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'There's still a lot of work to be done': HC Sean Payton recaps 2023 progress and details next steps

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For Head Coach Sean Payton, the press conference arrived too early.

Payton, in his 15 seasons as the Saints' head coach, reached the postseason on nine occasions. During those years, his end-of-season media availability was pushed back into late January or even February.

As he addressed the media on Tuesday following his initial 8-9 campaign in Denver, the timing seemed far too quick.

"Certainly, it's not the right week for us and for when we'd like to be having this meeting," Payton said.

Payton entered the season with hopes of reaching the postseason — and the Broncos gave themselves a chance after starting 1-5. Denver ultimately fell short of a playoff berth and a winning record, which prompted Payton to say he would "have a hard time" declaring the season a success.

"My appetite is where it should be — a little bit stronger," said Payton when asked if 2023 was a success. "I said this at the beginning of the season: … I felt like we had a chance, and this team had a chance to get into the postseason. I feel that same way now. I'm disappointed because of that, and disappointed that I look back on a handful of things that I could have done differently and better. Now, make no mistake about it, we finished where our record was. We could point to a few games that would have gotten us to nine or 10 [wins], but we could point to a few games that got us to six really quickly as well. That's generally the case each year. [There's] no pass-fail, success-nonsuccess. It is what it is. [It] just leaves a taste in your mouth, [leaves] you [looking] forward to the work. The tough thing about it is that you don't get to erase it next Sunday. Here it is. That's the truth."

And while Payton acknowledged the Broncos have "begun to put a program in place," Denver's record offered him a clear indication of the work that still needs to be done. General Manager George Paton, too, offered a similar assessment.

"The thing I would say about this team is that they stuck together and stayed the course," Paton said. "Sean never flinched. You felt in the building that we were going to pull out of it. No one had any doubt. That's a tribute to Sean and the staff and the team. Then to get to [7-8] and have a chance to have a chance."

And yet, there was more to be done.

"Now, we just need to finish," Paton said. "I think there were a lot of positives, [but] 8-9 is 8-9."

As the Broncos look to move past 8-9 for a more successful 2024 campaign, they'll need to make progress in a number of areas.

Paton detailed the need to hit on the 12th-overall pick in April's draft and to supplement their roster's depth through the rest of the draft.

"The depth, and I don't want to use that as a cop-out, but you need depth in this league," Paton said. "We budget for anything that comes along, cap-wise. The depth gets affected when you don't have draft picks, because you are not going to go buy depth. You need to draft depth and develop depth. We're always looking for young depth. They're cheaper, and they are typically healthier. … The depth of your team needs to come from the mid-to-late rounds and college free agency."

That could be particularly important for the Broncos in 2024, given that Paton said he does not expect to be as active in free agency as the Broncos were ahead of the 2023 season.

"We won't be in on the first wave of free agency like we were last year," Paton said. "You can't do that every year. We'll be very strategic and very specific on what positions and what players we try to sign. Obviously, we have to hit on the draft. We're picking high, and we have six picks. We could have more. You know we like picks. We'll go from there."

The Broncos will also look for increased contributions from young players like wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr., cornerback Riley Moss, linebacker Drew Sanders and a number of others. Paton described Moss, Sanders and center Alex Forsyth as starting-caliber players, and he also complimented the "really big moments" Mims had in Year 1. Paton used cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian as an example of a player who made a jump after his first season, and Denver is hopeful its other young players can also make that move forward.

Paton did note the talent-evaluation process should be easier heading into 2024 as the Broncos return the same head coach for the first time since the 2021 offseason.

"It's going to be huge," Paton said. "We've had three coaches in three years. It's hard on the building, and it is hard on the scouts. [We've had] new coaches coming in and out. Sean does a great job of describing the vision he wants for each position. The scouts have an idea, and the scouts are experts because Sean and the coaches talk so much about players and what they are looking for in players. Last year at this time, we were looking for a coach, but we feel like we have a big jump on the offseason because of that. We know exactly what he wants at each position, both on offense and defense. [Defensive Coordinator] Vance [Joseph] does a great job of articulating, as well, with his staff. We feel like we have a head start."

Paton said he and Payton are aligned in "how we want to continue to build this," and Payton echoed that sentiment.

"We've had a really good working relationship from the beginning," Payton said. "All that has gone well. We communicate two, three, four times per day. That's worked out really well."

The Broncos' improvement also won't be limited to the roster, as Payton called the offense a "heavy-duty work in progress" as Denver heads into the offseason.

"I would say we're not building on that foundation yet," Payton said. "We're still putting the pilings in, based on what I saw."

Payton pointed specifically to the Broncos' goal-to-go offense, which he described as "awful." The Broncos' play-caller said he'll look at his sequencing in those situations to improve on a season-long performance that "wasn't good enough."

Whether on the field or behind the scenes, both Payton and Paton acknowledge there's plenty of work to be done before the Broncos kick off the 2024 season — and neither is hiding from that challenge.

"We've begun to lay the foundation, and there's still a lot of work to be done," Payton said.

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