The Denver Broncos parted ways with head coach Vic Fangio after three straight losing years that resulted in two last-place results in the AFC West. The defensive-minded coach was forced to navigate the NFL without a capable quarterback. That’s always a recipe for defeat over the course of a season.
Fast forward two months and his replacement, former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, was gifted quarterback Russell Wilson in a trade that gives Denver its first championship-caliber leader since Peyton Manning’s retirement following the 2016 season. Somewhere out there a person is screaming “Joe Flacco!” at a screen, but let’s be real about that 2-6 record of his….
Hackett comes in as the “in name only” OC of the Packers as head coach Matt LaFleur called plays during their time together, but that’s not to say Hackett wasn’t intimately involved in all other aspects of game-planning, passing-game coordination, and play design.
In his prior stops, Hackett’s resume shows a professional coaching start in 2006 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Jon Gruden. He was hired in Buffalo by Dick Jauron to once again be an offensive quality control coach. Two seasons later, Hackett went into the collegiate ranks at Syracuse, only to return to the Buffalo Bills in 2013 under Doug Marrone. In 2015, Hackett would find himself in Jacksonville, along with Marrone, serving as quarterbacks coach for two years before being promoted to OC until he joined the Packers in ’19.
Hackett, 42, hired Justin Outten as the offensive coordinator in Denver, and the head coach announced he will call the plays instead of leaving it up to the former Green Bay TEs coach. Los Angeles Rams secondary coach and passing game coordinator Ejiro Evero was brought in to call the plays on the other side of the ball.
Hackett has produced several strong rushing attacks in his time as an OC. In Buffalo, with what can only be described as schlock at quarterback, his 2013 backfield, led by C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, produced the second-most ground yards on the greatest volume of attempts. His 2017 Jaguars offense, featuring Leonard Fournette, generated the league’s top rushing offense.
A successful running game is a staple of the West Coast offense employed by Hackett. In Green Bay, the Packers ranked 15th, 8th, and 18th in rushing yards over the last three years, respectively. During his time as an offensive coordinator, regardless of whether he called the plays, only one time a team ranked greater than 13th in passing attempts. And that’s with Aaron Rodgers commanding the show for three of the eight years. The last two years, though, saw the Pack produce top-10 results for aerial yardage and the first- and fourth-ranked passing TD offenses.
West Coast systems vary a fair amount based on the degree of nuance in pre-snap theatrics to confuse defenses, the volume of plays dedicated to play-action passing, and how much modern trickery is incorporated. Where the system as changed the most through the years is how it utilizes the tight end position (traditional Y vs flexed into the slot more frequently) and whether it uses a traditional fullback (extremely rare today). Hackett will use more of the flex the TE without a classic fullback style.
Expect a mostly balanced attack that grinds when it needs to and airs it out when warranted, but the addition of Wilson’s NFL-best deep ball being coupled with his mobility will likely have Hackett doing his best job of replicating LaFleur’s system. Look for Denver to set up the play-action passing with a heavy dose of the ground game to create a quick-strike offense through the air.
The Broncos will be something in between the conventional WCO (Gruden) and the more imaginative version (Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan). After all, LaFleur came from the McVay tree. Denver, however, has the personnel across the board to dramatically adjust its game plan from week to week and even quarter to quarter. That alone makes this offense extremely dangerous.
Denver sits 12th in salary cap space and still might not be done bolstering the offense with running back and the offensive line moves worth keeping an eye on.
Veteran Melvin Gordon could return, and if he doesn’t, the Broncos are a contender for reuniting Fournette with Hackett. Offensive right tackle must be addressed with starter Bobby Massie entering his age-33 season and scheduled for free agency.
On defense, it’s probably not fair to say the Broncos will undergo a complete overhaul, but it will come awfully close to being one. Linebackers Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson and Kenny Young are all free agents. Defensive backs Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Kareem Jackson, Nate Hairston and Michael Ford also are available to test the market. The defensive line also will get some love in the draft and free agency.
Fantasy football takeaway
Note: This section is a rehash of the Wilson trade analysis from Tuesday.
Provided he picks up the system quickly — and there’s no reason to believe he won’t after having played in similar offenses already — Wilson is a surefire QB1. The depth of Denver’s receiving talent, even with all of their question marks, offers him mostly a push with Seattle’s targets as a whole.
Sure, individually, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are more talented than Sutton and Jeudy, but we’re not talking such a wide gap that it even really matters. If Sutton nears his past success and Jeudy performs up to his talent level, defenses will need to pick their poison in coverage. And that’s not to mention the blazing speed of Hamler out of the slot, provided his knee reconstruction is a success, or Tim Patrick‘s underappreciated game. Finally, dealing Fant shows the confidence Denver has in tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. He has all of the hallmarks of a genuine aerial threat.
Russ will be cooking up a fantasy feast in the Mile High City.
The backfield belongs to Javonte Williams and someone yet to be named. Melvin Gordon is a free agent, but both sides have expressed a desire for him to return. If not, finding a tandem back to pair with the 2021 rookie Williams is not going to be a problem. The North Carolina product is quality RB2 should Gordon return or someone similar be added, but it it looks like he’s in line to receive the vast majority of touches, only a handful of backs will outperform Williams in 2022. Adding a legit QB in Wilson entrenches this as one of the most promising running games in the NFL.
Of the aforementioned receivers, Sutton has proven himself the most, but a major injury in 2020 and an erratic ’21 campaign will have gamers questioning if he’s capable of repeating his WR2 fantasy success from his season a year prior to the ACL tear. Giving Sutton the benefit of the doubt, he’s a No. 2 receiver in PPR leagues and offers the most upside for a touchdown any given week.
Jeudy is an extremely gifted route-runner, and this offense requires such from the position if he’s to excel. While Sutton probably can offer slightly more on-field diversity with his route tree and size in the red zone, Jeudy should lead the team in targets and receptions if he plays every game. As in Seattle, for as explosive as Metcalf has been, the Wilson-Lockett connection was the engine in that passing game. Safely, Jeudy is a No. 2 receiver in all scoring systems. He comes with tremendous upside and won’t be a cheap investment in fantasy as drafters chase his WR1 potential. Few wideouts in the league offer this kind of upside, so recognize there’s definitely more reward potential than not, but you’ll have to pay a king’s ransom to find out.
Hamler, as mentioned, is returning from an ACL tear of his own and probably won’t he 100 percent until later in the year. He’s dynamic from the slot and has world-class speed, so his game is all about making the most of limited opportunities. There will be fantasy utility for him in traditional setups, yet gamers are looking at a more profitable DFS scenario here. Knowing when to start him in weekly lineups will be a nightmare as long as the two guys ahead of him are alive and well.
Patrick is a capable veteran who has emerged in recent seasons. He’s going to be a chain-mover who offers sneaky downfield skills, and his 6-foot-4 frame will come in handy around the end zone. He isn’t really draftable but deserves DFS consideration with the right matchups.
Albert O. flashed a few times in 2021 as he, too, worked through the aftermath of knee reconstruction following a torn ACL suffered the previous season. Finally fully recovered, the athletic, 6-foot-6, 258-pounder should be unleashed in a major way. That said, most of his fantasy contributions figure to come in the red zone. He has a little bit of Dawson Knox going on here — big TD numbers, modest, if not even low, volume stats. There’s nothing wrong with volatility as long as owners are aware of it ahead of time. Okwuegbunam is a low-tier No. 1 but ideally a rotational tight end for those willing to play the matchups from week to week.
Finally, Denver’s defense should be consistently more effective in fantasy as it won’t be gassed as much. Wilson can sustain drives and puts his defense in a position to rest up between series.