BRONCOS

Russell Wilson must evolve in order to save himself… and the Broncos

Jul 14, 2022, 6:42 AM

When the Denver Broncos landed quarterback Russell Wilson in a blockbuster deal back in March, the team’s fan base was understandably sent into a tizzy. The long wait for a quality quarterback since Peyton Manning’s retirement following the 2015 season finally coming to a merciful, long-overdue end.

Now, behind Wilson, a fresh new coaching staff led by Nathaniel Hackett and the wealthiest ownership group in the NFL, “playoffs” aren’t a bad word down at Dove Valley. In fact, the Broncos could almost be forgiven for thinking that their revival as one of the league’s best teams is a foregone conclusion.

They could be right. But to get there, keeping the soon-to-be 34-year-old Wilson healthy is paramount.

Certainly, an in-flux offensive line that’s completely up in the air on the right side — the one that the mobile Wilson, like most right-handed quarterbacks, scrambles toward the most — will bear much of the responsibility for that, as will Hackett, offensive coordinator Justin Outten and the rest of the Broncos’ coaching staff. However, the person who can do the most to keep Wilson healthy is the man he sees in the mirror every morning — himself.

In a story this week on ESPN.com, 50 NFL executives, coaches, scouts and players ranked the league’s quarterbacks prior to the 2022 campaign. It’s a subjective evaluation to be sure, but one that does a fine job putting its finger on the pulse of the league. Wilson entered the season ranked eighth overall, but third in the AFC West behind Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes II (No. 2) and Los Angeles Chargers youngster Justin Herbert (No. 7).

Given his injury-hampered 2021 season, Broncos fans have to be happy with their top-10 signal-caller, but a particular quote in Wilson’s evaluation stands out.

“A veteran NFC personnel evaluator believes Wilson must improve in one key area that has resulted in 179 sacks over his past 62 games: ‘He’s got to get rid of the ball quicker. He puts the offensive line in a tough position too often when there’s an easy first read. He looks for the home run, and it hurts him.’”

It’s hard to argue with that comment. Wilson, one of the league’s best deep-throwers by any metric, is also one of the league’s most aggressive, as witnessed by his 7.8 yards-per-attempt average that matched the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers for fifth-highest in the league last season. Rodgers (four) and Wilson (six) had, by far, the fewest interceptions of that group. The two quarterbacks play in a similar fashion; both are accurate and mobile, and both roll out looking to extend a play rather than looking to run.

Advanced statistics from NFL’s Next Gen Stats confirm what observers already see. Wilson’s 978 deep-passing yards and 9-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio on such throws stand out, as does his plus-14.1 completion percentage over expectation when his rollouts extend his time-to-throw for four or more seconds.

Clearly, letting Russ cook has its advantages. But the nearly three sacks per game he’s been taking raise red flags. Though the narrative coming out of Seattle last fall was that Wilson’s poor offensive line kept him from succeeding, the truth of the matter is that he posted a 115.3 passer rating and an 8-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio when throwing deep from within the pocket.

The other, less convenient truth of the matter is that Denver’s line isn’t much better. Left tackle Garett Bolles regressed dramatically last season, and while left guard Dalton Risner and center Lloyd Cushenberry III look better suited to Hackett’s more athletic blocking scheme, no one’s seen them in action that matters yet. Right guard and right tackle, at the moment, are filled more with shoulder shrugs than names due to injuries and inconsistent play. Wilson’s average time-to-throw of 2.8 seconds was in the middle of the pack last season, tied with Super Bowl champion Matt Stafford and longer than Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Tom Brady and even Rodgers.

It’s not a lack of time that’s been hampering Wilson. It’s been his lack of willingness to throw to quicker, shallower routes and targets — and only Wilson himself can do anything about it.

While the Broncos’ receiving corps is replete with talent, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that any one of them are better at their position than Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf, Wilson’s running mates over the last few years in Seattle. Perhaps, without those luxuries available to him, Wilson may be able to avoid the temptation of waiting around too often for a receiver to come open, hoping for a game-breaking play. Perhaps the improvement in his running game behind budding superstar Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon will help keep Wilson from feeling like he has to at all. Perhaps Hackett’s innovations on the offensive end will render the entire discussion moot. But until any, and maybe all, of those things happen, Wilson is likely to do what he’s always done: put himself at increased — and sometimes unnecessary — risk.

This time, however, things are different. The Broncos have hitched their wagon completely to Wilson, who is, unquestionably, the most important person in the Denver Broncos organization. If he’s not on the field, he can’t help them — and in a historically stacked AFC West that’s saddled with a relentless, brutal schedule, there’s no margin for error.

Wilson’s beautiful moon-balls are thrilling, of course, but if you want to get truly excited about the Broncos’ playoff chances this season, watching him throw fewer of them might turn out to be the best news of all.

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