After meandering the desert of quarterback purgatory for half a decade, the Denver Broncos got aggressive this offseason and acquired a franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson. Just how good can this Broncos offense be with the addition of Wilson behind center?
A lot of that will be determined by the quality of the scheme and coaching under first-time head coach Nathaniel Hackett and whether Wilson can return to his tier-one status at quarterback in 2022. Even if Hackett proves to be an offensive play-calling wizard and Wilson silences those who question whether he can still be a top-five QB, don’t be surprised if the Broncos’ offense starts off rather slowly in 2022 as all the new pieces try to fit together.
Broncos Country shouldn’t panic if the offense looks somewhat disjointed early in 2022. The passing game is highly coordinated and takes time and repetition to master.
If the Broncos’ offense is to come out this season looking formidable and potent, it likely will mean that not only Wilson and Hackett are gelling quickly but that the offensive line is winning its matchups up front each week.
Even with Tim Patrick’s unfortunate ACL tear this week ending his season, the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball remains the lineup and quality of the Broncos’ O-line. With left tackle Garett Bolles likely the only for-sure starter on the unit, the Broncos are marred by uncertainty across the starting five.
As it currently stands, it seems like Dalton Risner will start at left guard, Lloyd Cushenberry III at center, Quinn Meinerz at right guard, and Calvin Anderson at right tackle, but the unit is far from settled. Will Netane Muti take a starting spot from Risner or Meinerz?
What happens with the currently injured Billy Turner and Tom Compton? The Broncos' O-line seems to have more questions than answers right now.
Given how uncertain things appear to be on paper, it was rather shocking to see that ESPN’s sports analytics writer Seth Walder slotted the Broncos’ O-line as the fourth-best unit in the NFL according to the site’s analytics. With a predicted pass-blocking rank at No. 5 and a predicted run-blocking rank at No. 6, the Broncos seem to have a balanced unit, according to Walder.
Turner signed only a one-year, $2.5 million dollar deal this offseason despite PBWRs of 92% (11th overall at tackle) in 2021 and 94% (third) in 2020. Bolles was better in pass protection two years ago, so the model's best guess is a bit of an improvement off his 89% PBWR last season that ranked just 31st.
If the Broncos’ O-line comes in this season as the fourth-best unit in the entire NFL, expectations for the offense should be as a top-five unit, with Wilson likely making a strong case for the MVP. Given that the Broncos faced the highest rate of stacked boxes last season, opposing defenses will have to choose between playing two-deep safety coverage to try to mitigate the deep explosive pass plays from Wilson, leaving the box light for the Broncos’ running game to decimate.
When defenses counter by putting more defenders in the box, then the deep passing plays open back up. Given that Wilson was the worst quarterback in the entire NFL against Cover 4 last season, a strong O-line that is capable of opening up holes for Denver’s strong running back room can give the Broncos a headstart in 2022 and not put too much pressure on the passing game to carry the entire offensive load.
But the fourth-best offensive line in the NFL? Even the most optimistic fan should be taken aback by that ranking.
The Broncos’ O-line should have a high floor this season (outside of the number of unknowns at right tackle) with the volume of solid options the unit has entering this season, but on the surface, it seems like a unit closer to league average than top-five.
Also not being captured by the analytics is the Broncos' shift in scheme and coaching staff up front. The O-line should be helped out by a more formidable passing game this season with Wilson.
At the same time, going from one of the most renowned offensive line coaches in the NFL in Mike Munchak, and his gap-centric scheme in the running game, to Butch Barry and the outside zone leads to more questions than answers about the Broncos' starting five at this point in the season.
I wouldn't expect the Broncos to field a horrific offensive line in 2022. League-average should be the expectation.
However, if the Broncos do wind up with a top-five unit, there is no telling how far this offense and team could go in 2022. Let’s hope ESPN's analytics prove to be true as the season progresses.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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