Broncos Mailbag: What are the early impressions of Sean Payton’s roster heading into Year 2 in Denver?

Broncos Mailbag: What are the early impressions of Sean Payton’s roster heading into Year 2 in Denver?

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On a scale from 1 to 10, how are you feeling about this Broncos training camp roster so far?

Also, what’s your overall reaction to the Broncos’ 2024 schedule?

— Ed Helinski, Auburn, N.Y.

Hey Ed, great questions, so let’s get to the first one first.

The bottom line is it’s still too early to say, mostly because the pads haven’t come on yet and won’t until training camp. Sean Payton got into this during rookie minicamp and it’s a good reminder this time of year when everybody looks good in helmets and working against air.

“The more specific vision (for a player) evolves with the pads and the reps,” Payton said in answering a question about a strong rookie minicamp showing for seventh-round WR Devaughn Vele. “I was saying this earlier: When you’re a linebacker or a running back or a safety … so many times the pads define who a player becomes.”

In the locker room after that, undrafted RB Blake Watson said flatly, “Pads is football, right?”

At this stage, though, you can start to see the impact of some of the roster changes at least broadly.

If you take quarterback out of the equation, the early impression is that the roster’s not dramatically less talented than it was last year. That’s despite having to replace Justin Simmons and Jerry Jeudy, among others. Those guys, along with Josey Jewell, played a ton last year, and replacing them is not just the snap of a finger. But Denver’s not really trying to do it one-for-one, either. The Broncos like Brandon Jones’ versatility at safety. They like Josh Reynolds’ toughness at receiver. They hope Jonas Griffith can get healthy and that Cody Barton can help in coverage at inside linebacker.

Then you’re looking for places where Denver’s better than it was a year ago, and the defensive line should be the first stop. Now, last week didn’t show the whole picture because neither D.J. Jones nor John Franklin-Myers was in attendance the day that was open to reporters. However, getting Franklin-Myers via trade during the draft is a substantial upgrade.

Denver’s front group at the moment would project as Jones, Franklin-Myers and Zach Allen with Malcolm Roach and Angelo Blackson behind and then holdovers Matt Henningsen, Elijah Garcia and perhaps Enyi Uwazurike (eligible for reinstatement from a gambling suspension later this summer) competing for roster spots.

Between that group, three new WRs are in the mix in Reynolds, Vele and Troy Franklin, some fresh faces at running back and, of course, the remade quarterback room, there’s a lot of new on the field during OTAs for the Broncos.

There’s nothing substantial enough so far to move me off of pretty modest expectations — remember, the Broncos were the healthiest team in the NFL last year, went on a mega turnover bonanza that powered the five-game winning streak and still finished 8-9 — but let’s see how the rest of the summer goes. I’ve said before and will probably continue to say that this group has a higher variance and thus more room to surprise than last year’s because of the youth at quarterback and the possibility that a bigger number of young players get a chance to play more snaps.

Oh, out of 10, you said? Boy, this could have been a lot shorter. I’m not exactly sure what the scale is, but let’s give it a 5.5 for now and revisit down the road.

OK, to the second question on the schedule.

For the Broncos, playing three of the first four on the road and having Weeks 3-4 back-to-back on the East Coast is a tough start. Of course, last year it looked like it set up well for them with Las Vegas and Washington back-to-back at home and they lost both en route to a 1-5 start. So you just play the hand you’re dealt. I do think the practice week out East will be an interesting experiment. Certainly not a novel idea in the NFL overall, but could be an early team-building few days together sequestered away somewhere.

Then, obviously, the back-to-back roadies against Baltimore and Kansas City are a big test. The sneaky one there is playing at Las Vegas on Nov. 24 as the third road game in four weeks. That’s no picnic. Sounds obvious, but the early keys are the Russ Revenge Game Week 2 at home and then back-to-back division home games against the Raiders and Chargers in Weeks 5-6.

Hello from Finland! Parker, who would you like to see get signed (or traded) by the Broncos, that would possibly help us to get to the playoffs? One key player?

— Jude, Lahti, Finland

Jude! What do you have, like 21 hours of daylight this time of year? If the NFL keeps expanding its international slate of games, what do we have to do to get one up near the Arctic Circle?

Interesting question. I’m assuming you’re not going to just let me plop C.J. Stroud into the lineup and roll forward, right?

This is very much not a prediction, but if you were talking about one player who’s actually, maybe, available via trade who could help Denver, maybe WR Tee Higgins from Cincinnati? Denver’s got an interesting group of pass-catchers, but even with Courtland Sutton, the group doesn’t have a true No. 1. Higgins would be that a lot of places, just not on the same roster as Ja’Marr Chase. He also wants to be paid like that, which is why he’s not attending the Bengals’ voluntary offseason work.

If you’re talking about any player (non-QB division), though, Denver might benefit most from a real game-changer at edge rusher, interior defensive line or tight end.

The starting QB spot is Bo Nix’s to lose, right? I can’t imagine the Broncos are going to keep the first-round quarterback on the bench in favor of either Jarrett Stidham or Zach Wilson. What do you think is Nix’s ceiling in his first season?

— Mike, Denver

Payton’s not going to say that just yet, but that’s a pretty fair way to categorize it, Mike. We’ve been through a lot of the reasons why starting Nix right out of the gate makes sense. The caveat, of course, would be if the Broncos coaches just don’t think he’s ready. So far, though, Payton’s done nothing to slow down the notion that Nix is a quick study. In fact, he’s said it over and over already.

Our columnist Troy Renck hit the nail on the head this weekend, too. The Broncos need to make the decision relatively early in training camp. The worst thing they can do for any of these quarterbacks is split the reps evenly deep into training camp. If you really don’t know, then do what you have to do. But if you think you know, it’s a push-all-the-chips-in kind of call.

Even if the answer becomes obvious early in training camp, there’s still the matter of how the rest of the room shakes out. Do they buck the trend and keep all three on the 53-man roster owing to the lack of NFL experience in the group? Or do they make a call between Zach Wilson and Jarrett Stidham in late August?

Why does the national media believe the Broncos will be the worst AFC team, while local media believes Russell Wilson was the main problem and the team will be much improved this year?

— Chris, Lakewood

Hey Chris, is that what the local media thinks? My impression is that most have relatively low expectations. The big caveat is if Nix is an immediate hit, then yeah, they could surprise. But anybody saying confidently that it’s going to happen at this point is just guessing. Local reporters have seen Nix on the field twice, and neither time was in pads.

This gets to part of Mike’s question above, but Nix’s college experience, his arrival to a place with a pretty good offensive line and the notion that he’s a tight fit for what Payton wants all suggests it’s possible that he plays pretty well early on. But there’s a big gap between that and what Stroud did last year or what Brock Purdy did in 2022 when he got thrown into San Francisco’s lineup.

It’s quite possible that Wilson was a blessing and a curse, so to speak, in 2023. He didn’t elevate an otherwise middling offense — and he even dragged it down at times by playing so often out of structure — but he could also still pull a rabbit out of the hat.

What should be the Broncos’ expectations over the next few years? Do they tank in 2024? Are they eying the playoffs in the next couple of years?

— Jackson, Denver

Similar theme here, Jackson. Payton and company have made it clear they have no intention of tanking. Of course, that’s what a tanker would say, too. Kidding, kidding.

They’re trying to walk a tightrope. The goal is to be competitive. But they also very clearly are shedding a ton of dead cap — $67 million and counting for 2024 — in an effort to be more flexible for 2025 and beyond.

They’re in a somewhat similar overall situation to the Los Angeles Rams and a handful of others a year ago. They’re going to have to count on some young guys. Easy to say from the outside, but the best route to contending in 2025 is to let the kids play and learn and make mistakes and figure it out. If it comes together, maybe you make a push this year. If not, you’ve gained valuable lessons heading into a 2025 season with a cleaner (albeit still imperfect) salary cap picture and no reason not to expect to be in contention.

That’s obviously not the ideal situation to be in for an NFL team, but the path forward for Denver shouldn’t be a real long one if they play their cards right. And, of course, if they got the quarterback right.

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