ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos' 2022 season came part from a tornado of penalties, special team's mistakes and offensive incompetence, three of the team's top players watched from the sidelines.
At the heart of the Broncos' seventh straight year without a playoff berth and six consecutive losing seasons was unwatchable football. The pain on the eyes paled to that in the trainer's room.
Outside linebacker Randy Gregory, running back Javonte Williams and receiver Tim Patrick missed a combined 41 games. Even if Nathaniel Hackett wasn't over his skies — and he was — the Broncos' hopes of contending were made increasingly difficult by this trio's absence.
Of the three, Patrick's healthy return ranks as the most important. I did not come by this decision easily, since the Broncos need all their best players to play well. However, Patrick's impact is necessary for several reasons. It will balance the offense, provide a safety net for quarterback Russell Wilson as he aims to rebound and energize the receiver's room with his fiery leadership and insatiable competitiveness.
There has been national conversation around Patrick emerging as Wilson's top target based on the connection the pair established before the former Utah standout tore the ACL in his right knee on Aug. 2. Wilson trusted Patrick. The landscape, however, is different. Patrick is still wearing a brace and might not be 100% entering the season. And new coach Sean Payton is calling the plays in an offense that figures to feature a heavy dose of runs and quick strikes and play-action shots that lean more into Jerry Jeudy's strengths. That said, there is room for Patrick to carve out a niche. And it will be necessary for the offense to finally average at least 21 points per game for the first time since Peyton Manning retired. The goal should be around 25, if we are being honest, given Payton's history of proficient attacks.
Patrick, 29, is as reliable as an ol' pickup. In the two seasons prior to his injury, he averaged 52 catches for 738 yards and six touchdowns. Those stats would be embraced like a long-lost friend in 2023, especially if Jeudy posts 1,100 yards and eight scores as I predict. And they need Patrick's presence. He is a mentor, a straight shooter. K.J. Hamler so respects his advice, he's living with Patrick and his family.
"It is working out well. I have a great setup," Hamler told Denver7 of living in Patrick's mancave basement.
Patrick's value goes beyond the field. But for an offense that ranked dead last in points — 16.9 per game — the Broncos need his production on it to contend for a playoff berth.
There is a strong argument for suggesting Williams' return should rank first on this list. The Broncos require a brutish running game under Payton — there's a reason they signed Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers — to succeed. And Williams, 23, has averaged 4.4 yards per carry in his career. Yet, I want to be fair to the former North Carolina star. When the season begins, he will be only 11 months removed from knee surgery that repaired his ACL and other damage.
Successful comebacks of other running backs — Dalvin Cook, Adrian Peterson — demonstrate that it is possible for Williams to regain his form in the year after surgery, but more recent examples show the challenge through the statistics of Saquon Barkley and J.K. Dobbins. The other issue? Williams runs with violent intentions. Can his Batman style — Boom! Pow! Bang! — style work this season or will he need more time? My hope is that Williams regains his form sometime in October and early November for a playoff push. Samaje Perine should be able to carry the load as the Broncos ease Williams back into the mix.
In the season prior with the Cowboys before joining the Broncos, Gregory played in a career-high 52 percent of the defensive snaps, appeared in 12 games, and tied his personal best with six sacks. After agreeing to a five-year, $70-million contract with $28 million guaranteed, Gregory went from disruptive to disappearing. Good teams need their highest-paid players to perform well in a salary-cap sport. The difference is that the defense is so much stronger than the offense, there is less urgency with Gregory to produce than Patrick or Williams.
Arguably the Broncos' best player the first month of the season — he had two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and seven quarterback hits — Gregory underwent knee surgery following the Raiders' game on Oct. 2. He did not add to any of those totals the rest of the season. He looked like a ghost of himself and was clearly frustrated in cameos against the Chiefs and Rams, the latter of which culminated with him punching a player after the game that helped accelerate Nathaniel Hackett's firing.
While the Broncos' defense was solid a year ago, exhaustion led to some blown leads and the pressure on the quarterback dissolved after the team traded Bradley Chubb. The Broncos posted 24 sacks through the first eight games. They followed with 12 over the final nine games after the Chubb deal, their total of 36 ranking 23rd overall.
While the addition of Frank Clark should help and Jonathon Cooper appears poised for improvement, the Broncos need Gregory to play at least 12 games and deliver 6-plus sacks for Vance Joseph's defense to reach its potential.