ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Denver Broncos owner and CEO Greg Penner said at the start of the team’s coaching search he wanted a “strong leader for this organization,” and Tuesday sources told ESPN the Broncos had agreed to a trade with the New Orleans Saints to make Sean Payton the 19th head coach in the franchise’s history.
Because he had signed an extension with the Saints, in 2019, that was set to run through the 2024 season, the Saints and the Broncos had to negotiate compensation for Denver to sign Payton as their head coach.
The Saints will receive the Broncos’ 2023 first-round pick (No. 29 overall) and their 2024 second-round pick for Payton and the Saints’ 2024 third-round selection, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The Broncos are also expected to now make Payton one of the highest-paid head coaches in the league.
The Broncos had traded their first-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks in last year’s blockbuster trade to acquire Russell Wilson but then acquired a first-round pick from the Miami Dolphins in the trade that sent Bradley Chubb to Miami last season. That pick originally belonged to the San Francisco 49ers, who sent the pick to Miami in the trade that allowed them to pick Trey Lance in the 2021 draft.
The trade puts the Saints back into the first round of the 2023 draft. New Orleans had traded their 2023 selection to the Philadelphia Eagles in a draft picks trade last year.
Payton, who was the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2006, will Nathaniel Hackett, who was fired on Dec. 26, the day after the Broncos’ dismal 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium that dropped Denver to 4-11. They finished the season 5-12 as interim coach Jerry Rosburg closed out the year.
Payton was 152-89 in his 15 seasons as Saints head coach including a win in Super Bowl XLIV over the Indianapolis Colts. Payton did not coach this season and was an analyst for Fox Sports.
Payton will be tasked with repairing the league’s lowest-scoring offense in 2022 as Wilson finished with a career-low 16 touchdown passes and was sacked a career-most 55 times. The Broncos have missed the playoffs seven consecutive seasons and have fired three head coaches — Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett — since January of 2019.
Kicker Brandon McManus is the only player on the current roster who was in uniform for the Broncos’ last playoff game — their Super Bowl 50 win to close out the 2015 season.
Payton initially interviewed with Broncos officials Jan. 17 and was the fifth of eight candidates initially interviewed in the first wave. Penner had tipped his hand before the search began as to why someone of Payton’s experience could end up with the job.
“Obviously, the X’s and O’s are important, but we need a strong leader for this organization that’s focused on winning,” Penner said after Hackett was fired. “That starts with culture. It’s instilling a sense of accountability and discipline. We need an identity on offense. At the starting point, it has to be about culture and leadership. Those characteristics are what we’ll be focused on the most.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, former Stanford head coach David Shaw, former Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris and former Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell were all former NFL head coaches initially interviewed by the Broncos. San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who is poised to become the Houston Texans coach, was the last of the eight candidates interviewed.
Payton’s Saints teams, with Drew Brees at quarterback, were consistently among the league’s best on offense. The Saints won at least 10 games nine times in his tenure and went to the playoffs nine times.
Brees was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection in Payton’s tenure with the Saints. Brees topped 4,000 yards passing 12 times and topped 5,000 yards passing five times. Brees led the league in passing seven times.
Payton was suspended, without pay, for the 2012 season as punishment after a league investigation the Saints had a bounty program to pay players for hits on opposing players.
The Broncos finished last in the league in scoring this season (16.9 points per game), last in the league in third-down conversions, scored 16 or fewer points in 11 games and lost nine games by seven or fewer points.
Hackett’s dismissal put an abrupt end to the shortest tenure of any noninterim head coach in franchise history. Penner had decreed after Hackett was fired “we’ve got to get this right.”
At one point this season, the Broncos featured the No. 1 scoring defense and the No. 32 scoring offense. The Broncos’ current playoff drought is also the franchise’s longest since the franchise’s earliest years, when it missed the playoffs between 1960 and 1976.
It’s a far cry from Hall of Famer Pat Bowlen’s three-decade run as owner, when the Broncos went to more Super Bowls (seven) than they had losing seasons. This season is also the fifth time the Broncos have averaged fewer than 20 points per game over the past seven years. Until Hackett’s firing, Josh McDaniels had the shortest tenure as the team’s noninterim head coach in the post-AFL/NFL merger era. He was fired in 2010 with four games remaining in his second season on job. The Broncos were 3-9 when he was fired.
Hackett, 42, was hired with much fanfare last January after serving three seasons as the Green Bay Packers‘ offensive coordinator under Matt LaFleur. At the time, Paton called Hackett a “dynamic leader and coach whose intelligence, innovation and charisma impressed us from the very start of the process.”
Shortly after Hackett’s hiring, the Broncos traded five draft picks, including two first-rounders and two second-rounders, as well as three players to the Seattle Seahawks to acquire Wilson. Wilson was signed to a five-year, $245 million contract extension just before the start of the season.