The Broncos are in a familiar spot heading into the start of a new League Year as they begin yet another search for their quarterback since Peyton Manning retired after winning Super Bowl 50. Denver owns a depressing 39-58 record (.402 winning percentage) with no playoff appearances and 10 different quarterbacks since Manning retired at the end of the 2015 season. The franchise is hoping their fourth head coach in that span will finally change their fortunes. Second-year GM George Paton appointed Nathaniel Hackett as the team’s newest head coach in late January, and he’ll be Denver’s fourth different playcaller in the last five seasons (Bill Musgrave in 2018, Rich Scangarello in 2019, and Pat Shurmur in 2020-21). Hackett owns five years of NFL playcalling experience and 13 years of overall NFL coaching service, and he most notably spent the last three seasons as Aaron Rodgers’s right-hand man.
Rodgers has been disenchanted at times with Green Bay’s front office over the last year-plus, and the Broncos have been installed as the +150 favorites to land him if he doesn’t play with the Packers next season. If Denver’s Rodgers plan falls through, the Broncos are picking ninth overall for the second straight year, and they could address the quarterback position after passing on Justin Fields and Mac Jones for Patrick Surtain last year. The Broncos are loaded with offensive skill talent and this offense could take off if they’d receive even above-average quarterback play next season. Hackett has already done a lot with little at quarterback, guiding the 2017 Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game with Blake Bortles leading the offense. The Jaguars ranked sixth in scoring offense (26.1 PPG) and fifth in total offense (365.9 yards per game) during Jacksonville’s improbable run AFC title game run, and Hackett will look to recreate that magic in a loaded AFC West starting in 2022.
The Nathaniel Hackett File
Playcalling Experience: Jaguars (2016-18), Bills (2013-14), Syracuse (2011-12)
Other Coaching Experience: Packers OC (2019-21), Jaguars QBs (2015-16)
Offensive Coaches Worked Under: Matt LaFleur (2019-21), Doug Marrone (2010-18), Jon Gruden (2006-07)
Notable: Son of Paul Hackett, who coached 42 years in the NFL and college including as Pitt HC (1989-92) and USC HC (1998-2000)
Potential Offensive Changes
Hackett has an extremely low bar to clear to upgrade this unit in Year One. The Broncos have averaged just 19.5 points per game since Manning retired at the end of the 2015 season, which is better than just the Jets (17.9), Giants (18.6), and Jaguars (19.0). Hackett said at his introductory press conference that his offense will be an outside-zone scheme that will take downfield shots downfield shots off of run action. He comes from a West Coast offense background and Green Bay’s offense integrated more RPOs last season. Green Bay went from 51 RPO calls in 2020 (16th-most) to 117 in 2021 (9th), and the Packers attempted 124 play-action passes last season (18th). The Broncos ran just 37 RPOs (5th-fewest) and 101 play-action passes (5th-fewest) under Shurmur last season.
The Packers finished around the league average in pass rate in each of the last three seasons even with the NFL’s two-time reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers at the trigger. Hackett’s offenses have skewed more toward the ground during his different runs as a playcaller, including top-two finishes in rushing attempts and rushing yards with the 2017 Jaguars and the 2013 Bills. The Jaguars finished below the league average in pass rate in each of Leonard Fournette’s two seasons with Hackett calling plays, including in 2017 when Jacksonville owned the league’s highest run rate at 48%.
Hackett’s offenses have been at or below the league average in 11 personnel in each of his last five seasons as an offensive coordinator with the Packers (2019-21) and Jaguars (2017-18). His WRs in Jacksonville still saw essentially the league average (60%) in target rate at 59.8% in 2016-18. However, Jacksonville’s RBs were targeted well above the league average of 20% at 22.5% and his TEs were targeted well below the league average of 20% at 17.6%. The Jaguars never had a tight end finish with more than 30 receptions in a season under Hackett, and even Green Bay’s tight ends were targeted well below the league average in 2020 when Robert Tonyan finished as the TE6 with 11.0 FPG while seeing just 59 targets.
Players about whom we’re feeling more optimistic based on the playcaller changes.
Javonte Williams (RB) — Javonte is poised to be a first-round fantasy pick if Melvin Gordon walks in free agency, and he’ll still be a mighty popular selection in the first three rounds if MGIII decides not to pursue a starting job elsewhere. Hackett’s hiring as head coach should only ramp up the expectations for Javonte entering his second season. Hackett has worked in extremely RB-friendly offenses throughout his NFL coaching career, including with Aaron Jones over the last three seasons and with Leonard Fournette in his first two NFL seasons. Lenny averaged 19.1 carries and 70.4 rushing yards per game with 14 rushing TDs in 21 games with Hackett calling the shots, and the 2017 Jaguars finished with the league’s highest run rate (48%). Hackett has also involved his backs in the passing game at well above the league average over the last five seasons. Jones averaged 3.3 catches and 27.1 receiving yards per game with 11 receiving TDs in 45 contests in 2019-21. Javonte is already one of the league’s most talented runners — he finished second in PFF’s elusive rating — and he could be anointed as the team’s bell-cow back if Melvin leaves in free agency. He’d be worth a top-five pick as a bell-cow back in Hackett’s RB-friendly offense, especially if the Broncos can finally iron out their long-term quarterback issue.
Players about whom we’re feeling less optimistic based on the playcaller changes.
Noah Fant (TE) — Fant hasn’t quite lived up to fantasy expectations in his first three seasons after the Broncos selected him 20th overall in the 2019 draft. He’s finished as the TE12 in each of the last two seasons with a career-best FPG average of just 10.0 in 2020. Fant has clearly been hamstrung by poor quarterback play and it doesn’t help that Albert Okwuegbunam took on a bigger role in his second season as Denver’s #2 TE. Fant averaged 5.7 catches and 52.0 receiving yards per game in three contests without Albert O in the lineup last season compared to just 3.9 catches and 39.5 receiving yards in 13 contests with Albert O in the lineup. Fant’s prospects aren’t looking much better with Hackett entering the picture. Packers’ TEs were targeted at the eight-worst rate in the league during his three seasons as the offensive coordinator in 2019-21, and Jaguars' TEs were targeted at the ninth-worst rate during his three seasons as the playcaller in 2016-18. Fant would certainly be a TE to consider as a top-100 pick if the Broncos would happen to land a top-tier quarterback like Rodgers this off-season. If the Broncos remain in QB purgatory, Fant is likely to underwhelm as a mid-round pick once again in an unfriendly TE system while battling Albert O for weekly targets.