Is Russell Wilson cooked? –

To say that this is a critical year for Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos is an understatement. After trading a massive haul to the Seattle Seahawks for Wilson, the Broncos signed him to a $242 million contract extension with $48 million in average salary over five years, fourth highest among NFL QBs. The hope was that in a new environment, Wilson would bring back his explosive playmaking and lead the Broncos back to the playoffs.

Yeah, that didn’t happen at all. Russ was a shell of himself in year one in Denver, unconfident in his ability, and the Broncos suffered as a result. Then-head coach Nathaniel Hackett was barely any help, and was promptly fired before the season ended.

Now, Sean Payton enters the fray, an experienced head coach who has to find a way to make this work with Wilson. The biggest thing that he and the Broncos have to do is find a way to get Wilson to at least a baseline level of QB play. Before he gets to that point, though, we have to answer a few questions about Wilson in 2023.

What is Russell Wilson good at in 2023, and what can’t he do in 2023?

In order to really establish what Russ will look like this year, we gotta know what he can and can’t do at 35 years old. It’s safe to say that the Russell Wilson who would pull rabbits out of his hat outside the pocket is not going to be making a return to the field in 2023, and it makes sense. Wilson is getting up there in age, and his play out of the pocket is going to wane as he loses athleticism.

However, his drop off in many major aspects of his game are huge issues, especially in context of how modern NFL defenses are playing. Russ was never that impressive in the quick game or short area passing aspect of the game, but that part of his arsenal fell off a cliff in 2022, and it ultimately stalled the entire offense.

Russ was BAD in 2022

Year Short passing(0-10 air yards) Positive Play Rate (rank) min. 100 att Deep Passing (20+ air yards) Positive Play Rate (rank) min. 20 att Play Action Positive Play Rate (rank) min. 45 att Sack Rate (rank) min. 140 att
Year Short passing(0-10 air yards) Positive Play Rate (rank) min. 100 att Deep Passing (20+ air yards) Positive Play Rate (rank) min. 20 att Play Action Positive Play Rate (rank) min. 45 att Sack Rate (rank) min. 140 att
2019 48.7% (14th) 43.7% (6th) 59.4% (2nd) 7.9% (7th)
2020 51.6% (t-10th) 35.0% (25th) 57.1% (7th) 7.4% (7th)
2021 42.8% (23rd) 40.6% (16th) 50.8% (15th) 7.2% (11th)
2022 35.5% (31st) 38.7% (19th) 35.2% (36th) 9.7% (3rd)

Modern NFL defenses are designed to take away the deep ball. All of the 2-high defenses, which place two safeties at the top of the defensive structure, are meant to mitigate explosive plays by putting a top on the defense. You don’t get soda spraying out the bottle when there’s a cap on it, and it’s the same thing for NFL defenses. From an offense’s perspective, you get teams out of this shell in a few ways: either running the ball and using play action to take your shots downfield, or become incredibly efficient in the quick game, forcing the safeties to rotate down on account of the run game or to flood the short-to-intermediate areas.

The Broncos last year were poor in both of those areas, and it hampered the true effectiveness of Wilson and the passing game. In 2022, Wilson saw a 2-high shell on 231 of his dropbacks, which is ninth in the NFL. A meager number, but when you consider that he had 566 total dropbacks, bringing him to seeing 2-high shells 40 percent of the time, it becomes a major issue. Russ has never truly been good at the quick game, so he’s had to rely on his athleticism to get these shells to break, hence the high sack rate. So that means in order to supplant his waning athleticism, the Broncos and Wilson would have to learn how to work well in the quick game.

It didn’t happen for him last year. Most of the time, Wilson looked uncomfortable in the pocket, panicking at the first sight of pressure and not throwing the ball on time. It makes sense then that the Broncos were 28th in Positive Play Rate on all first down passes and 29th on all first down runs. The offense was predictable and poor, and it led to the Broncos finishing dead last in points per game, despite have a darn near $250 million QB.

However, it wasn’t all lost for Wilson. Despite the 19th-ranked finish in deep ball success rate, he still has the arm strength and velocity to drive the ball downfield when given the opportunity and he can catch the defense sleeping. Which brings us to our next question…

How will Sean Payton get the most out of this Broncos offense with this version of Wilson?

Sean Payton was away from coaching in 2022, so he was able to get a birds-eye view of what the Broncos looked like on offense. He definitely didn’t hold back, calling it one of the “worst coaching jobs in the NFL”, but now that Payton is in charge, he has to get the most out of this iteration of Wilson.

If the offseason acquisitions and preseason tell you anything, it’s that this offense will be less Let Russ Cook and more Let Russ Microwave. Along the offensive line, the Broncos signed former 49er RT Mike McGlinchey and guard Ben Powers. Both come from run-based offenses and can generate push in the run game, and while McGlinchey isn’t the best pass protector, they paid him to be so he’s going to have to improve there. In addition, they signed RB Semaje Perine to go along with Javonte Williams, who is recovering from an ACL tear. Perine is a solid pass protector and short yardage back, who can supplement Williams if necessary. Add in trading for Adam Trautman, a TE Payton has experience with, and you get one thing for certain: the Broncos want to be better running downhill. Just as I said above with the Broncos inability to get opposing defenses out of 2-high shells, Denver is going to lean the other way this year, and go more towards hammering opposing fronts and forcing them to move a safety down.

This all affects Wilson because now he doesn’t have to worry too much about the quick game, and can use play action to attack defenses vertically. With play action displacing linebackers, the middle of the field is less foggy (another portion of Wilson’s game that isn’t good—we’ll blame that on being short) and Wilson can deliver passes downfield. Play action also means more pass protectors, giving Wilson more time in the pocket without having to worry about pressure. What all of this is setting up for is Wilson not throwing the ball as much on early downs, but rather letting the supporting cast do the work while he hits a few throws downfield. Hence, Let Russ Microwave.

Will it be enough for Denver to make the playoffs? Who knows, but we do know for sure that this is the best way for Denver and Sean Payton to get the most out of their extremely expensive QB at 35 years old. For this to work, however, Wilson has to let go of Let Russ Cook and be willing to throw off play action and bootlegs, creating easier reads for himself.

So to answer the question: no, Russ might not be cooked. Charred, yes. Maybe a bit on the rare side. However, if this offense doesn’t work this year, we’ll hit well done before any of us know it.

This content was originally published here.

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