Broncos find themselves searching for touchdowns ... again

The Broncos hope additional time removed from a 2022 knee injury will result in increased production and scoring for running back Javonte Williams. David Zalubowski/AP

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Hope might not be the official strategy, but as the Denver Broncos move through an offseason that has featured a three-player quarterback competition, their leading receiver staying away from almost all on-field work and more questions than answers, they continue to hope they have playmakers on offense who will emerge from the swirl of changes they've made.

"In our league, you re-group, and then you go play," coach Sean Payton said about the rather extreme makeover that started with quarterback Russell Wilson's release and included the selection of Bo Nix with the 12th pick in April's draft. "... You do what you think is best to try to get better."

This time last year the Broncos knew who their playmakers were, the players they believed would score touchdowns. They had Wilson at quarterback, receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy and tight end Greg Dulcich -- who Payton hoped would provide a spark like Alvin Kamara did when Payton was coaching the New Orleans Saints.

But things didn't go to plan, altering the landscape for this season. Payton benched Wilson with two games to play before releasing him in the offseason, Jeudy was traded to the Cleveland Browns in March, Sutton has stayed away from almost all of the team's offseason program in frustration over his contract and Dulcich -- who was limited to 32 snaps last season because of hamstring injuries -- has not participated in any offseason OTA or minicamp practices.

With those complications and three unproven quarterbacks -- Nix, Jarrett Stidham and Zach Wilson -- in competition to start, the Broncos find themselves wondering who will generate touchdowns in 2024.

Sutton, who attended this week's mandatory minicamp, said Tuesday that he was undecided on whether he would report on time for training camp if what he called a "stalemate" with his contract was not resolved. Sutton is the only surefire scorer on the Broncos, as he led the team and was tied for fourth in the NFL last season with 10 touchdown receptions.

"I want to go out and be able to produce and do more," Sutton said. "It was nice to be able to have the 10 touchdowns, but there is more in there ... What new heights I'll be able to get to with whoever is going to be a starter [at quarterback]."

Sutton's absence for much of the offseason and the learning curve the QBs face -- Nix and Wilson, in particular -- has illuminated the work the Broncos still have to do in searching for touchdowns, something they've struggled with for nearly a decade.

The Broncos finished 19th in scoring last season at 21 points per game, their ninth consecutive season under 23 PPG. Only two teams in last season's playoff field -- Pittsburgh (17.9) and Tampa Bay (20.5) -- averaged fewer than 21 points per game, and nine playoff teams averaged more than 23. And that was despite Russell Wilson throwing 26 touchdown passes, which was tied for sixth in the NFL when he was benched.

Earlier this offseason Payton was asked about what the Broncos needed to do to score more points. He quickly pointed to the quarterback spot and the 45 sacks that Wilson took in the 15 games he played.

"No. 1, we can't take as many sacks," Payton said. "If you looked at any of the data relative to what it does for your drives, I think that was a big thing that hurt us a year ago. But obviously you have to be efficient running the ball. There's a lot that goes into that."

The Broncos were one of seven teams to not have a 1,000-yard rusher or 1,000-yard receiver last season. Two of those seven made the playoffs (Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens), but those two also have a pair of the league's best quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

There were also 11 teams that had a 1,000-yard rusher and at least one 1,000-yard receiver. Eight made the playoffs and two of the other three finished with winning records.

In recent weeks, Payton has often referred to the Broncos' need to be more "efficient" in the run game. Javonte Williams, who was working himself back from a horrific knee injury suffered early in the 2022 season, led the team in carries last season with 217 (137 more than the next highest ball-carrier) and rushing yards with 774. But he only scored five touchdowns (three rushing, two receiving).

Some league personnel executives thought that Williams tired down the stretch; he recorded more than 15 carries in only one of the Broncos' final eight games. The Broncos hope Williams, with another offseason of recovery, is far closer to his 900-yard form as a rookie in 2021 and helps the Broncos improve on their eight rushing touchdowns from last season, which tied for 28th in the league.

The Broncos used a fifth-round pick on Notre Dame running back Audric Estime for assistance, but Estime has missed some of the offseason program after arthroscopic knee surgery.

"He's strong," Payton said of Estime. "I think he has really good vision, contact balance. He was one of the higher-graded backs after contact."

The Broncos also hope second-year receiver Marvin Mims Jr., who led the team with 17.1 yards per catch in limited duty last season, can absorb Jeudy's snaps and finish with many more touchdowns than the two Jeudy scored. Getting Dulcich healthy and involved could help the tight end group score more than the four touchdowns it netted a year ago, too.

And of course, there's hope that Sutton's contract situation is resolved in the next month. Denver also could get receiver Tim Patrick healthy after two missed seasons due to injury, and the addition of three receivers (free agent Josh Reynolds and draft picks Troy Franklin and Devaughn Vele) will create the competition and production Payton desires.

"Now we have a room, and we have a lot of young players," Payton said of the receivers. "Size is certainly something you see at the receiver position right now ... I like the energy. I feel like we're younger, and you kind of feel that at practice."

The Broncos' progress might simply be judged on how they do on the doorstep of goal line, where many coaches say it's about winning matchups over scheme. In goal-to-go situations last season -- first down from the 10-yard line or closer -- the Broncos were 30th in the league, scoring touchdowns 53.3% of the time. That bested only the New York Jets (50%) and Atlanta Falcons (48.2%).

"A lot goes into it," Payton said of potential repairs on offense. "... and you have to have a clear vision [for players]. I think we will."