One thing’s for sure, this year’s Denver Broncos coaching search has been more exciting than last year’s.

In 2022, the names associated with the Broncos head coaching vacancy included Dan Quinn, Doug Peterson, Brian Callahan, Eric Bienemy, Aaron Glenn, Kevin O’Connell, Jonathan Gannon, Kellen Moore and of course, Nathaniel Hackett.

This year, Dan Quinn is only the third-most well-known coach on the list: Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton were the real big names who have excited the Broncos fanbase since they were both reported as possibilities.

(Check out our Denver Broncos 2023 head coach tracker for all the names.)

Harbaugh was the first one up, and after a few conversations, there was never a real contract negotiation between the Broncos ownership group and the coach, per Mike Klis.

And while the Michigan Wolverines head coach may have been No. 1 on some people’s list, Sean Payton was the more attractive one in terms of NFL success and longevity.

Harbaugh coached in the NFL for four years (2011-2014), taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl once, a loss, with a strong record (44-19-1).

But Payton coached the New Orleans Saints from 2006-2011 and 2013-2021. In those 15 years, Payton’s Saints went 152-89, a stellar 63.1 winning percentage, and won a Super Bowl. The Saints were also a top-10 offense in 11 of those years, and top-5 in scoring 9 times.

There’s hope that Payton could work with Russell Wilson and “fix” the quarterback which the Broncos have on contract through 2028. Wilson struggled through his worst year as a professional, but did finish the season strong.

Per Colin Cowherd, Wilson reached out to Sean Payton and wants the offensive guru as his next head coach.

Rewind to the beginning of the week, when the Broncos interviewed Payton in Los Angeles, and there have been little leaks coming out every day tying Payton and Denver together.

As they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Sean Payton interview with Denver

According to reports by Klis and others, the Broncos ownership and leadership group — Greg Penner, Condoleezza Rice and GM George Paton — interviewed with Payton for more than two hours on Tuesday. Following the interview, the Broncos had interest in Payton and the feeling was mutual.

Even before the interview — which Denver had to wait until Jan. 17 to conduct — the Broncos began negotiations for Payton’s contract with the Saints.

Sean Payton must be traded for

Payton may be the best coaching candidate in terms of his Xs and Os, but he’s a complicated story, too.

Payton is still under contract with the New Orleans Saints after leaving them following the 2021 season.

Not only that, he is expected to be looking for $20-25 million per year over a four-year deal per multiple reports. And according to Jeff Duncan of nola.com, “accomplished poker player” and Saints GM Mickey Loomis is going to get the most out of Payton as he can. With the coach looking for close to a starting QB money, Loomis wants not one but two first-round picks in exchange for Payton, similar to the Jon Gruden deal in 2002 which Tampa Bay traded to the Oakland Raiders.

Are the Broncos really willing to trade multiple first-round picks? That seems too high a price to pay, even for Payton.

And the coach himself said on Colin Cowherd’s show he thinks it would take a “mid-to-late first-round pick” to get a deal done.

It will be interesting to see how much the Broncos are willing to trade and pay for him, if they choose Sean Payton as the next coach.

Where does George Paton factor in?

Paton, the Broncos general manager, was the one who hired Hackett last year. He’s also the one who traded multiple first-round picks for Wilson, who struggled mightily in 2022.

But, don’t forget Paton traded Bradley Chubb to the Miami Dolphins mid-season, picking up the first-round pick they’ll likely use to trade for Sean Payton. At least, it gives them the ammunition to be in the race.

And while some fans are upset for the Hackett hire and the Wilson trade, Paton’s tenure has seen some highlights, too, like drafting arguably the best 2021 NFL Draft class. He’s also signed some solid free agents (re-signed Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, signed Alex Singleton, DJ Jones) and signed some that haven’t worked out (Randy Gregory).

It’s a mixed bag, as with most GMs.

In terms of the coaching search, Paton will not be making the call this year, as he did with Hackett last year. Greg Penner made that clear, and Paton will not even be in the second round of interviews for Payton or other candidates.

“I think it’s interesting George Paton won’t be a part of those second interviews,” James Palmer said on the Manely Broncos Podcast. “Is that because the owners want to get exactly what the coaches want? We do know coach is going to report to ownership, not the general manager.

“My point in this is Sean’s going to want some power. And those conversations are going to happen in Round 2 probably when George Paton isn’t in the room,” Palmer continued. “Doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to work with him, by any means.”

Palmer explained that Payton’s desire to come to Denver has increased. The fact that Wilson improved to end the year means he’s less of a project than he was mid-season. And if Payton can get more power in the roster-building area, that also may help lure him to the Mile High City.

Sean Payton interview with Carolina Panthers postponed

Payton doesn’t just have the Broncos chasing him, though, there are multiple teams going after him.

He interviewed with the Houston Texans on Monday before meeting with Broncos ownership on Tuesday. Today, he was supposed to meet with the Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper. But that was postponed:

Another wrinkle in the Panthers situation is Nicole Tepper violated league rules:

Some said the Panthers were the best destination before the Sean Payton sweepstakes really got underway. They play in a winnable division and have some solid pieces on the roster. Houston has “a ton of ammo” Payton said on Cowherd’s show in terms of picks they could trade for him to the Saints. But Payton made it clear strong ownership is key to him, and the Broncos have the richest ownership in the league.

One more detail to the Payton situation: He has a television deal with Fox Sports paying him $10 million per year. So, if he decides to wait it out a year, he could fall back on the TV job.

If it’s not Sean Payton, who will Denver hire?

Dan Quinn is the next man up in terms of head coach if Payton doesn’t work out. He has head coaching experience and led the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016.

Quinn is interviewing with the Broncos today and did last year as well. The Dallas defensive coordinator just put his unit on display during the Wild Card Weekend as the Cowboys defense completely embarrassed Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

DeMeco Ryans — San Francisco’s DC — interviewed with Denver on Thursday, and Raheem Morris — Rams DC — interviewed on Tuesday. Former head coach Jim Caldwell interviewed last week, as did former Stanford head coach David Shaw. Also, Denver DC Ejiro Evero interviewed with the team for the open position last Monday, 1/9.