After one of the most exhilarating offseasons in Broncos history, the 2022 season is close at hand.
On Tuesday, the Broncos will report for training camp and begin to prepare for the regular season. The task is simple: Return to the playoffs for the first time since a Super Bowl 50 win — and perhaps challenge for another Lombardi Trophy.
As the Broncos embark on that effort, though, they'll need to answer a series of questions that will help determine whether they can find success in Year 1 of the Russell Wilson era. Leading up to training camp, we'll take a look at those questions that span across the roster.
To close our series, we'll take a look at the top question on everyone's mind.
ARE THE BRONCOS READY TO CHALLENGE FOR A TITLE?
In each of the last two seasons, a veteran quarterback arrived in a new setting and led his team to a Lombardi Trophy in his very first attempt.
Tom Brady captured his seventh Super Bowl title when he guided the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a world championship in 2020, and Matthew Stafford helped the Rams win the Super Bowl last year in his first playoff appearance since 2016.
Russell Wilson, who is viewed around the league as a top-10 quarterback, certainly has the talent to join Brady and Stafford in the procession. With a Super Bowl win, Wilson would join Brady — and Peyton Manning — in an elite group of quarterbacks to lead multiple teams to world championships.
Brady and Stafford, of course, did not reach those heights alone. The Rams made it to the Super Bowl in 2018 behind head coach Sean McVay and largely the same core, and they again won the NFC West in 2020 before their title run in 2021.
The Buccaneers may be the better comparison to this Broncos roster, as Tampa featured plenty of talented players in 2019 despite struggling to a 7-9 record. A year later, with Brady in tow to help take advantage of the receiving potential of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the Bucs posted the league's third-ranked scoring offense.
As previously noted, the Broncos may be poised to take a similar jump, even if it takes a few weeks to perfect the system. The Broncos' offensive talent is comparable to Tampa's, if not more impressive. Courtland Sutton earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2019 without elite quarterback play, Tim Patrick is among the league's most underrated receivers, Jerry Jeudy has top-end talent and KJ Hamler possesses game-breaking speed. At running back, Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III are among the league's best running back duos. Albert Okwuegbunam and Greg Dulcich have appealing potential at the tight end position, and the Broncos have consistently improved their offensive line in recent years.
Defensively, the Broncos also have the necessary talent. General Manager George Paton upgraded the defensive line in the offseason and the pass rush features talented players in Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory and Nik Bonitto. The inside linebacking corps will return Josey Jewell, and the secondary is likely the defense's strength with Justin Simmons and Pat Surtain II as the headline players.
In addition to adding quality talent, Paton seemed to prioritize players with playoff experience. While Wilson has the longest playoff resume with 16 games and two Super Bowl appearances, D.J. Jones, Randy Gregory, Billy Turner, Tom Compton and K'Waun Williams have all played in at least three playoff games.
Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett and his staff — which includes a new playcaller in Defensive Coordinator Ejiro Evero — will have plenty of talent at their disposal as they aim to buck the trend of rookie head coaches. Over the last five seasons, only 26.9 percent of rookie head coaches have made the postseason, and none of those 26 coaches advanced to the Super Bowl in Year 1.
There is an important caveat, however. Most of those coaches, understandably, took over losing teams — and in most cases, they inherited either a young quarterback or a stop-gap player. Only Matt LaFleur stepped into a situation with a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback, and he reached the NFC title game with Aaron Rodgers in Year 1.
The Broncos' other big challenge in 2022 will be the strength of the AFC West. All four teams would potentially be favored to win a division like the AFC South, and there's a chance they'll beat up on each other during the regular season. For the Broncos to make the postseason, they must be better in their division, as they haven't beaten the Chiefs in 13 tries and haven't beaten the Raiders on the road since 2015. If the Broncos can pull off a 3-3 record in the division, they should be on pace to earn a wild-card berth. A 4-2 record — or better — could put Denver on track for a division title. Anything worse than .500 may be too much to overcome.
When evaluating Denver's chances, the way the schedule shapes up is critically important. In the season's first eight weeks, the Broncos will play six teams that did not make the postseason in 2021. Two of their toughest games during that stretch — against the 49ers and Colts — will come at home in prime time. It's entirely possible that as the Broncos work through likely early season speed bumps, they could still reach the bye at 6-2 or a similar record.
The toughest stretch of Denver's season doesn't begin until Week 13, when the Broncos will play four games against playoff teams in six weeks. Matchups with the Ravens and Chargers don't look any less challenging, either. In their Super Bowl runs, the Bucs and Rams found a higher gear late in the season. It's possible — and necessary — that the Broncos will do the same.
"It's about being battle-tested, being able to find out where you are, what you need to do, how you need to improve, every single time," Hackett said when the schedule came out in May. "Because in the end, it's how you play December football. You've got to be ready for December football."
If the Broncos can take advantage of their early season stretch and peak at the right time, they should find themselves in the midst of the division or wild-card race. And once the postseason begins, the Lombardi Trophy is up for grabs. The path to the Super Bowl would be easier with homefield advantage, but the Bucs won three consecutive road games en route to their title in 2020.
Perhaps most importantly for the Broncos, their window will not close after 2022. With Wilson under center, Denver should be competitive for years to come.
As long as he's quarterbacking the Broncos, though, there will be championship aspirations.
"It's Super Bowl or bust this year," Patrick said in June.
On Wednesday, the path toward lifting that Lombardi will continue.