack will look like Hackett’s Green Bay offense, and how much will look like the Wilson offense we’ve grown so accustomed to in Seattle?

Wilson is an elite quarterback, but the past two years have shown he isn’t a quarterback that can be asked to do everything and that’s ok. There are very few quarterbacks across the history of football that can do it all.

Wilson is at his best when operating alongside a prominent rushing attack, as the run game targets the areas of the field (short and over the middle of the field) that Wilson struggles to assault aerially. A strong run game also forces teams out of the conservative coverages that stifled Wilson the past two years, opening up the boundary and the deep parts of the field, and Wilson is an all-time great when it comes to attacking those areas of the field.

Off of play action, Wilson’s completion percentage lept 10.3 points from 61.7% to a wildly efficient 72.0% (the fourth-biggest gap among QBs with at least 150 dropbacks). Also, his yards per attempt jumped up 2.3 yards to 9.4 (the sixth-biggest gap among QBs with at least 150 dropbacks). Not only are the leaps massive, but Wilson’s overall ranks on play-action suggest he’s one of the best play-action quarterbacks in football. The Broncos should lean into this, rather than away from it, which was the Seahawks’ mistake these past two seasons.

If the Denver Broncos and Coach Hackett are able to sell Wilson on this idea without rocking the boat, it will significantly raise both the ceiling and floor of Denver’s offense.

Can the loaded WR room live up to its potential?

Even following Tim Patrick’s heartbreaking injury, there is a lot of talent in the Denver Broncos’ wide receiver room.

One top-15 pick, two second-rounders that were frequently projected to go in the first during the pre-draft process, a four-time member of Bruce Feldman’s ‘freaks list’, a human joystick, and a 6-foot-2 receiver with 4.4 speed.

That’s a lot of special talent.

The question is presently, can all that talent come to fruition now that they’re paired with a competent quarterback and offensive play-caller?

Denver Broncos fans should be salivating over how exciting the 90th-percentile outcome is. Courtland Sutton could return to 2019 form, when he looked like a burgeoning superstar; Jerry Jeudy could look like the super talent he was at Alabama and become Wilson’s new-age Doug Baldwin; K.J. Hamler could remain healthy all season and haul in a few dozen perfectly placed rainbows; Montrell Washington and Jalen Virgil could become some of the league’s most exciting rookie receivers while providing the Broncos with field-stretching speed and lots of options to be creative with; and Tyrie Cleveland could prove to be a special teams ace that can impact the game on offense in a pinch.

Pair that with the aforementioned dominant version of Wilson, and Broncos Country could have dreams of a Super Bowl.

However, just as likely as that 90th-percentile outcome is the 10th-percentile outcome, which would be nightmarish for Denver. Sutton could still be a step slow, raising questions about if he’ll ever return to form, if the contract extension was actually even a bargain, and who Denver’s No. 1 receiver is as they move forward with Wilson; Jeudy could once again have mental hangups prevent him from realizing his true potential, and now, with the excuses removed from the equation, the phrase ‘bust’ enters the conversation; Hamler could once again be hampered by injuries and drops, greatly diminishing his effectiveness; Washington and Virgil could be way less effective performing against starting NFL cornerbacks as opposed to preseason cornerbacks that are operating vanilla coverages; and Cleveland could be a fine special teams player that isn’t near enough of a force to justify his roster spot, considering he’s unable to impact the offense.

Pair that with the aforementioned really good version of Wilson, and Broncos Country is looking at last place in the division and a whirlwind of questions that continue to swirl around the offense, despite all the investments Denver made on that side of the ball this offseason.

Now, odds are the end result falls somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios, but whichever extreme the sliding scale ends up favoring will dictate the Broncos’ 2022 season to a large extent.

Can the Denver Broncos fully unlock Javonte Williams?

The answer to this question has more to do with Williams than it has to do with the Denver Broncos, but if the coaching staff and Williams can eliminate the Achilles Heel from his game, it could help all the other pieces fall into place.

Let’s start with what Williams does well.

There is no better ‘Oklahoma Drill’ running back in the entire league. Throw out all the concepts and all the pieces working together in concert, just give Javonte Williams a football, put some defenders in his way, and ask him to run from point A to point B, and no one in the league will do a better job.

Williams is an absolute tank that makes the muscled up professional athletes on the other team look like kids at a summer camp ganging up on one of the counselors. Not only does his play resemble a tsunami striking the mainland — an unstoppable force of nature that wrecks, shatters and carries all in it’s wake. You are not going to stop this mass of rushing water, you are simply going to be taken along for the ride — but he has a deceptive amount of speed and burst to his game, making him a truly elite force.

When discussing Williams, one must also highlight his versatility. He’s not Christian McCaffery, but he’s a legitimate weapon out of the backfield as a receiver, and he was better-than-expected in pass protection for a rookie.

The positives with Williams game are extraordinarily positive.

However, he isn’t the perfect back, as his lack of vision hurts his ability to find the right running lane, making his job much more difficult by forcing him to face additional tacklers. Now, Williams is a gifted enough runner to still be very productive despite making things much harder on himself, but imagine how dominant a force he could be if he was consistently setting himself up for maximum success, as opposed to just making the most out of the bad position he put himself in.

No matter the offensive system, Williams making this developmental leap would have been very important to the team’s success, as this is the last step separating Williams from the Derrick Henry’s and Jonathan Taylor’s of the world, but it’s especially important given Hackett’s offensive scheme.

Hackett has frequently stated how the foundation of his offense is outside zone, but outside zone asks a lot of the running back’s vision, as they have to patiently surveil the line, scanning for the rushing lane to appear, as this graph from early in his first year demonstrates.

Williams struggled with this a lot as a rookie, but also showed signs of growth between Week 1 and Week 18. If that growth carries into year two, the Denver Broncos’ offense will be much more fearsome and terrifying a unit.

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