Sunday’s game in London will provide Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett with another opportunity to quell concerns about his job status. General manager George Paton spoke in favor of keeping the rookie HC in his post yesterday; one of the team’s owners echoed that sentiment when speaking publicly today.
“I support Nathaniel and really want to see him succeed,” Greg Penner said, via 9News’ Mike Klis. “He’s a first-time head coach. There’s a lot of new things to get in place… But he knows we’re not performing at the level we expect, but we’ve got high expectations for him in the second half.”
Penner, the Broncos’ CEO and a member of the Rob Walton-led group which purchased the team this summer, inherited Hackett as head coach. The 42-year-old has led an offense which has been severely underwhelming to date, and ranks last in the league in scoring. At 2-5, Denver has frequently been named as a potential seller at the trade deadline – a stark contrast to preseason expectations which counted the team among the AFC’s contenders.
Much of the increase in optimism was tied, of course, to the acquisition of quarterback Russell Wilson. Before his regular season debut, a long-term deal had been agreed upon; Penner played a role in authorizing that $245MM extension. As he did with Hackett, the latter expressed confidence in a resurgence during the second half of the 2022 season when asked about the maligned passer.
“Russell’s won a lot of games in the NFL,” Penner said. “Russell knows how to win. The specifics on the contract area, that’s a place where I do rely on George and his expertise. I think he is going to be a great quarterback for us.”
While Penner declined to give a full vote of confidence to Hackett for the remainder of the season – a change in offensive play-caller has been thought to be on the table recently – his public support of the status quo on the sidelines is noteworthy. The team’s performance on Sunday against the Jaguars could go a long way in determining how much of an appetite exists for changes affecting both the roster and coaching staff from the new personnel at the top of the organization.
As expected, Russell Wilson will make his return to the Broncos’ starting lineup Sunday. Nathaniel Hackett announced Friday (via 9News’ Mike Klis, on Twitter) that, barring any setbacks, Wilson will return after a one-game absence.
Despite the Broncos having a bye week following their London assignment, Wilson will return after missing Week 7 due to a hamstring issue. Wilson, who has now battled hamstring and shoulder ailments this season, has missed just four career games.
The offseason trade acquisition returns to a Broncos team in disarray, with trade rumors surrounding it ahead of what promises to be a seminal Jaguars matchup. Discussions of Wilson sitting out through the bye did occur, per Denver7’s Troy Renck (via Twitter), but the nine-time Pro Bowler was not interested in such a preservation strategy if he was indeed able to play this week. Mid-flight high knees are now known to have occurred. Wilson is no longer on the Broncos’ injury report.
Signing a five-year, $245MM extension ($124MM fully guaranteed), Wilson has not clicked in Hackett’s offense. Denver’s defense has been responsible for four of the team’s five losses being by one score. Wilson, 33, ranks 29th in QBR after six starts. Even as he was sluggish upon returning from his finger injury last season, he ended the year 10th in that metric. The Broncos are counting on their high-priced passer to show better form, but Wilson’s injury has followed other key setbacks for the team.
Since their most recent win, the Broncos have lost left tackle Garett Bolles, cornerback Ronald Darby and running back Javonte Williams for the season. They have played the past three games without Randy Gregory, and the player who has filled that void via a breakthrough stretch in his first foray as an edge rusher — Baron Browning — is facing an extended absence. The Broncos’ 2-5 start has changed their outlook this season, and another year of being a deadline seller may be in the cards.
GM George Paton on Thursday provided the dreaded vote of confidence for Hackett, whose offense has sputtered coming out of halftime throughout the team’s losing streak. Third-quarter listlessness, red zone inefficiency and penalty problems have marred Hackett’s first season in Denver. If Wilson’s troops cannot show progress beginning Sunday, Hackett may begin an earnest march toward being a one-and-done HC. Although the Broncos fired Josh McDaniels during his second season in 2010, they have never had a one-and-done coach.
Nathaniel Hackett‘s first seven games as Broncos head coach have generated considerable attention. The ex-Packers OC’s 32nd-ranked scoring offense has produced eye-popping numbers in third-quarter scoring (three points) and red zone production (23% touchdown rate), leading to Denver’s unexpected 2-5 start.
Questions about Hackett even finishing his first season have surfaced, and ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano notes league chatter has placed the Broncos’ London game as a possible do-or-die spot for the embattled HC. While Graziano expressed skepticism on the prospect the Broncos would fire a first-year coach after eight games, GM George Paton doubled down on his Hackett support.
“I believe in Nathaniel,” Paton said. “I support Nathaniel 100%. He’s been in this seven games as a head coach. The scrutiny he’s faced is unprecedented. We’ve had four primetime games, so he’s kind of had to learn in front of the entire world. But I really like how he’s kept the team together. They’re connected. He’s kept our building together, and I appreciate how he’s fought through that.”
It is obviously arguable the Broncos are not “through” anything just yet, having lost four straight games and having failed to score more than one touchdown in all but one contest (a Week 4 loss to the Raiders). Denver’s 100 points through seven games double as the franchise’s worst at this point in a season since 1966. Hackett encountered unusual game management issues in Weeks 1 and 2, leading to the hire of assistant Jerry Rosburg, and his team leads the NFL in penalties (58).
Hackett, 42, said he is keeping the status quo for this week’s game against the Jaguars, but Graziano notes staff adjustments or role reassignments may be in play if the Broncos cannot beat the 2-5 Jaguars in England. That could include ceding play-calling responsibilities, as the Broncos continue to generate listless second halves under a coach brought in to jumpstart an offense.
That said, the Broncos have dealt with injuries to many top players. And starters Garett Bolles, Javonte Williams, Tim Patrick and Ronald Darby are out for the season. But Hackett is on the one-and-done radar, given how his team has performed relative to expectations.
The other scrutinized presence during this start, Russell Wilson, is on track to return in Week 8. The Broncos acquired Wilson when he was tied to a Seahawks-constructed contract that ran through 2023. The team extended the 33-year-old passer — on a five-year, $245MM deal with $124MM fully guaranteed — in order to beat a market that stands to see the $50MM-per-year barrier crossed by multiple passers come 2023.
“We wanted to get ahead of the contract cycle. We had seen how Russ was in the offseason and training camp and we felt really good about Russ. We feel really good about Russ,” Paton said, via 9News’ Mike Klis (onTwitter). “We didn’t want a lot of distraction during the season. We feel really good about it. I feel good about that deal. I feel like it will hold up. I feel good about Russ.”
After nine Pro Bowl seasons in Seattle, Wilson has not transitioned to Hackett’s offense well. He sits 29th in QBR. Even during a 2020 season in which his play tailed off after a hot start and a 2021 campaign that produced post-injury struggles, Wilson placed in the top 10.
The Seahawks also expressed doubt about Wilson’s willingness to keep using his legs. Attempts by the likely Hall of Fame-bound player to run have been fairly scarce, and Wilson has cited scrambles against the Raiders and Chargers as the reasons for his shoulder and hamstring injuries, respectively. Operating more as a pure dropback passer in Denver, Wilson is viewed by some as unwilling to play the way he did for much of his Seattle stay, Albert Breer of SI.com notes. Wilson’s elusiveness helped the Broncos mount a game-winning drive against the 49ers this season, but the NFL’s No. 4 all-time quarterback rusher (96 yards this season) has largely drifted away from that style over the past two years.
“I am not concerned,” Paton said (via Denver7’s Troy Renck) when asked if Wilson is already showing decline signs. “We are in it for the long haul with Russ, not just the first seven games. We believe in Russ; I believe in Russ. We just need to play better on offense, the timing the rhythm. We need an identity. We really don’t have an identity with offense. I think that comes with time. And hopefully it comes soon.
“He’s trying to learn the staff, the staff’s trying to learn him and all of our players. We know what Russ is capable of. It’s our job to get the best out of Russ and our entire offense. I know we’ll get there. You’ve seen the flashes with Russ, whether it was the first half of the Raiders [game], the first half of the Chargers [game]. You see the arm strength, the accuracy, the mobility.”
A different quarterback produced the same result for the Broncos yesterday, as the team’s losing streak extended to four games. Denver appears likely to have their No. 1 signal-caller back in time for their Week 8 game against the Jaguars, though.
When asked if Russell Wilson will return in time for this Sunday’s contest, head coach Nathaniel Hackett said, “He’s trending in that direction. He did everything he could to try to be there, but it was just a little early with that short week. Hopefully, we’ll see him out there and if not, we’ll be smart with him, too.”
Wilson suffered a hamstring injury during Denver’s MNF loss to the Chargers. The severity of the ailment – which came not long after he also picked up lat and shoulder injuries earlier this year – put Wilson’s Week 7 availability in serious doubt. To little surprise, then, Denver took the cautious approach of starting Brett Rypienyesterday.
The former UDFA’s performance – 225 scoreless yards on 24-of-46 passing, and one interception – certainly didn’t stand out. Given the team’s struggles on offense, however, it was not out of place with Wilson’s showing in his first year in the Mile High City. The nine-time Pro Bowler has completed less than 59% of his passes this season, throwing just five touchdowns and averaging 7.3 yards per attempt.
Wilson’s participation in practice this week will, of course, be worth monitoring in the build-up to Denver’s next game. The fact that he lobbied to play yesterday speaks to his willingness to suit up at less than full health, something which the coaching staff must weigh against a long-term view and the increasing urgency they face to meet the offseason’s lofty expectations.
Wilson suffered the injury in last week’s overtime loss to the Chargers but was able to stay in and complete the game. Wilson felt he could play this week against the Jets, but Hackett will err on the side of caution and hold him out. Schefter also reports that Wilson’s injury will be re-evaluated next week to determine if he will even be able to return against the Jaguars when the Broncos travel to London.
Rypien will start his first game since his rookie season in 2020. Oddly enough, Rypien’s first start was also against the Jets. Rypien gave the Broncos their first win of the season that year with a performance that showcased both some good and some bad. In the lone start, Rypien completed 19 of 31 passes for 242 yards and 2 touchdowns but also gave away three interceptions. Regardless, he led the Broncos to a nine-point win over the Jets and will hope for a similar outcome tomorrow.
In a related move, the Broncos have used one of their gameday elevations on veteran, journeyman quarterback Josh Johnson to back up Rypien. Johnson started a game as recently as last year, when he subbed in on an injury-riddled Ravens offense that was without Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley. Johnson put forth an impressive performance in that game completing 28 of 40 pass attempts for 304 yards and two touchdowns, along with one interception.
The team will utilize their second gameday promotion on practice squad long snapper Mitchell Fraboni.
The Packers and veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb were granted a silver-lining after hearing that what was feared to be a season-ending broken ankle was potentially a high ankle sprain that would require several weeks of recovery. The diagnosis of a high ankle sprain was confirmed, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, and Cobb told reporters that he “expects to return in two to six weeks,” a much more optimistic timeline than what was initially feared.
Green Bay had lost another veteran receiver when Sammy Watkins was placed on injured reserve back in September. Watkins was the team’s leading receiver at the time and now the Packers will lose their second-leading receiver as Cobb is being considered for an IR stint. With no Cobb and Watkins, and with rookie receiver Christian Watson also ailing, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has only Allen Lazard, Romeo Doubs, Amari Rodgers, and Samori Toure as targets out wide. Head coach Matt LaFleur did express some optimism that Watkins could be working his way towards a return soon, though.
Here are a few more injury updates from around the league:
After he suffered a hamstring injury in their game against the Chargers, Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett announced that quarterback Russell Wilsonwill be a gametime decision this week against the Jets, according to Mike Klis of 9NEWS. The 11th-year veteran has struggled to lead Denver to the endzone this year but still represents the team’s best chance to win by far. If Wilson is unable to suit up this week, third-year backup Brett Rypien is the next name on the depth chart. Rypien has one start on his record from his rookie season. In his starting debut from 2020, Rypien led the Broncos to a win over the Jets, completing 19 of 31 attempted passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns while also throwing three interceptions.
The Cowboys lost rookie fifth-round pick Matt Waletzko after only three weeks as the backup offensive lineman’s lingering left shoulder issues continued to trouble him. Waletzko knew that surgery was an inevitable outcome but delayed the procedure in an attempt to become a contributor in his rookie season, but, after three subluxations, his first year will come to an end, according to Michael Gehlken of The Dallas Morning News. Waletzko had played in all of the team’s first three games, mostly serving on special teams units and earning one offensive snap in the team’s Week 3 win over the Giants. Dallas doesn’t have a ton of depth behind the starters on the offensive line, but backups Josh Ball, Jason Peters, and Matt Farniok provide some versatility that allow them to fill in most empty spots in the lineup.
Colts star linebacker Shaquille Leonardcleared concussion protocol today, according to Mike Chappell of FOX59/CBS4 Sports, but the team will still hold him out against the Titans this week. In addition to the concussion, Leonard is listed with a nose injury, which he recently had surgery on, according to Zak Keefer of The Athletic. Fourth-year linebacker E.J. Speed will continue to start in Leonard’s place as he works his way back to the field.
Already battling lat and shoulder issues while proceeding through a rocky navigation in Nathaniel Hackett‘s offense, Russell Wilson sustained a hamstring injury Monday night. The injury occurred during a fourth-quarter scramble, Wilson said. The Broncos are calling their quarterback day-to-day. But there is some concern about Wilson’s Week 7 availability, with Tom Pelissero of NFL.com adding this may be a “fairly significant” injury (Twitter link).
Wilson has only missed three games in 10-plus seasons; each came because of his finger injury last year. He has experienced a worse-than-expected acclimation process in Hackett’s offense, which has generated more than 20 points just once this season. Playing through multiple injuries likely will not help matters, but given Wilson’s career path, that should be the expectation. Here is the latest from the AFC West:
The Chiefs held less than $1MM in cap space at this time last week. They are now close to $4MM. Kansas City got there by restructuring Travis Kelce‘s contract for the second time this year. The move created $3.46MM in space, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets. The Chiefs made the move last week, per CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson, who notes the team did so to have some additional room for practice squad promotions (Twitter link). Kelce remains signed through 2025.
Dustin Hopkins became the hero in another low-scoring Broncos primetime game Monday, making four field goals despite hurting his hamstring early in the contest. Brandon Staley said his kicker suffered a hamstring strain and is expected to miss two to four weeks. Taylor Bertolet, the Chargers‘ practice squad kicking option, will step in for the veteran leg. Hopkins, whom the Chargers added after Washington surprisingly cut him during the 2021 season, also missed Week 5 due to a quadriceps injury.
Bolts backup running back Joshua Kelley will miss time as well. Staley said Kelley sustained an MCL sprain during Monday’s game. The Chargers have used Kelley as an Austin Ekeler backup since drafting him in the 2020 fourth round. Sony Michel will have the team’s RB2 gig to himself for the time being, as it would not surprise to see Kelley land on IR.
The Broncos extended their Week 1 right tackle revolving door to 10 seasons, opening the campaign with Cameron Fleming in that spot. The two players the team signed to vie for the gig — Billy Turner and Tom Compton — began the season injured. Turner has returned and moved into the lineup during Monday’s game, sending Fleming to left tackle and Calvin Anderson (Garett Bolles‘ initial replacement) to the bench. But Compton remains on Denver’s PUP list. The veteran lineman is unlikely to debut for the Broncos until after their Week 9 bye, Troy Renck of Denver7 tweets. Compton, 33, signed a one-year, $2.25MM deal. He worked as the 49ers’ starting right tackle for much of last season, replacing the injured Mike McGlinchey.
Monday’s game also produced yet another Broncos ACL tear. An awkward collision with a media member on the sideline led to backup linebacker Aaron Patrick suffering that severe knee injury. The Broncos announced Patrick’s setback. Tim Patrick, Javonte Williams, Ronald Darby and running back Damarea Crockett have also suffered ACL tears since training camp. Primarily a special-teamer, Aaron Patrick is in his second season with the team. He arrived as a UDFA out of Eastern Kentucky.
League executives are starting to wonder how long the Broncos will tolerate Nathaniel Hackett‘s growing pains. Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post spoke with NFL executives, evaluators, and coaches, with many “paint[ing] a bleak picture” of Denver’s outlook with Hackett at the helm. The head coach’s “ability to survive his first season on the job” is being discussed around the NFL, per La Canfora.
Many of the sources attribute Denver’s coaching issues to inexperience. One anonymous GM went as far as to wonder if GM GeorgePaton may be the one to pull the plug. The team’s new ownership wasn’t responsible for hiring the current head coach/general manage pairing, and if Paton wants to save his own job, he may look to admit his mistake sooner than later.
“I hate to say it, because it’s only six weeks,” the anonymous GM told La Canfora, “but [Paton] needs to start separating himself from the coach. I like George a lot, and that’s what my advice to him would be. Keep trying to give [Hackett] help, if he’ll take it, but you also may have to be willing to admit it was a mistake far sooner than you ever imagined. This owner didn’t hire either of them. You have to be careful how hard you fight to prove this can work, because it’s been a disaster so far. And if you aren’t careful, you’re going to get fired, too.”
Before firing Hackett, there’s a chance that the organization could try to remedy the situation. Some of the sources suggested bringing in an outside consultant, with many pointing to the inexperience of the coaching staff. As La Canfora notes, DomCapers and JerryRosburg are the lone experienced coaches on the staff, and the writer even suggests that the team could look to bring in Gary Kubiak as an adviser or even as interim head coach. Kubiak’s son, KlintKubiak, is the team’s quarterbacks coach.
Still, no matter how much experience the Broncos add to the coaching staff, it still might not be enough. One executive told La Canfora that Hackett doesn’t look like he’s ready to be a head coach.
“Unless something changes quickly, I don’t think he gets through the year,” the executive said. “It looks too big for him. It looks too fast for him. The red-zone play-calling has been awful. I don’t see enough adjustments being made.”
Of course, part of the team’s issues could also be attributed to quarterback Russell Wilson, who also drew criticism from the personnel that was polled by La Canfora. Even with Wilson’s underwhelming play, many still believe he isn’t being put in a position to succeed, with La Canfora pointing to the team’s lack of RPOs and motion.
“Some of that is on the quarterback, certainly,” a GM said, “but they don’t seem to have a lot of ideas when the field gets tight, and I don’t think they have the right people in that building now to fix it.”
Amplified by the Broncos’ bevy of primetime games to start the season, their Russell Wilson partnership has not gotten off to a good start. The team has seen the nine-time Pro Bowler struggle in Nathaniel Hackett‘s increasingly scrutinized offense, inviting big-picture questions.
The Broncos are being questioned for greenlighting Wilson’s five-year, $245MM extension before he played a down with the team, but as Mike Klis of 9News notes, the team was fully committed to Wilson long-term upon trading for him. That should be expected given the trade haul the Broncos sent the Seahawks.
The Broncos viewed 2022 as a better window for their Wilson extension, Klis adds, due to the annual quarterback-market price hike. Next year will bring extension windows for Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, with likely multiple deals coming in north of $50MM per year alongside Aaron Rodgers‘ current $50.3MM market-setting Packers pact. Wilson’s 2015 extension came in just behind Rodgers’, and his 2019 Seahawks re-up checked in as the top QB payment until Patrick Mahomes (and others) topped it in 2020.
Wilson, 33, did not leverage the Broncos in the way he did the Seahawks in the past, doing a deal despite two years remaining on his second Seahawks extension. He is under team control for seven seasons, after his previous Seahawks deals included five years of control (the extension seasons tacked onto a contract year). Wilson’s $49MM-per-year AAV sits second among NFLers presently, but the contract’s length could age well. Wilson is essentially locked in with the Broncos through 2025, with the deal’s final three years being nonguaranteed.
Of course, any talk of this contract aging well will need to included improved play. Wilson is well off his Seattle pace, sitting 24th in QBR and having completed just 59.4% of his passes through five games. Shoulder and lat trouble has affected the likely Hall of Fame quarterback over his past two games, mainly the ugly outing against the Colts, but he is not expected to miss any time because of this issue. The Broncos’ 21.4% red zone touchdown rate is well behind every other NFL team, with the 31st-place Seahawks at 38.5%, and Hackett play-calling and game management struggles have persisted — to the point the ex-Packers OC has been regularly mentioned as a one-and-done candidate.
Various NFL staffers are wondering if the Wilson-Hackett partnership is sustainable, per Doug Kyed of Pro Football Focus. While an AFC scout informed Kyed he believes the Broncos’ issues stem from Wilson working with new receivers — in a group that lost possession target Tim Patrick before the season — and in a new system. One of this era’s top deep-ball throwers, Wilson has graded 23rd in that area this season, per PFF.
Another personnel exec mentioned, via Kyed, chemistry issues may doom this Broncos season. Already playing without Patrick and Javonte Williams, Wilson will now be tasked with playing with a backup left tackle. Garett Bolleswill not return from his lower-leg fracture this season. The team’s various hiccups have been on display due to the NFL slotting Denver into three primetime games already; the fourth — Monday night against the Chargers — figures to be another referendum on the Broncos’ trade. Considering the Wilson-Hackett acclimation issues and the Broncos’ run of injuries, the team’s top Wilson-years form might not end up emerging in 2022.
We learned earlier this week that Russell Wilson was dealing with a shoulder injury, but it doesn’t sound like the issue will force him to miss any time. The Broncos quarterback told reporters that he’s “physically ready” for Monday’s game against the Chargers, per ESPN’s Jeff Legwold.
Wilson is specifically dealing with an injury to his latissimus dorsi, and he suffered the injury earlier this month against the Raiders. He was listed as a limited participant on Thursday’s injury report, but he was spotted alongside the other starters when reporters were in the building.
“Shoulder’s feeling better, getting better every day,” Wilson said today (via Legwold). ” … I haven’t had this particular thing before, but I’ll be OK. I’ll be ready.”
Wilson has already played through the injury, so unless he somehow makes it worse, it sounds like he’ll continue to be under center for Denver. Wilson hasn’t had the best start to his Broncos tenure; he’s completing a career-low 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,254 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. He’s also continued to see less work on the ground, as his 14.6 rushing yards per game are the second-lowest of his career. The Broncos, meanwhile, rank 30th in the NFL in scoring, and their red zone offense is last in the league.
The QB has naturally started to face some criticism for his disappointing performance, especially after Denver invested $243MM in him via an extension. However, Wilson is confident he’ll turn his season around.
“Lot of season left,” Wilson said. ” … I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. … I don’t think you get motivated by [criticism]. … I can handle it, I’m built for it. I’m built for the good times and the tough times. … It’s never supposed to be easy.”