NFL offseason power rankings: No. 30 Denver Broncos are a mess Sean Payton signed up for

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Nobody is going to feel bad for Sean Payton.

Payton could have stayed in NFL coaching hibernation, but the Denver Broncos were in the middle of a messy head coaching search and paid big to land Payton. They traded a first- and second-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Payton and a third-round pick, then gave the coach a deal that was reportedly $18 million a season. At the time Payton was reported to be the second-highest paid coach in American sports.

And when the Broncos hired Payton, everyone had to understand the most realistic outcome for the summer of 2024 was the exact one Denver finds itself in.

Payton didn’t fix Russell Wilson. Nor did he seem too intent on trying, based on the Broncos asking Wilson last October to change an injury guarantee in his contract or be benched the rest of the season. That was unprofessional from the Broncos, and no matter how much Payton insisted he knew nothing about that ultimatum, nobody with common sense should believe it. Payton didn’t even last two months into one regular season with Wilson (which, statistically, wasn’t all that bad for Wilson), which indicates he was never all that into making it work.

That led the Broncos right into an absurd decision, eating an $85 million dead cap hit to cut Wilson. It’ll be $53 million this year and $32 million next year, according to Spotrac. The total hit more than doubled the record for largest dead cap hit in NFL history, which was Matt Ryan and $40.53 million.

The Broncos’ roster was already thin due to draft picks surrendered in trades for Wilson and Payton. They had little cap flexibility and didn’t add much in free agency, which had to annoy the notoriously impulsive Payton. Typically, rebuilds in the NFL can be accomplished in a couple years, if you hit enough home runs. When you hear that a team set itself back a decade with a certain decision, that’s false. But in the Broncos’ case, the fallout from the Wilson debacle will probably linger far beyond this season.

Payton had millions of reasons to leave television and get back on the sideline, but it’s fair to wonder how he feels now being stuck in what looks like the NFL’s worst long-term situation.

Broncos fans have paid a heck of a price for that Super Bowl 50 title at the end of the 2015 season, when they somehow won despite an ineffective Peyton Manning being dragged to the finish line of a great career. The Broncos haven’t been back to the playoffs since. They haven’t had a decent quarterback since. This year, $53 million of their cap is being used on a player who will be playing for the Steelers, was the focal point of what might be the worst trade in NFL history and got cut before a $140 million extension officially kicked in.

Bo Nix is the new hope at quarterback, drafted with the 12th overall pick. Broncos fans will pray he’s better than Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien, Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater, Jarrett Stidham and Wilson, the quarterbacks who have started for Denver since Manning retired (running back Phillip Lindsay also got one official start at quarterback from the Wildcat formation, in the infamous Kendall Hinton game). Draft experts are skeptical of Nix, who was overdrafted as the sixth quarterback off the board, but the Broncos and Payton say he was their target all along. Denver tried to throw everyone off before the draft, but everyone could make the connection between Payton and Nix.

“Once we knew this was our target, every time [NFL Network analyst] Chase Daniel or [ESPN analyst] Dan Orlovsky got on like, ‘This is perfect!’ I would be like, ‘Shh! Can you be quiet?'” Payton said. “We did our best to talk about other players and directions. It’s difficult sometimes. You don’t want everyone to know that this is the player. But I saw what you guys saw. I would cringe and [general manager] George [Paton] would cringe. We’re like, ‘Ah!’”

It worked out how the Broncos insist they wanted it to work out. Nix isn’t guaranteed to start Week 1, but he’ll start soon. The problem is there isn’t much around him. Patrick Surtain II is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, the offensive line isn’t terrible, receiver Courtland Sutton scored 10 touchdowns last season and … well, that’s about it. It’s not a team that is equipped to win soon, even if the QB6 in this draft class is a hit right away. That’s what happens when you pay a heavy price for Wilson and Payton in trades. The Broncos somehow went 8-9 last season because Payton is still an excellent coach but it’s going to be a challenge this season, next season and maybe 2026 as well.

None of this should have been a surprise. When Payton came aboard, everyone knew that a total teardown as the team suffered through the consequences of cutting Wilson was likely. One of these days, there will be something for Broncos fans to cheer about other than dusty memories of Manning and that 2015 team.

There isn’t much you can do when 20.75% of your salary cap is being used on Russell Wilson and he doesn’t play for your team anymore. The Broncos lost center Lloyd Cushenberry to the Titans and had to cut fan favorite safety Justin Simmons. Linebacker Josey Jewell also left in free agency. Receiver Jerry Jeudy was traded to Cleveland but that probably had less to do with the cap and more with Jeudy wearing out his welcome. The Broncos added safety Brandon Jones and receiver Josh Reynolds in free agency, which was fine given then cap restrictions. They also traded for defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers and quarterback Zach Wilson, the latter of which got a lot of attention but was just a low-cost flier on a player who was recently the second overall pick of the draft. The draft was widely panned because nobody seemed to like taking Bo Nix at No. 12 overall. Yahoo Sports’ Charles McDonald gave the Broncos’ draft a D, and called picking Nix a “head-scratcher,” saying: “Nix wasn’t a prospect who was highly in demand and his ceiling appears limited in the NFL. Nix should win the starting job over Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson, but Nix will need to develop a level of playmaking that wasn’t really there on his college tape.”

Grade: D-

Every team says the player they just drafted was their target all along. Who knows if the Broncos are being sincere about Bo Nix being their desired pick, but they did a great job of selling it.

“He stood out in a lot of areas,” Broncos head coach Sean Payton said after the team picked Nix. “You pay close attention to all the film study. Obviously, he’s played a lot of football, but [he stood out in] sack differential, turnover differential, accuracy, third-down passing. [He was] first, first, first, first in this class. First in end of half, first in end of game, two-minute situations, second in red zone.

“The process was long and thorough, and man we’re excited. We’re excited.”

There were other areas in which Payton gushed about Nix, such as his intelligence picking up an offense, efficiency and accuracy. The Broncos could still go with Jarrett Stidham or maybe Zach Wilson to start the season to avoid pushing Nix into the lineup on a bad team, but Nix started 61 college games, which was an NCAA record. With that experience, he’s not the type of prospect who should be sitting too long. Whenever Nix starts, the Broncos believe he’ll be a great fit with Payton. This move that was questioned by so many could work out fine.

The Broncos’ win total at BetMGM is 5.5. Only the Patriots and Panthers have lower totals. It’s not like other future markets are more optimistic: Denver is 100-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, 50-to-1 to win the AFC, 16-to-1 to win the AFC West and 5-to-1 to make the playoffs. It’ll be a long season.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “A shrewd fantasy player often looks at a nebulous backfield and sees potential for profit. After all, the crowding issue generally keeps the draft cost down, and if one player gets a favorable runout, fantasy profit can result. But it’s possible the 2024 Denver backfield is one collective dead end.

“The Broncos struggled to run for touchdowns last year, scoring just eight on the ground. That was opposed by 28 passing touchdowns, despite the limitations of since-departed Russell Wilson. The fresh Denver roster has four backs in completion for touches, and it’s possible no one will see significant volume.

Javonte Williams had a major knee injury two years ago and never got in gear last year, stuck at 3.6 yards per carry. Sophomore Jaleel McLaughlin is more explosive, but probably has a capped workload upside given his 5-foot-7, 187-pound frame. Rookie Audric Esteme could see some of the inside work, but you don’t project a plodding fifth-round rookie [4.71 40-time at the combine] to take the league by storm. And if Samaje Perine makes the team, he’ll likely be the trusted man in hurry-up packages, in part because of his pass-blocking skills. There isn’t a proactive pick in this motley crew.”

All of the attention to last season’s Broncos went to Russell Wilson, their never-ending quarterback dilemma and the offense. But the defense was the big problem last season.

The Broncos finished 19th in offensive DVOA and 30th in defensive DVOA. Denver was especially bad against the pass, allowing a 98 passer rating that was third-worst in the NFL and 5 yards per carry, which was 0.3 more than any other team. The Broncos were historically awful early — they were the first team to allow 70 points and 700 yards in the same game in NFL history, and everyone was wondering if coordinator Vance Joseph would be fired — and much better in the second half of the season. That provides hope for 2024. There wasn’t much talent added to Denver’s defense this offseason, so the late improvement better carry over.

Hiring Kyle Shanahan in 2017 seemed too obvious for the Broncos, given the Shanahans’ history with the franchise. Drafting Josh Allen in 2018 seemed obvious, too. He played college ball right up Interstate 25 at Wyoming and seemed like he’d be a John Elway favorite.

The Broncos were that close to having a coach and quarterback each considered to be one of the best in the NFL. In 2017, the Broncos passed on Shanahan for Vance Joseph. There were still some hard feelings over how the Mike Shanahan era ended and trepidation that Mike Shanahan would be part of Kyle’s plan if he came to Denver. There was reportedly concern, via The Athletic’s Nicki Jhabvala, that hiring Kyle Shanahan would require a full rebuild based on the roster while Joseph could boost the roster on hand.

“I never thought it was going to happen,” Kyle Shanahan said in 2020, via Jhabvala’s story. “I knew there was a small chance, but I never was surprised that it didn’t.”

The Allen mistake was more egregious. He had plenty of physical traits similar to Elway, the general manager at the time. The Broncos had a need at quarterback. And they drafted pass rusher Bradley Chubb at No. 5, which allowed the Bills to take Allen two picks later. The Broncos are still searching for a quarterback while Allen is in the MVP discussion each season. Former Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. hasn’t gotten over the decision.

The Allen decision has never been explained in depth by Elway. Plenty of teams were wary of Allen due to his accuracy issues and a lack of impressive production against Mountain West competition. Regardless, it was a mistake.

The Broncos were (are?) a bit of a disorganized mess after the Super Bowl 50 win and perhaps Shanahan wouldn’t have flourished in that environment. The Broncos’ infrastructure back then might have kept Allen from being successful. Broncos fans will keep telling themselves that to ease the pain, anyway.

We remember the 2023 Broncos as a terrible team, but they weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until Week 17 of the season. They had a five-game winning streak with victories over the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, Vikings and Browns. Four of those teams made the playoffs last season. Sean Payton will get the most out of this Broncos’ roster, too. It’s hard to believe the Broncos could be in playoff contention after Christmas, but it happened last season. Realistically, the Broncos would be pleased if Bo Nix and perhaps some other young players have productive seasons — receiver Marvin Mims Jr., who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie returner last season but was oddly limited on offense, stands out — and give the team a foundation to build on. Anything else would be a surprise.

If an average coach was leading this Broncos team, it might finish as the worst in the NFL. And that is possible even with Sean Payton. Any team that has a bad supporting cast and a quarterback room of Bo Nix, Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson has a very low floor. Broncos fans have suffered for a long time and would understand that a rock bottom season and the first pick of the 2025 NFL Draft wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in terms of a rebuild. But it’s not fun to experience a season like that. Especially if Nix looks a lot more like the sixth first-round quarterback drafted in the class rather than the player the Broncos are gushing about.

It’s hard to predict any team coached by Sean Payton to win two or three games in a season. He’s just too good for that to happen. But this Broncos roster is bare. They gave away five first- and second-round picks in the Russell Wilson and Payton trades. Those picks should be the foundation of this Broncos roster. Payton should keep the Broncos out of the first pick of the 2025 NFL Draft (maybe that’s not the best news) but it’s also hard to project some magical five-game winning streak like last season. It’s a bad team that will have to get some idea what it has in Bo Nix because it could be in position to perhaps draft yet another quarterback very early in next year’s draft.

32. Carolina Panthers

31. New England Patriots

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