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Broncos GM George Paton sets tone for new season: 'We embrace' high expectations

Arrival of coach Nathaniel Hackett, quarterback Russell Wilson sets new standard, creates big energy
Posted at 5:07 PM, Jul 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-26 19:55:25-04

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In February at the Senior Bowl, Broncos general manager George Paton first began discussing the possibility of acquiring Russell Wilson with Seahawks counterpart John Schneider, a blunt move designed to address Denver's most gnawing problem the past six seasons.

Talks followed at the NFL Combine, and on March 8, Paton pulled off the NFL's biggest offseason transaction. Wilson was a Bronco, and the Seahawks received five picks and whatever players they wanted to push this deal across the finish line.

For Paton, a measured leader who believes in the process and piecing together a roster, this represented a home run swing. It signified a remarkable show of faith in a single player to blend with a new coaching staff.

All of it made more sense on Tuesday in the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse during the annual media barbecue. The roster is stronger than a year ago, fortified by free agency and deepened by the draft. Hope has returned. Wilson has changed everything. All of those weeks of calls and texts to land Wilson were designed to make the Broncos a contender again. They certainly look like one.

"We know expectations are higher than they've been in many years. We embrace that," Paton said. "We are fired up."

Part of the heat comes from Hackett. His energy is contagious. He's a talker, a hugger, a teacher. He connects with players as a friend, though he said he's mindful of creating expectations and holding people to them. Paton explained that Hackett has "rebooted" the organization. Now, he's in charge for the first time.

"I am ready to go. Did we get better in the offseason? We sure did," Hackett said. "I was told a team is good when a coach holds them accountable, but a team is great when players hold each other accountable."

Hackett worked his way to that answer when asked what he gleaned from the Colorado Avalanche's Stanley Cup run. Hackett attended multiple playoff games, saw the bond — the connection with the team and the city. He aims to achieve success with the Broncos, longing for that type of success for playoff-starved fans.

The theme that emerged repeatedly on Wednesday is that patience is not a buzzword. The Broncos feel ready to win and win now. All-Pro safety Justin Simmons has never been to the playoffs, so he is motivated to achieve that goal.

"The quarterback position, adding Russ, that's huge. We have added so many players across the board that I feel like it's going to help us in every facet of the game," Simmons said. "The optimism is because it feels like it's all new — Coach Hackett, new ownership — it's just really exciting. I have talked every year about how excited I am, but I have no timidity in saying it now. This year is, I don't know, just different."

There is a new standard. It starts with the coaching staff, which will be challenged to accelerate its own learning curve with first-time defensive and special teams coordinators. And it goes through Wilson. He demands respect because of his 9-time Pro Bowl resume and Super Bowl ring. He is considered elite at the game's most important position. Where he walks, teammates follow. To San Diego twice for throwing sessions. Even to the opening of his fashion clothing store Monday night with wife Ciara before he arrived for camp Wednesday in a mini-monster truck.

"It began when we got Russ as our quarterback. The standard started there. It hasn't dropped," receiver Courtland Sutton said.

This camp will look and sound different. There will be more movement with Hackett in charge. There will be music — remember Hackett was a hip-hop dance instructor nearly two decades ago at UC Davis. And players will be staying at a team hotel for the first time since COVID-19 created isolation and separation.

"In our world, that's part of getting back to a sense of normalcy," Simmons said. "Fans will be back (and it's expected to be packed on the berm on Wednesday). It feels like getting back to what we know."

For the Broncos, that was winning for the better part of three decades. It was talking about reaching the Super Bowl with a straight face. The expectation of excellence has returned.

"The players want to win. They are obsessed with the process of winning. And obviously we had the big trade. It was game-changing. We know what type of player Russell is," Paton said. "It doesn't do us any good to talk about it. We have to do it. But we are fired up inside this building, inside these walls."

New Deal or No Deal for Wilson?
With Kyler Murray signing this week for $103 million fully guaranteed and $160 million guaranteed for injury, speculation began that Wilson could be among the next in line for a contract extension. He will make $19 million this season and $22 million in 2023. It's hard to imagine him not approaching $50 million in average annual value on a new deal given the exploding quarterback market.

Paton declined to discuss contract talks or timetables, though more clarity could emerge when new owner Rob Walton takes over, which is expected on Aug. 9 after an NFL owners' vote on his $4.65 billion purchase of the team.

"We all want Russell here a long time. Out respect for his team, his agent, we are going to keep discussions in house," Paton said. "At the right time, we will get a deal done."

The Broncos will be missing notable players for Wednesday's first practice. Outside linebacker Randy Gregory (shoulder), right tackle Billy Turner (knee) and receiver K.J. Hamler (hip, knee) will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list. This was anticipated. They can come off at anytime during camp. Gregory is expected to be ready for the start of the season, while some uncertainty surrounds the return of Turner and Hamler.