ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As he makes the rounds through various training camps across the NFL, Sport Illustrated senior NFL reporter Albert Breer visited UCHealth Training Center on Thursday to check out the Broncos.
We sat down with Breer during practice to discuss his thoughts on how the Broncos stack up in the AFC West, what Russell Wilson brings to the team, players he believes could have breakout campaigns this year and more.
What are your expectations for the Broncos this season?
"I sort of feel the same way about every team in the AFC West. There's promise with all of them, and the margin of error is going to be really small in the division. I think a lot of it's going to come down to who stays healthy, who has some young guys that develop. I do think it's relatively close. I think going and getting [Wilson] was a statement on where the Broncos think they are and how close they think they are to competing for a championship. It's hard to envision a scenario where all four teams in the West make the playoffs, so it's going to be really interesting how that shakes out. I think with all four of those teams, you have to look at them in that context, with the exception of maybe the Chiefs just because of all they've accomplished already."
Where do you think the Broncos will place in the AFC West, if you had to guess?
"I honestly think the Chiefs are [a cut above] because of the quarterback, because of the coach, because they've proven so much. And then I guess you put the Chargers maybe a notch ahead of the Broncos and Raiders because they've got Brandon Staley going into Year 2, whereas the Broncos and Raiders both have new coaches. But I think it's going to be super competitive. I know that's a big cop-out answer."
What are you hearing around the league about how things are coming together for the Broncos?
"Having talked to people about the roster here, there's a good feeling for a lot of the guys here … I think there's obviously a lot of respect for [General Manager] George [Paton] and the job he did in Minnesota for all those years. I think they've been able to stabilize it, and they've got so much to prove. … The Super Bowl was the last playoff game they played in, so there's obviously a lot to prove here, but there's plenty of reason for optimism. Again, I just view going and getting [Wilson] — you don't do that unless you think you're close."
For you, what would constitute a good season for Russell Wilson?
"[A] Pro Bowl's kind of arbitrary. … I think getting the Broncos into the playoffs. And I think getting the most out of the young players around him. I think so much of what he wanted was to have an offense that was built around him and that was going to allow him to sort of test some stuff, like, 'How much more can I do than I've already been?' I think a lot of it's going to come down to, obviously Tim Patrick's hurt now, but what does Courtland Sutton look like? What does Jerry Jeudy look like? What does KJ Hamler look like? To me, those things are really important.
"It's almost like when Peyton [Manning] got here in 2012, and I was here for a lot of that. I can remember how Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were one thing before that, and then you saw a whole different level in those guys once Peyton got here. I think a lot of it's going to be based on a) making the playoffs, and b) how much more you're getting out of the young receivers that you have around you."
What do you think Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett brings to this organization?
"A lot of juice. Having known him for a while, I just think there's such great passion for football there. It's sort of cliché to say a lot of teams are trying to be the Microsoft of football, or the Apple of football, but I do think there's going to be an open flow of ideas here. I think getting [Offensive Coordinator Justin] Outten to come with him from Green Bay was big, and getting [Defensive Coordinator] Ejiro [Evero], because you've got a lot of symmetry on the staff, guys that know each other. I think that that's going to help create what [Hackett's] looking to create here, which is just an open flow of ideas, and I think what should become a pretty innovative place."
Guys like Pat Surtain II and Justin Simmons had great years last year, Bradley Chubb is healthy again. How good do you think the defense can be this year?
"My question with the defense is really based on losing [former head coach] Vic [Fangio]. [Evero's] very well thought of across the NFL, but there aren't three or four defensive coaches in football that are more well-respected for what they do to get the most out of the players they have, and put together a really productive, hard-to-play-against unit. You talk to offensive coaches, it is the most challenging scheme to go against. [Evero] is going to bring some of that because he was with [former Rams defensive coordinator and current Chargers head coach Brandon] Staley and learned from him in LA, but I think there's that natural question: Were some guys playing a little over their heads because [Fangio] is such a good defensive coach? I think that's where the question's going to be. You have talent there, no question. Can [Evero] get as much out of it as [Fangio] was able to, because [Fangio's] track record is obviously very strong."
Are there any guys on the team you're expecting breakout seasons from?
"It's sort of a simple answer, but [I'm] falling back on the young receivers, Jeudy and Hamler. I certainly think [Wilson's] ability to get the ball downfield should help someone like Hamler. And then Javonte Williams. I don't want to put this on him, but I actually predicted last year that [Colts running back] Jonathan Taylor was going to win the rushing title. It was because you saw a little of what he could be as a rookie, and there was so much more out there for him. I'm not going to sit here and tell you Javonte Williams can win the rushing title, but I think he's got a shot to become a top-10 running back this year. So he'd be another name to watch. Everybody sees all the freaky stuff that Pat Surtain can do, and I'd hesitate to even call him a breakout guy because I think everybody already knows how good he is."