On April 26th, 1986, the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown, causing a radioactive event that sent the nearby populace scattering, and leaving the city a ghost town. Last night, was the Denver Broncos’ turn.

With the game still up for grabs and overtime on the way, fans were seen scurrying for their cars on a national television broadcast. They opted to evacuate the premises and spare themselves the radiation poisioning, rather than suffer through this especially toxic Broncos campaign, and who can blame them?

Well, now it’s time to put on the hazmat suits and go on a trek through the fallout to discover what exactly transpired on Thursday night Football.

Who is the biggest culprit for the Broncos’ struggles? Where does Denver go from here? And what glimmers of hope can we cling to in this dark, desolate, nuclear winter?

Those answers and more in this edition of Denver Broncos Stock Report.

Stock Up for the Denver Broncos

Baron Browning

Losing Randy Gregory was a crushing loss for the Denver Broncos. Through the first four weeks, Gregory ranked fifth in pressures (19), second in pressure rate (21.59%) and fourth in pass-rush win rate (24.7%) among all NFL defenders that had rushed the passer at least 25 times in that span, per Pro Football Focus.

However, the pain of his absence was dulled on Thursday Night Football, thanks to remarkable performances from both Baron Browning and Nik Bonitto, who stepped up in Gregory’s wake.

At the half, Browning had four quarterback hits and a pivotal sack that pushed the Indianapolis Colts out of field goal range. Unfortunately, a sudden spell of conservatism from Ejiro Evero led to the Colts easily gaining the yardage back to close the half with a field goal.

Browning would exit the game in the second half with a wrist injury, continuing a devastating night for the Broncos from an injury perspective.

He finished with 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, and six quarterback hits. At the time he left the game with an injury, the Denver Broncos had 12 hits on the quarterback, and both teams had combined for 20. That means Browning was responsible for 30 percent of the quarterback hits, in a game where it felt like every dropback was ending with either Matt Ryan or Russell Wilson on their backs.

Then, according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced pass-rushing metrics, Browning had arguably the greatest single-game performance in the site’s history.

It’s amazing that Browning, in his first NFL game starting at the position, had such a dominant performance, registered those numbers, and didn’t even finish the game.

Caden Sterns

Yet another young Bronco stepping up in place of a valuable defensive piece is Caden Sterns. With every week he starts in Justin Simmons’ place, he makes a compelling argument that it should be Kareem Jackson that comes off the field once No. 31 is back healthy.

On a passing attempt to Michael Pittman Jr. which would’ve set Indianapolis up on Denver’s side of the field, Sterns was quick to meet the receiver in the air with a punishing blow that jarred the would-be completion loose.

Then, on another Colts drive that was trending towards points, Sterns beautifully baited Ryan into an interception that briefly swung the momentum back. On that interception return, Sterns recorded the highest speed of any player on any play in the first half, per Next Gen Stats.

In the second half, Sterns continued to lead the way for the Denver Broncos.

Following a hyper-demoralizing blocked field goal deep in Indianapolis Colts territory, Sterns baited Ryan into yet another interception (which was aided by pressure from Browning), setting the offense up for points.

Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t gain a single yard. Fortunately, McManus made his kick this time around. Sterns deserves almost full credit for those points.

The rest of the Denver Broncos’ pass rush

Baron Browning deserved his own section for his remarkable debut, but the rest of Denver’s pass rush was remarkable too.

The Denver Broncos finished the game with 12 quarterback hits, six sacks and two forced fumbles. They also forced the Colts to take multiple holding penalties, in an effort from the pass-rush barrage being even worse.

Bradley Chubb had his best game of the season so far, tallying 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, but the Jones Brothers — Dre’Mont and D.J. — were marvelous in their own right, combining for 1.5 sacks from the interior.

Dre’Mont Jones is currently on pace for 8.5 sacks (previous career-best of 6.5), D.J. Jones is on pace for 7.0 (previous career-best of 3.0), and Bradley Chubb is on pace for 19.5 (previous career-best of 12.0).

That’s pretty remarkable and still manages to overlook the injured Randy Gregory, who has been Denver’s most-impactful pass-rusher on a per-snap basis, as you can see from all the stats in the Browning section above.

Stock Down for the Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos offense. All of it.

We could literally do a whole ‘stock down’ about different aspects of the offense, but there were other negatives that also had to be addressed.

As a result, we’ll run through each of those items here in a bit of a lightning round.

Russell Wilson

It is so hard to figure out what is wrong with Wilson, but no one imagined it would be bad. Even some continued regression from the dips we saw in 2020 and 2021 should have Wilson as an average quarterback, and from a physical standpoint, he still appears to have a lot of his tools.

Two of the five fastest ball-carrier speeds recorded by Next Gen Stats last night came from Russell Wilson. The others belonged to Courtland Sutton, Montrell Washington, and Caden Sterns. The velocity on his throws and on his deep ball continue to be there.

He’s not an elite, game-changing athlete at quarterback anymore, but it’s not like Wilson is now athletically bankrupt as a result of the aging process.

However, the regression we’re seeing from Wilson mentally is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent NFL history. His decision-making is noticeably worse, he’s missing more than just the receivers over the short-to-intermediate middle-of-the-field from a vision standpoint, and his accuracy — once a superpower of his — has also taken a substantial drop it seems.

He’s missing wide-open receivers all over the field, and that problem has never been this severe before in his career. It’s mystifying, and the root is unclear.

Now, he was never an elite processor, but this is straight-up inept. It’s so puzzling because as recently as the final five games of last season, he was dicing up opponents — while suffering through near-identical physical limitations — and looked to be trending back in the right direction

Now, it’s looking darker than even the darkest moments of Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning’s transitions.

Broncos fans should hope that Nathaniel Hackett is this year’s Urban Meyer, and the true culprit behind the perplexing regression we’re seeing from Wilson. If that proves to not be the case, the Denver Broncos are shipwrecked until 2024 at the earliest (more on that in the final section of “stock down”).

The Weapons

Courtland Sutton is amazing, and he’s re-cemented that fact with his play this season.

However, practically every other weapon on the Denver Broncos roster has been disappointing in one way or another.

Even despite the ACL recovery, the expectations for K.J. Hamler were higher than this. Now, in his defense, he finally got some playing time this week and showed what he could do, but he has to be a major part of the gameplan on a week-to-week basis and that hasn’t been the case.

Albert Okwuegbunam also looked the part of a promising young tight end and had taken strides as a blocker throughout 2021. In 2022, he’s been a miserable blocker and has seemingly been weened out of the offense.

That regression in their roles is troubling and reflects poorly on the staff.

Montrell Washington continues to show glimpses of being a legit weapon on offense, on top of his special teams work, but he’s not at the point where he can be a No. 2 weapon on an offense, or even close to that point.

Melvin Gordon closed the game strong last night, but his lack of reliability this season has been a crushing force for Denver and is responsible for one of the team’s three losses. Without Javonte Williams around, the outlook for the rushing attack is glum.

That leaves Jerry Jeudy, the clear candidate for a weapon that steps up and fills some of the void left by Williams and Tim Patrick.

Jeudy’s talent is obvious, as he consistently looks like the best player on the practice field, and still has burned Patrick Surtain II more times than I’ve seen anyone else have, but it’s hard to imagine him becoming a consistent and reliable weapon that lives up to his first-round status at this point.

When Jeudy’s on, the tandem of him and Sutton is honestly pretty special. When he’s off, which is all too frequent, this offense is “The Courtland Sutton Show” and nothing more.

The Offensive Line

One consistent problem for the Broncos’ offense has been the offensive line, which has swiftly gone down the tubes since a fairly strong debut against the Seattle Seahawks.

Let’s go left to right, shall we?

Garett Bolles was appearing to have regressed back to pre-Mike Munchak form and is now out for the season with a broken leg that will require surgery. Calvin Anderson, who was swiftly relegated to a backup role once the preseason bullets started firing, will now be the starter at left tackle.

Dalton Risner has maybe been the best member of the offensive line, but that says far more about the other four spots than it does about him. During the offseason, left guard seemed like the biggest hole on the line, and the fact that’s changed isn’t the result of Risner’s play.

Lloyd Cushenberry III was talked up all offseason by his teammates that a guy who had taken a massive leap forward. Now, it’s hard to tell what they were seeing, as he simply looks like the same old Cushenberry, and that means Denver needs a long-term upgrade at center.

Quinn Meinerz is the best member of the offensive line but has been sidelined with an injury since Week 1. In his place, Graham Glasgow has filled in and has been beaten routinely in pass protection, while offering zero push in the run.

Billy Turner might be able to offer some sort of boost, but he has yet to practice much at all with the first team, and the practice reps we have seen don’t offer a ton of confidence on that front. Nonetheless, he should still be an upgrade on Cam Fleming, who’s been a turnstile when trying to keep Wilson upright.

Meanwhile, Tom Compton and Netane Muti continue to be M.I.A., and the team needs them back badly.

The Coaching

Look at the issues on offense listed above.

Russell Wilson, despite not showing a ton of physical regression from 2021, is looking by far the worst he ever has, and the regression seems largely mental. The execution is abhorrent. That feels like something that points towards the coaching he’s receiving (though, to be clear, that still doesn’t absolve Wilson of his struggles).

Weapons like K.J. Hamler, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Melvin Gordon have seemingly regressed, and none of the other skill positions have developed into players reliable enough to lean on.

The offensive line has taken a major step back after needlessly firing Mike Munchak for not being able to coach the outside-zone scheme. The funny thing about that is that Munchak then spent all summer working with the Vikings to install an outside-zone scheme, and their offensive line is looking considerably better than the Broncos’.

All of these things point back to Nathaniel Hackett and the offensive coaching staff.

Plus, this staff seems so lost, it’s near-impossible to picture them righting the ship.

It really feels like this is the biggest culprit on an offense full of them.

The hearts, minds and spirits of Broncos Country

If back in July, you were to say that the darkest chapter of the Denver Broncos’ post-Peyton Manning era was going to come this season, in 2022, you would’ve been laughed out of the Rocky Mountain region and labeled a fool.

Now, it’s looking like that’s the very reality we reside in.

The defense-first Broncos teams of the past were painful, but at least fans could get excited about select young players and imagine how they can add to the promise of ‘the next season’ — an ideal hypothetical reality in which the Denver Broncos finally land the right quarterback and hire the right coach.

That doesn’t exist with this team. The outlook is more of the same.

One can only hope that things get better, but that’s getting hard to talk yourself into.

The Denver Broncos look bad, have suffered heart-breaking losses to several beloved players, and might not have a way out. This is a dark age for Broncos Country.

The two big problems are Russell Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett. Do you trust either of those figures to solve the problems currently facing the Broncos?

Neither has shown the ability to solve the type of big problems they’re currently presented with.

Wilson has needed to evolve to some extent for the past three seasons, and he’s shown little evolution or adaption over the course of his career. He was just always an intelligent quarterback that could work around his limitations with a few select jaw-dropping gifts. Now, those gifts are diminishing and the outlook is dire. Do you believe he’ll improve once he’s a year older and a year less mobile?

Hackett needs to solve the problems that have plagued the offense since Week 1, and yet, the unit is seemingly regressing, as play-calling and on-field execution leave much to be desired. Sure, he showed some adaptability by hiring Jerry Rosburg and passing off game management to him, but he’s not going to hire the 37 specialists necessary to weed out every flaw currently plaguing this team, and even if he did, what’s the point of having him as head coach at that point?

Now, Hackett could be fired after this season, but would that even help? All the Russell Wilson-centric concerns and questions would still exist, and you’d be forcing the offense to adapt to another new system, when history suggests offenses in this system take a leap in year two. You’d also be sweeping out defensive Ejiro Evero, a lone bright spot on this team, despite the conservatism that burned Denver at the end of the first half.

To counter those arguments, if Hackett is as incompetent as he seems, this team probably isn’t making a year two leap anyways, and other talented defensive minds can be found. You’re also actively hurting the development of your young players by keeping this over-their-skies staff installed.

As for Wilson, the path out of that mishap is much murkier. If things continue to be so disastrous that Denver decides to move off of Wilson, they could potentially do that as early as next offseason. However, that avenue requires some other team to decide they would want to take on Wilson’s disgusting contract, and if things end up so disastrous that the Broncos want out, it’s hard to imagine too many other franchises wanting to opt in on Wilson.

The more likely path would be a post-June 1st cut, which the Denver Broncos can’t really entertain until after 2023, looking at OverTheCap’s contract data. If they were to move off of Wilson after this season, they would swallow a $39 million dead-cap hit, costing them $17 million in cap space. They would effectively be paying $17 million more to not have Wilson be the quarterback than they would be paying to have him remain the quarterback. That’s nearly impossible to swallow, as Denver is projected to have just over $24 million in available cap space next season, and will have to sign upcoming free agents, a rookie class, and probably would like to spend some money to shore up some problem areas.

It is technically doable, if the Broncos jumped through a lot of hoops, stripped aspects of their roster down to the stubs, and moved toward a fairly serious rebuild, but it’s unlikely they take that path.

2024 is when the door to move-off Wilson opens. The cap hit on Wilson’s contract is still a painful $35 million, but that’s workable, and it wouldn’t cost them any additional cap space. Even after such a hypothetical move, the Broncos are projected to have around $87 million in cap space to work with for 2024, which would leave the team 16th in cap space. That’s not ideal, but it’s also completely manageable to swallow a lean year and move on with a cheaper quarterback, as both the Falcons and Eagles have done following similar blowups.

Plus, the Denver Broncos’ only pressing contracts coming up over the next two years are Dre’Mont Jones, Bradley Chubb (who already has prospective replacements on roster), and maybe Jonas Griffith. Dalton Risner, K.J. Hamler, P.J. Locke, Albert Okwuegbunam and Josey Jewell could also make cases for themselves, but the Broncos can afford to let them walk as they rebuild, if that’s the way this goes.

Right now, it feels like the most likely path for this storm is to head into next offseason with the status quo intact. The team might move off of Hackett, and replace him with a different head coach, who installs a similar offensive scheme in hopes of a year-two leap, but it will more or less be the status quo. At that point, they’ll run it back in 2023 and hope things change.

If they don’t, Denver is probably looking at a new general manager, head coach, and quarterback in 2024.

This time last year, the Broncos were devoid of a quarterback and a head coach, but they at least had a team-builder that many believed could shepherd this team back into the playoffs. Now, despite adding figures at the two positions they lacked, it feels like they might not have any of the foundational pillars you need to field an NFL contender.