ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Just a day into training camp, it’s already so obvious the Broncos are absorbing every ounce of energy that new head coach Nathaniel Hackett is giving off.
And it’s a lot.
The Broncos felt an understandable excitement Wednesday at the UCHealth Training Center, shaking off the post-minicamp vacation and gearing up for their most anticipated season since the Peyton Manning era.
And while quarterback Russell Wilson is the marquee man at the center of that buildup, Hackett’s energy has been infectious, too.
“We’ve been aligned since we got him here,” general manager George Paton told The Athletic. (Hackett) was part of the Russ (acquisition) plan. He was part of the offseason plan. He brings it every day. He has a great connection with this team, with this organization. He and I have great synergy (along with the) scouts and coaches. We talk every day. We meet every day.
“When you’re down, he brings you up. He’s got a lot of energy and it’s great, but it’s genuine. He’s very intelligent. He’s been outstanding.”
First day of #BroncosCamp in the 📚’s.
📸’s » https://t.co/YW796L2EXH pic.twitter.com/D3cG8znlmo
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) July 27, 2022
Safety Justin Simmons, a locker-room leader who arrived in 2016 after Manning’s retirement, is playing for his third head coach. And while he wasn’t comparing Hackett to Gary Kubiak, Vance Joseph or Vic Fangio, Simmons was high on Hackett’s natural aura.
“There’s that energy and excitement, a first-time head coach, a great opportunity here in Denver, a big-time quarterback, the love for the game that (Hackett) has, the excitement, the ability to connect with multiple guys in different aspects of life,” Simmons told The Athletic. “I think it’s really unique. It’s not just coach Hackett, but the rest of his staff is an extension of what he does with the energy level, the genuineness in terms of asking how your family is doing. We all have a job. Our job is to win football games. When you’re invested a little bit more into that, it helps with the overall production of winning games.
“It’s different, not in a negative context (relative to) previous coaches or coach Vic. I think a lot of guys just naturally cling to that. The energy level is different, and it’s an overall different feel. You can tell that him being him is genuinely what a lot of guys appreciate, and it’s really cool.”
Hackett, 42, has been an offensive coordinator with the Bills, Jaguars and Packers. His expertise on that side of the ball, particularly over the last three seasons with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, was a major draw in Paton’s search.
The Broncos haven’t reached the playoffs or ranked in the top 20 in points scored since their Super Bowl championship season in 2015, and they’ve had five consecutive losing seasons. Rodgers publicly vouched for Hackett as a head coach candidate, and Wilson is already fully onboard with their synergy as they’ve worked together on the offense.
“We’re a master class in it. We earned our doctorate in it,” Wilson told The Athletic. “We are so locked in. I’m excited.”
Just listen to Hackett’s explanation for why that’s happened so quickly with Wilson, and it’s easy to understand why his message has resonated so well with his players.
“It’s so much about relationships,” Hackett told The Athletic. “It’s about the quarterback trusting me and me trusting the quarterback.” I think that’s something that I’ve always been pretty good at, being able to create the relationship and be able to adjust everything to them. Always catering and making sure that we’re doing what’s right for him, so he believes in it. It’s about him on that field having that can’t-stop-me mentality. I always want to create that for him so he sees that, feels that and trusts that.”
Here’s more from my day with the Broncos…
Broncos excited to judge Jeudy
Perhaps no player will benefit more from Wilson’s arrival than wide receiver Jerry Jeudy.
The No. 15 pick of the 2020 draft has yet to break out despite massive expectations. The Alabama product was the second receiver off the board and taken before CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman and Chase Claypool, all of whom have more receptions, yards and touchdowns through two seasons.
They’ve also all benefited from better quarterback situations and overall offensive production. And to be fair, Jeudy also dealt with drops in 2020 and a high ankle sprain in the 2021 regular-season opener.
If Jeudy can stay healthy — a refrain that applies to almost every player in the league at this time of year — the Broncos are ready for him to validate the Alabama hype and the draft selection that followed.
“He’s exceptional,” Wilson said. “He’s going to be a stellar star. He’s got so much opportunity, and it’s going to come to life for him.”
Hackett added, “Russell Wilson is going to take it (to another level). You’ve got me who is going to try to get him there. … It’s just about him being able to focus in, buy in, enjoy himself and play some ball.”
Paton shared the sentiment.
“He’s really, really, really talented,” the general manager said. “He’s worked really, really hard. He got hurt last year in his first game against the Giants. He had a hell of an offseason last year. Jerry is really talented. He wants to be great. I think he’s going to have a really good season.
“He’s hungry. I think Russ has been really good for him, so I’m excited for Jerry.”
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) July 27, 2022
Jeudy had six catches for 72 yards in last season’s opener but missed six games with the ankle injury and only had 32 receptions for 395 yards the rest of the way. He didn’t score a touchdown.
Jeudy wouldn’t use the injury as an excuse for his stat line during the second half of the season, but he clearly wasn’t himself.
The hunger that Paton described was evident this week when Jeudy spent an hour in the quarterback room trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could from Wilson. So he’s doing the right things to lay the foundation for the season.
“He’s one of the best route runners that I’ve consistently gone up against in my seven years,” Simmons said. “He’s obviously poised to have a breakout season. Anytime you add a big-time Hall of Fame quarterback to your team and you’re an elite receiver like Jerry with an elite (receiver) corps that we have, you’re poised to have a great season. I think it’s going to be no surprise when you see him every week having a big-time play, a big-time catch and putting up big-time yards. I think that’s going to be the norm once we get into the heat of the season.”
Fangio only lasted three seasons with the Broncos but it wasn’t due to his defense, as the Broncos allowed the third-fewest points in the league in 2021.
So how will this talented group fair without him?
Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evo actually runs a similar cover-4 scheme and overlapped with Fangio in San Francisco from 2011-14.
“There are nuances that EJ brings,” Paton said. “He’s worked with Vic. He’s worked with Dom Capers (with the Packers in 2016). He’s worked with some great defensive coordinators. I’m excited. Obviously, Vic was a great coach. For him to work with a guy like Vic, Vic is one of the best defensive minds in football of the last 10 years.”
If the defensive energy was any indication Wednesday, the Broncos are as dialed in as they had been last season. They’re also still stacked with talent with linemen Dre’Mont Jones and DJ Jones, edge rushers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory, cornerback Pat Surtain and safety Kareem Jackson along with Simmons.
“That standard doesn’t change,” Simmons said. “We know we’re the best defense on the field at all times. It’s our job to wreak havoc on the offense, to help our offense have good field position and score points. Defensively, knowing we have (that Wilson-led offense) is great, but the goal is the same. We’re going to be top five. We want to be the No. 1 defense in multiple categories, so the standard doesn’t change.”
Broncos in a rush
Similar to Jeudy, Chubb is aiming to reestablish his own hype machine.
The fifth pick of the 2018 draft had 12 sacks in a dominant rookie season, but he only has 8.5 sacks in 25 games since. He never got to the quarterback in 2021, when he missed 10 games.
Chubb tore his ACL in the fourth game in 2019, had 7.5 sacks in 14 games in 2020 and had two foot surgeries last year. It’s the first time in four years that he’s had a healthy offseason.
“Chubb looks very good,” Paton said. “It’s the healthiest that he’s been. It’s the first offseason in a few that he hasn’t had a surgery. He’s 100 percent. This is how I remember Chubb when I scouted him. His first year, he had 12 sacks and he was hard to block. Let’s hope, knock on wood, he stays healthy. He’s poised for a big year.”
Hackett added, “Chubb is getting after it. He’s out there and rolling. Going against him in 2019, he looks like the same guy who we had to deal with.”
Meanwhile, Gregory is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. The Broncos hope that he’ll be ready for Week 1, but it’s too early to make any proclamations.
“He’s right there,” Paton said. “He just needs to get stronger, get conditioned. He had the shoulder (surgery), and he’s doing a great job of rehab. I’m really looking forward to getting him going.”
Gregory had 15.5 sacks in his last three seasons with the Cowboys.
“I love his work ethic,” Hackett said. “I love his attitude. I love the kind of guy he is, his attitude, his big-ass smile. He’s going to keep grinding to get back.”
There’s been a common refrain that the Broncos were “just a quarterback away” from contending.
There’s absolutely no disputing the argument that the Broncos needed to improve the position, but Paton pointed out the team had more issues than that last season. The offensive line needed work, and the defense was inconsistent against the run, to name a couple.
It’s why they made a coaching change and acquired Wilson, DJ Jones and Gregory, among others.
“I don’t think last year we were a quarterback away,” Paton said. “There were a lot of other places we needed to improve. It wasn’t just on the quarterback. I guess some teams are a quarterback away. There are a couple teams that won it, but they also added other good players. To say you’re just a quarterback away, I don’t know if I believe in that. We needed to really improve our football team as a whole, and obviously, quarterback was huge. Quarterback is the No. 1 position in sports, I believe. It does no good to get a quarterback if you don’t really have that foundation. Last year, we were flawed. We were hurt. Things didn’t quite go our way, but it wasn’t just on the quarterback. We needed better play out of the receivers, the O-line, a lot of positions. We needed to stop the run better. I can’t just blame it on the quarterback.”
(Top photo of Nathaniel Hackett hugging receiver Trey Quinn at camp Wednesday: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)