Broncos 2023 season in review: Sean Payton’s offense lagged down the stretch and finished middle of the pack

Five key offensive numbers

21: Points scored per game (No. 19 in the NFL)

298.4: Yards per game (No. 26)

36.8: Third-down conversion percentage (No. 21)

51.7: Red zone touchdown percentage (No. 19)

52: Sacks taken, including 45 for Russell Wilson and seven for Jarrett Stidham (No. 27)

High Point

This is more difficult than you might think. Is it Russell Wilson’s three touchdowns against Kansas City in a streak-busting win? Maybe, but Denver had 240 yards that day. Is it rushing for 169 yards in a 29-12 win against Cleveland? Could be, though Wilson threw for just 125 that day. The rosiest output was 399 yards and 33 points Week 2 against Washington, but that came in a loss in which the Broncos led 21-3 and then managed the game terribly. Even still, the Broncos scored three touchdowns on their first three possessions against the Commanders and ended with four for the game. They never scored more than three offensive touchdowns in a game the rest of the season and only hit three five times the rest of the way.

Low Point

Russell Wilson’s had more than his share of lows over the past two years in Denver, but he played perhaps his worst game in orange and blue Week 6 at Kansas City just before playing a key part in Denver’s resurgence. Wilson threw for just 95 yards and led Denver to a season-low 197 in total offense on Thursday Night Football in a 19-8 loss that was not as close as the score indicated and only was within that margin because the defense held up as well as could be asked. Wilson threw a pair of interceptions and was sacked four times, Denver turned it over three times total and was shut out until the final 6:07. The Broncos bounced back and won five straight after this loss, but leaving Arrowhead at 1-5 after that clunker was the lowest point for this offense.

Turnovers decide games

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Number of turnovers
Record

Three
0-4

Two
0-2

One
4-2

Zero
4-1

Turnover Diff.
Record

Minus-3
0-2

Minus-2
0-2

Minus-1
0-4

Even
0-0

Plus-1
3-1

Plus-2
2-0

Plus-3
2-0

Plus-4
1-0

MVP: Courtland Sutton. The veteran receiver put up only modest numbers in terms of yardage (772) and catches (59), but he hauled in 10 touchdowns and became the team’s lifeline in the red zone, an area where Sean Payton’s offense struggled. His first eight touchdowns came in the red zone before finishing with scores of 45 yards against Houston and 46 against the Chargers. Sutton caught TDs in five straight games in the middle of the year and in 10 of Denver’s first 14. He missed one game late with a concussion and had just one catch for two yards in the final two weeks.

Tough Season: Greg Dulcich. The way Sean Payton talked about the second-year tight end during training camp, Dulcich looked primed for a breakout season. Instead, he spent nearly all of it on the shelf with continued hamstring injuries and a late-season foot issue. Dulcich didn’t play a complete game in the season, injuring his right hamstring in Week 1 and again Week 6. He’s a dynamic playmaker when he’s on the field, but that’s been far too rare through two seasons. Dulcich has appeared in 12 games and missed 22 since getting picked No. 80 overall in the 2022 draft.

Under the radar: Quinn Meinerz. The Broncos right guard continued his ascension into one of the league’s best during his third pro season. Meinerz generated some buzz during the team’s mid-season surge, but overall is relatively unheralded, which perhaps isn’t a surprise given the position he plays. Even still, he is among the game’s elite in the run game and his coaches think he’s at that level as a pass protector already, too. He’s shaping up to be a key piece of Denver’s offensive operation for years to come.

2023 Russell Wilson vs. Seattle career

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2023
Seattle avg.

Comp %
66.4%
65.0%

Yards
3,070
3,706

TD
26
29.2

INT
8
8.7

Rate
98
101.8

Sack %
9.1
8.3

Rush yards
341
468.9

Run Offense

Five Key Numbers

106.5: Rushing yards per game (No. 18)

6.82: First downs by rushing per game (No. 10)

74%: Run block win-rate, via ESPN (No. 3)

1: Game with multiple rushing TDs (Week 12 vs. Cleveland)

-.09: Expected Points Added per attempt, via Sumer Sports (No. 12)

The Good

The Broncos found progress on each end of the financial spectrum in 2023. They paid premium dollars for left guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and each helped Denver improve in the run game. They also nabbed Jaleel McLaughlin as an undrafted rookie and watched him slice and dice defenses with timely cuts and more burst than any other ball-carrier on the roster. McLaughlin finished the season with 107 touches (76 carries at 5.4 yards per) and said one of his goals for the offseason is to expand his abilities as a pass-catcher and pass-protector.

The Bad

Denver managed to run the ball well through its five-game winning streak and looked like a team poised to be a bully down the stretch. Instead, over a 2-4 finish, the Broncos mustered just 89.9 rushing yards per game and 3.3 per carry. The first 11 weren’t perfect, of course, but Denver had averaged 115.5 per game and 4.4 per carry before limping to the finish line. Offensive players talked of teams loading up to stop the run, but the fact that the Broncos played almost the entire season with the same set of running backs and same quintet on the offensive line yet couldn’t figure out ways to adjust goes down as one of the bigger offensive disappointments in Sean Payton’s first year.

The Unknown

There should be nothing but admiration for Javonte Williams for returning 10 months off a devastating October 2022 knee injury and playing in 16 games for the Broncos in 2023. He carried the ball 217 times (slightly more than his rookie-year workload) for 774 yards and three touchdowns and caught 47 passes for 228 yards and two more scores. Last winter, a 1,002-yard season and no big setbacks would have been considered a resounding success, so it should be now, too. But the NFL isn’t fair, and the Broncos this offseason will have to weigh whether Williams is going to gain more explosiveness back with another offseason of work. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry and his longest gain of the season was 21. McLaughlin is a near lock to be part of the picture in 2024. So if the Broncos don’t run it back with the same trio in the fall, the question becomes whether they swap out Williams, Samaje Perine or both.

Broncos RB Production

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Name
Carries
Yards
Catches
Yards
Total YPG
Total TDs

Javonte Williams
214
774
47
228
62.6
5

Samaje Perine
53
238
50
455
40.8
1

Jaleel McLaughlin
76
410
31
160
35.6
3

Pass Offense

Five Key Numbers

28: Passing TDs (T-8 and 10 more than 2022)

191.6: Passing yards per game (No. 24)

3.06: Russell Wilson’s average seconds to throw, via Next Gen Stats (T-3 longest).

61%: Pass block win-rate, via ESPN (No. 8)

-.04: Expected Points Added per attempt, via Sumer Sports (No. 20)

The Good

Touchdowns, basically. They are the whole point of the game and Wilson threw for a bunch of them this year. His 26 were most for him since throwing for 40 in 2020 in Seattle and most for a Broncos quarterback since Peyton Manning threw 39 in 2014. Add in a pair for Jarrett Stidham over the final two weeks of the season and Denver finished tied for eighth in the NFL with 28 passing touchdowns. What’s more, the distribution after Courtland Sutton’s 10 stood out. Jerry Jeudy had just two touchdowns. Here are the other players who had multiple: WR Brandon Johnson (four), TE Adam Trautman (three), WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey (three), Javonte Williams (two) and Jaleel McLaughlin (two). Schematically the Broncos were more sound under Sean Payton than in recent years and it showed in the ability to get several players involved. But they need more creativity and more talent heading into the future.

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The Bad

Even given the overall step forward, this passing offense still lacked in key areas, including production in the intermediate part of the field and in protection. Russell Wilson’s always been sacked a lot but 45 in 15 starts (9.1% sack rate) was far too high. Jarrett Stidham checked in at 9.6% over the final two weeks. Combine that with ESPN’s rosy pass block win-rate and it’s easy to wonder how much of those totals are on the quarterbacks. Wilson had one of the shallowest average depth of target marks (7.1) in the NFL (tied for No. 28), according to Sumer Sports. Neither Courtland Sutton nor Jerry Jeudy blossomed into a No. 1 target and Marvin Mims Jr. never really emerged after flashing early in the season. Oh, and the Broncos got nothing in the passing game from their tight ends with Greg Dulcich down due to injuries.

The Unknown

Well, let’s see. The Broncos don’t know who their quarterback is going to be in 2024 and might be looking for one despite a historic amount of dead salary cap space if they part ways with Russell Wilson. They have one of the most expensive receiver rooms in football and the only surprise would be if it returns wholly intact for 2024. They need to identify at least one passing threat at tight end but can’t count on Greg Dulcich’s health. Maybe it can be Lucas Krull, but he’ll have to take a major step forward. Denver also has to be better in pass protection but could lose starting center Lloyd Cushenberry to free agency and could be tempted to trade or release Garett Bolles. The team can save $16 million on its 2024 cap by trading or cutting the left tackle, who will be 32 in May and has no guaranteed money left on his deal and the draft is already widely considered to be deep at tackle. Other than that.

Conversion rates — 2014-23

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Year
Third down
Rank
Red zone TD
Rank

2023
36.8%
21
51.7%
19

2022
29.1%
32
55.6%
14

2021
38.5%
21
54.7%
22

2020
38.7%
26
53.3%
27

2019
31.7%
30
47.6%
28

2018
33.3%
28
56.8%
19

2017
39.0%
15
39.6%
32

2016
34.2%
31
46.8%
26

2015
35.3%
25
47.7%
28

2014
44.1%
8
62.9%
4

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