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Broncos' coach Payton settles in as rookies go through paces

Drew Sanders shines; Optimism sprouts about Javonte Williams
Broncos Rookie Camp Football
Posted at 12:04 PM, May 14, 2023

ENGLEWOOD — The colors changed. The weather cooled. But Sean Payton looked comfortable in his new digs in the media's first viewing period since he took over as coach of the Broncos.

Payton was impossible to miss in his orange visor. And his demeanor. Before Saturday's 11-on-11 drills commenced during rookie minicamp, Payton talked firmly, made it clear it was time to work.

It becomes clear every day that Sean Payton did not leave New Orleans. He brought New Orleans with him to Denver.

"You get into different portions of the season, and now we’re into kind of spring training if it was baseball. I have a house, a car; I know how to get home now, and you're getting into the routine. But there's always that checklist of things that —eventually, you have to leave at night because you're not going to be able to get to everything. I think the staff has done a good job, the (football) Ops and all the people," Payton said. "Yeah, I think I'm getting settled in.”

Payton has run the offseason differently than any in recent memory. There has been no player media availability, no open practices during the first phase of OTAs. The plan remains to work in the shadows, talk less, prove more. As such, when Payton talks, it is usually lengthy. He spoke for 28 minutes Saturday addressing a number of roster issues, his greatest fear at rookie camp, his take on the schedule, while revealing surprising news that running back Javonte Williams could be cleared for training camp in his recovery from a torn ACL and other damage in his right knee.

"I think there's a good chance that — if a player is not ready at the start of training camp, he goes to ‘PUP.’ We're hopeful that he is someone that might not have to go to ‘PUP.’ (Physically Unable to Perform)," Payton said. "So that's good news and in the meantime, the rest of these guys we're looking at closely. I'm getting to know them.”

The Broncos added Samaje Perine for his durability, blocking and third-down production. He could handle the load until Williams returns. Williams told Denver7 in mid-February that he was able "to do everything asked" in his rehab and remained optimistic. He chose to remain in Colorado, rehabbing at the Broncos facility from the first major injury of his career.

A healthy Williams would help boost a Broncos offense that expects to improve dramatically under Payton. The Broncos averaged a league-worst 16.9 points per game in 2022. Payton's teams typically scored 25-to-30 points per contest. The schedule presents challenges but is fair. Payton indicated that the team would likely leave Denver a day or two early for games at Miami and Buffalo.

"I would say, if this makes sense, it felt like it was very unremarkable. When I looked at it all, it was —I don't want to use the word calm, but I don’t know that anything stood out. I look at three things right away when the schedule comes out. Where is the bye at, and we're mid-season (Week 9 on Nov. 5) so that's fine. I look at travel logistics. I think we have a couple of east coast games where we might go two days in advance. Miami early on and Buffalo [on] Monday Night. That creates that little, shorter window. Our schedule will be different than anything you’re used to. If we ended up flying home and landing after 2 a.m., we're probably going to stay in the (city). We’ll probably stay in Buffalo after that game, fly back Tuesday, the players will be off Wednesday, and then push the work week back a day," Payton explained.

"Outside of that, we’re on the rotation of the nine home games versus the eight. That’s good. I didn’t look at anything and just say, ‘Wow!’ We've got four games that we are scheduled to play on primetime. That’s great.

The Broncos have suffered through six straight losing seasons. They have not reached the playoffs since Super Bowl 50. They need better players and more depth. Saturday offered glimpses of hope, especially from linebacker Drew Sanders. The third-round pick from Arkansas wrote a diary of havoc, showing length, strength and speed. He brought the day's biggest highlight, intercepting Ben DiNucci for a pick six.

"I think I can get after the quarterback, drop back in coverage and play the run. I feel like I bring versatility to the position and get the job done," said Sanders, who began his college career at Alabama. "I have always enjoyed getting after the quarterback. I made a big emphasis of that last year, and it worked out a little bit."

Payton, who offered a $50 gift card to the rookie with the most generic quotes to the media, didn't miss a chance to zing DiNucci. It wasn't that he threw a pick, but the timing.

"There was more to that interception if you looked at it. It was good play by Sanders, and it was right in front of (owner) Greg Penner. I was telling Greg before practice how this Ben DiNucci was doing well. I told Ben — I said, ‘You know, he owns Walmart. If it doesn't work out here, I’m sure there’s a greeting opportunity somewhere at one of his local stores,'^" Payton said.

Second-round selection Marvin Mims Jr. showed off his speed, and in one drill made a brilliant stretched-out catch. The former Oklahoma star receiver also fielded punts cleanly.

"It's been weird. I would say it really did set in until I got here. After the draft, it was cool. That Monday, I was just sitting around and waiting and training. To get here, it starts feeling real," Mims said.

Third-round cornerback Riley Moss matched up with Mims. The two have struck up a fast friendship. Moss is working with his head down and heartbeat slow. And no thick '70s mustache he rocked at Iowa.

"I am keeping emotions low, learn the playbook and understand what they expect out of me," Moss said. "I went through a weird phase. My mom and girlfriend really didn't like the 'stache. It didn't last too long, but it was fun while it lasted."

Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was excused from Saturday's practice to attend his daughter's college graduation. ... The Broncos practiced with names on their helmet with athletic tape and no logos on the helmet. There was no significance to no logo, just making it more practical for the folks behind the scenes, Payton said. ... Randy Gregory (knee surgery) is progressing well after missing time last year before returning with underwhelming results for the final two games. "We are in phase two, and he's been here. He’s in good health. Again, in phase two, we're doing a lot of the teaching, but he's doing well and looks good.” ... Payton hinted that outside linebacker Jacob Martin, cut last week, could be a candidate to return.