The NFL is a passing league. Gone are the days of the workhorse running back. Offense sells and the quickest way to score points is on the right arm of your favorite team's quarterback. There are roughing the passer penalties for landing on the quarterback. Pass interference is a spot foul. Defensive holding? That's an automatic first down! All these infractions are geared towards matriculating the ball down the field. There's no denying it, the NFL is a passing league. And every club, including the Denver Broncos, is scrambling (pun intended) to keep up. So when the latest amalgamation of misfit quarterbacks proved incapable, Denver sought to remedy that by acquiring Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson. The hope was that the veteran signal caller would provide the stability that's been missing since Peyton Manning hung up his spurs. Instead the trade was a disaster. Upon His arrival, the Broncos signed Wilson to a five-year, $245 million contract extension. Wilson, check in hand, rewarded them by turning in the worst season of his career, tossing just 16 touchdowns and completing a career low 60% of his passes.That's $15.3 million per touchdown for those of you scoring at home.
The Broncos front office had no choice but to make changes. First year head coach Nathaniel Hackett couldn't ... hack it (sorry) and was shown the door. And thus began the Broncos pursuit of Sean Payton.
Payton arrived in Denver with the daunting task of reviving one of the league's most disappointing offenses. But Payton also arrived with a proven track record of player development. In the fifteen years Payton served as the New Orleans Saints Head Coach his offenses ranked no lower than 12th. His creative play-calling and ability to exploit opponents' weaknesses gave birth to some of Fantasy's most consistent performers. During his first ten seasons in the Big Easy the Saints consistently ranked top-5 in pass attempts. But in the five years that followed, after the team drafted superstar tailback Alvin Kamara, Payton's offenses ranked inside the top five in rushing attempts three times. What this tells us is that Payton is willing to adjust his offense to the strengths of his personnel.
What exactly does that mean for 2023? Judging by the Broncos offseason, Payton knows that he cannot continue to place the offensive burden on Russell Wilson. So the team spent big on Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers, hoping to beef up their offensive line. The two join incumbents Quinn Meinerz & Lloyd Cushenberry and project to be one of the league's best units. The team also added blocking tight ends Chris Manhertz and Adam Trautman, the latter having experience in Payton's system. The plan seems to be to run the ball as much as possible. Which bodes well if you've invested in this backfield.
The Broncos traded up in the 2021 NFL draft to Select North Carolina standout Javonte Williams. Williams is a powerful rugged back with a penchant for breaking tackles. And while he showed early promise, his sophomore campaign was curtailed by an ACL tear. A tear that was compounded by damage to his LCL. Rumors about his recovery have been all over the place but Payton recently stated that Williams' recovery is going reasonably well and hinted that he might be ready for the start of the season. He even referred to Williams as his starter. If Williams can get on the field opening weekend, it would go a long way in assuring his fantasy managers that he's the same power back who briefly led the league in broken tackles while displaying a legitimate three-down skill set. Having caught 59 balls while starting just five games over parts of his first two NFL seasons. Running backs of his caliber have always factored into Sean Payton's offensive philosophy, and there is no doubt the first year coach has a play sheet with Williams' name on it.
But assuming Willams isn't ready for week one, the favorite to lead Denver's backfield would have to be newcomer Samaje Perine. Perine arrives from Cincinnati having spent the last three seasons spelling Joe Mixon, mostly on passing downs but proving more than capable of handling a full load in a pinch. The last two years were some of Perine's best, as the versatile back averaged over 4.0 yards per carry while hauling in 65 receptions. And that's important, because throughout Payton's NFL tenure, his running backs have accounted for 30% of his teams receptions.
And the coach's track record would suggest a significant role for Perine even after Williams returns. Throughout his 15 years with the Saints, Payton often employed multiple backs. Deuce Mcallister and Pierre Thomas did most of the heavy lifting while Reggie Bush worked on passing downs and from the slot. For a time, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara formed one of the league's most dangerous backfields, while Kamara accumulated four consecutive 80+ catch seasons, Ingram twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards. And let's not forget Darren Sproles. Payton's genius was never more evident than when he was designing plays for the 5'6" Sproles. A spark plug off the bench, the dynamic back managed 5.7 YPC and caught 232 balls during his three years with Payton.
The rest of Denver's offseason depth chart is littered with hopefuls. Tyler Badie was a sixth-round pick for Baltimore last year but the Broncos thought enough of him to sign him off the Ravens' practice squad. Playing in the final game of the season, the shifty Badie made the most of his opportunity, taking a Russell Wilson screen 24 yards for a touchdown. The Broncos were also able to outbid several teams for the services of Jaleel McLaughlin. McLaughlin played five years between Division II Notre Dame and Youngstown State, and despite his smallish stature, flashed a three down skill set, finishing his career with the all division rushing record (8,166 yards) while securing 66 receptions for another 643 yards. Payton has shown a willingness to utilize anyone who can make plays, and the Broncos are no strangers to UDFA's with size limitations, after watching Phillip Lindsey turn in back to back 1,000 yard seasons.History suggests at least one of these guys earns a small role.
There's no denying that fantasy managers have enjoyed a wealth of success investing in Sean Payton's offense. And though his ability to create opportunities for multiple backs may make it difficult to pinpoint defined roles, Williams is clearly the most talented back on the Broncos roster. The gruesome nature of his knee injury may hinder him early, but his combination of size and speed make Willams special. They also make him the back to own for 2023 and beyond.
Although he began his writing career covering college athletics, Randal has been obsessed with fantasy football since joining his first league in 2000. His obsessive drive has always motivated him to find the smallest edge on his leagemates which quickly led to the nickname “Fantasy Terminator”. As you might imagine, the nickname stuck. A bourbon connoisseur who enjoys tinkering on old cars and fishing, Randal can usually be heard on his podcast or perusing Twitter.