Broncos Journal: Sean Payton is smitten with Bo Nix, and four other takeaways from offense after offseason program

The next time the Broncos are on a practice field together, the countdown to the regular season will be on in earnest.

That day arrives in a little more than a month with the start of training camp.

The past two months of offseason programming don’t get wiped away, but what happens in camp will matter most for roster spots, expectations and what Sean Payton’s team will look like when it heads to Seattle for its Sept. 8 season opener.

“We’re evaluating everything, but (the offseason program) is about putting themselves in the best position for the critical weeks of training camp where it’s much more magnified and much more important,” Payton said earlier this month. “All of it is important.”

Payton has acknowledged that he and Denver’s coaching staff try not to be “instant evaluators” and regularly says that there are always a handful of players who surprise — some in a good way, some not — once the pads come on.

So with the requisite understanding that little is set in stone at this point, here are five offense-focused takeaways from the Broncos’ now-completed offseason program.

Bo Nix has impressed his head coach

It’s already become normal for Payton to speak highly of his rookie quarterback.

Since the NFL combine in February, Payton has expressed confidence that Denver would ace its quarterback-finding quest.

Still, it’s notable that the veteran head coach’s positive tone continued from draft weekend through rookie minicamp, OTAs and mandatory minicamp as it pertains to Bo Nix, the No. 12 overall selection in the draft.

He at one point said Nix was throwing the ball “extremely well.” He lauded the rookie’s ability to pick up the offense despite the heavy volume of information. He said, basically, that Nix has been exactly what he expected after scouting the former Oregon and Auburn quarterback.

“It’s what we saw and what we evaluated,” Payton said. “And that’s encouraging.”

It’s too early to call the Broncos’ quarterback race for Nix, but if he continues to meet or exceed Payton’s lofty expectations for him in August, he will be difficult to beat out. Jarrett Stidham had a quality summer and has taken nicely to trying to lead the quarterback room and the offense. Zach Wilson has arm talent that neither of the other two quarterbacks possess.

The last two months, however, have only reinforced how publicly willing Payton is to put trust and confidence in Nix.

The running back position is wide open

This will all seem overblown if the Broncos roll into Week 1 with Javonte Williams, Samaje Perine and Jaleel McLaughlin as their top trio of backs.

That’s a possibility, but nowhere near a certainty.

In fact, running back shapes up to be one of the team’s most hotly contested training camp battles. That’s mostly because of the presence of rookies Audric Estime and Blake Watson. Watson could be a practice squad candidate, though McLaughlin showed a year ago that it’s possible to force your way onto the 53-man roster.

Unless a guy is going to play all four special teams units, the starting point for the roster would be to keep three backs plus fullback Michael Burton.

Keep in mind, too, that Williams and Perine are both entering the final years of their contracts.

The conversation might have been farther down the tracks had Estime not injured his left knee and required a scope and a platelet-rich plasma injection. If he’s fully cleared to start camp as Payton suggested he will be, though, the race will be on.

Denver’s banking on Lucas Krull

The Broncos got next to nothing from their tight ends in the passing game last year.

Greg Dulcich is talented, but the last time he finished an NFL regular-season game healthy was in December 2022, and he didn’t practice in any of Denver’s offseason program this summer.

Adam Trautman is back on a two-year deal, but the Broncos are banking on third-year man Lucas Krull to provide some pop.

Payton at one point pulled Krull aside amid a big practice during OTAs and told him, “Someday soon, they’re going to know who No. 85 is.”

It’s going to take a big leap for Krull, who played in seven games last year and caught eight passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. But Denver doesn’t have any other clear options unless Dulcich shows he can stay healthy after hamstring and foot injuries marred his first two seasons.

“(Krull) has good vertical speed. He’s young, so we think there is room to grow,” Payton said. “That was one of the reasons we signed him. So these camps benefit certain players a little bit more than others because you can get into your patterns and see some things.”

Courtland Sutton is important, but how important?

It’s been a virtually Courtland Sutton-free offseason for the Broncos after he skipped all of the team’s voluntary workouts. He attended the two mandatory minicamp days and talked about the contract “stalemate” he’s reached with the club but didn’t do much on-field work outside of a few individual drills. Still, Payton categorized Sutton as “important” to the Broncos’ offense and he’s been Denver’s most consistent pass-catcher the past three seasons.

Since Sutton’s 2019 knee injury, he’s not been a true No. 1 receiver.

He still currently projects as Denver’s top option at the position, but much around him has changed since January.

After trading Jerry Jeudy, signing Josh Reynolds in free agency, drafting Troy Franklin and Devaughn Vele in April and getting Tim Patrick back from two seasons missed due to injury, this is a different group. It’s one Payton at one point acknowledged has impressed him.

“I like the energy,” he said midway through OTAs, adding he felt “really good” about the group. “I feel like we’re younger and you kind of feel that at practice.”

So, Sutton is important, perhaps particularly so given the quarterback situation, but the staff also likes the early returns on a substantially overhauled group. Interesting weeks ahead.

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Young centers will battle it out

Sure, the quarterback race gets all the attention. But the Broncos have a center battle on their hands, too, and rotated repetitions through the summer in a similar manner to the signal-callers.

What, that doesn’t move the needle like Nix vs. Stidham vs. Wilson? OK, fair enough.

Still, Alex Forsyth and Luke Wattenberg got pretty equal work during Denver’s open practices this summer, and veteran Sam Mustipher is learning the system, too.

No matter who wins the job, it will be difficult to replace Lloyd Cushenberry, who got $50 million from Tennessee this spring.

One benefit Payton pointed to: Whoever wins the job will be playing between a pair of accomplished guards in Quinn Meinerz and Ben Powers. That should help ease the transition.

“The good news for the center most of the time is that he’s working with one of those two players,” Payton said. “There are times where he’s isolated, but certainly the experience of those two players helps a lot.”

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