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The Sean Payton-Russell Wilson marriage will be one of the NFL’s best storylines this season

As training camps get underway, I’ll be doing some features on individual teams throughout the league. Here’s a look at the Denver Broncos.

When Russell Wilson was acquired by the Denver Broncos last year after spending ten stellar seasons in Seattle, expectations were high that the veteran quarterback would rejuvenate an offense that had bogged down in route to a 7-10 campaign in 2021. Denver finished 23rd in the league in points per game, and their quarterback duo of Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock were sacked 40 times. The Broncos wanted to get more mobile and explosive at the position and wanted a proven winner to lead the offense as Peyton Manning and John Elway had done previously.

Enter Wilson, for whom they surrendered a king’s ransom to acquire. The trade cost the Broncos three players, including Lock and promising tight end Noah Fant, and their first and second round picks in the 2022 and 2023 drafts. It was a massive take for the Seahawks, but one Denver was willing to part with because expectations for Wilson were so high.

One year later, perspectives seem different. Denver regressed last season, slipping to 5-12. The offense finished dead last in the NFL in scoring, and Wilson was miserable. He threw less touchdown passes and for less yards than his predecessors, had a lower completion percentage and a lower QBR, tossed more interceptions, and was sacked far more. 55 times, in fact, which tied him with Justin Fields in Chicago for the most in the league. The culprits were an offensive line that restricted rushers like a sieve and Wilson’s penchant for leaving the pocket, which compromised the protection scheme. The situation got so bad between Wilson and his linemen that tempers flared during a 51-14 loss on national television in Los Angeles. After a series where the Rams repeatedly sent Wilson to the turf and no one offered to help him up, left guard Dalton Risner got into it with backup quarterback Brett Rypien on the sideline. Reports surfaced suggesting Wilson’s dive-like behavior turned off many of his teammates, while seemingly simple issues, like clock management, got so bad that Broncos fans began chanting down the play clock as it neared zero to cue Wilson it was about to expire. Not an ideal return for $250 million in salary and four premium draft picks.

Head coach Nathaniel Hackett was fired soon after the season ended, and the Broncos eventually struck a deal for long-time Saints coach Sean Payton. Payton brings his own winning pedigree to Denver — a  career coaching record of 152-89, with nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title in 2009. He also brings a reputation as a no-nonsense, do-it-my-way taskmaster in the mold of his mentor, Bill Parcells. Payton made an immediate impact by declaring the Broncos were “awful” in 2022 and their film was “hard to watch.” He doubled down on that criticism this week, saying the job Hackett and his staff did last season was “the worst coaching job in NFL history.” Needless to say, changes under Payton were inevitable.

The first, and perhaps most noteworthy, change he made was to inform Wilson he would no longer be allowed to retain his personal quarterback coach, Jake Heaps. Heaps was with Wilson in Denver last season and was permitted inside the Broncos facility. Payton declared that with Davis Webb on staff as the quarterbacks coach, and with Joe Lombardi in place as offensive coordinator, there was no need for Heaps. In fact, in an effort to unify both message and focus, Payton banned all players from retaining personal coaches.

Wilson took the news professionally, and reports out of Denver suggest he and Payton are getting along well. Meanwhile, Broncos players have already noticed the difference Payton has made from both a coaching and culture standpoint. Receiver Jerry Jeudy lauded Payton’s attention to details, while several outlets have reported that Payton’s old-school style has been received well by Denver’s veterans, who believed Hackett was too unstructured. July is the month for optimism in the NFL, and the Broncos appear to have plenty of it.

The rubber will soon meet the road, of course, and that’s where the Payton-Wilson marriage will be put to the test. I’d be a liar if I said I have any idea what Russell Wilson is like in an NFL locker room — whether he’s a diva, a great leader or anything in between. Opinions seem to differ based upon whose perspective is being offered. Wilson is a proud player, and it stands to reason he’s eager to erase the narrative that, at 34 years old, his 2022 campaign is indicative of who he is at this point in his career. To do so, he and Payton will have to fit well together.

Payton had great success in New Orleans with Drew Brees, of course. Like Brees, Wilson is smaller in stature and a fierce competitor. Both are traditionally accurate passers, too. But, stylistically, Wilson and Brees are quite different. Wilson has made much of his living “off schedule,” meaning by extending plays and improvising. Brees, meanwhile, rarely left the pocket and thrived on timing. Wilson, in that sense, has been more of an artist while Brees was a surgeon. Also, Wilson ranks in the Top 10 in the NFL in pass length since entering the NFL, while Brees ranked 27th in that department in the 15 seasons he and Payton were together. Wilson likes to push the ball down the field far more than Brees did.

It stands to reason Payton will adapt his passing game to fit Wilson’s strengths, rather than trying to recreate him as Brees. Wilson, for his part, is likely to bend his game as well. If the two can meet in the middle somewhere, it stands to reason the offense will improve. Unless, of course, Wilson is truly in decline, the way Ben Roethlisberger was his final two seasons in Pittsburgh or Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Indianapolis. There isn’t a cure for that, and if that is in fact the case, the situation could get complicated given how much Denver has invested in Wilson and the pressure on Payton to win.

My suspicion is the Broncos will improve significantly. They spent a lot of money this off-season upgrading the offensive line, and Wilson is likely to thrive with a veteran head coach like Payton as opposed to a rookie like Hackett. Running back Samaje Perine will form a nice one-two punch with Javonte Williams, and the receiving corps is solid. The defense should be solid as well, and with a manageable schedule, it’s not unrealistic to expect Denver to win eight or nine games. Whether that gets them to the playoffs in a highly competitive AFC is debatable, but the team should be noticeably better than their 2022 counterpart.

Provided Payton and Wilson can co-exist. Which will be one of the more interesting storylines of the season to follow.

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