The Denver Broncos are taking a different approach to the preseason a year after sitting the starters backfired on them.
Coach Sean Payton — who last week walked back critical comments of his predecessor and others in a misguided defense of Russell Wilson — has said all along that he’ll play his starters in the preseason, beginning with Denver’s game at Arizona on Friday.
That includes Wilson, who didn’t take a snap last year until the opener at Seattle — after he’d signed a nearly quarter-billion dollar extension.
After reiterating over the weekend his intention to play his starters, Payton expounded upon those plans after a Monday practice that was closed to the public, suggesting his front-line players could see somewhere between 15 and 18 snaps in the first exhibition game.
“It’s not time in the game; it’s really more of a pitch count for these guys,” Payton said.
Asked what he wanted to see in the Broncos’ first preseason action, Payton said there was plenty, beginning with his players going full speed with a full grasp of their assignments so that the coaching staff can “evaluate them versus a different scheme.”
“It’s probably just as easy to answer the question as to what I don’t want to see,” Payton continued. “I don’t want to see 10 guys on the field. I don’t want to see uniforms off after we’re done playing, sunglasses on and Gilligan hats on and interviews during the game. That’s what I don’t want to see, but we will communicate all of that.”
Floppy or bucket hats — or what Payton calls “Gilligan” hats — are a popular NFL trend and coincidentally, Nathaniel Hackett wore one when he was the Broncos’ head coach last year.
Payton wasn’t aiming another potshot at his predecessor, however, just expressing his disdain for players who don the hats on the sideline after their day is done.
Payton recently expressed remorse after telling a reporter the work Hackett did in Denver last year constituted “one of the worst coaching jobs in the NFL” and saying there were “20 dirty hands” around Wilson’s career-worst season in 2022. Those comments drew criticism from Jets coach Robert Saleh — who hired Hackett as his offensive coordinator in January — Jets QB Aaron Rodgers and Hackett himself. Payton said he regretted his sharp words, which are sure to be rehashed when the Jets visit the Broncos in Week 5.
Payton also said in that interview that he was doing just about everything the opposite of what was done last year in Denver, where Hackett ditched training camp staples such as 7-on-7 passing drills and 1-on-1 pass rush drills and hardly ever had his players go full speed or hit each other in full pads, all in an effort to keep them from getting hurt.
The approach backfired when the Broncos got off to a poor start and never recovered, in large part because of an injury epidemic in the opening weeks of the season.
Payton’s team has also been dealing with a rash of injuries, beginning with wide receiver Tim Patrick’s torn left Achilles almost a year to the day after he tore his right ACL. Patrick will miss the entire season for a second straight year.
Linebacker Jonas Griffith (ACL) got hurt last week and linebacker Baron Browning (knee) is on the active/PUP list. Guard Yasir Durant (undisclosed) is on IR. Defensive lineman Mike Purcell (knee) is on the active/non-football injury list. Cornerback Riley Moss underwent a core muscle repair surgery last week and wide receiver KJ Hamler was released with a heart condition with plans to bring him back after the season starts.
Also, star safety Justin Simmons didn’t practice Monday and Payton said Simmons was dealing with a strained groin.
Payton didn’t say how long he expected Simmons to be out but did indicate it will be long enough to get a look at other safeties on the roster, and that most likely encompasses the preseason opener against the Cardinals.
“He’s a veteran player and a great communicator. He’s someone that’s always in the right spot, he’s savvy, he’s smart,” Payton said. “Some other younger guys will step in. … We’ll be smart with him and eventually get him back, but in the meantime other guys will get the chance to get in and get some reps.”
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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