ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Few words crank up folks in and around Denver like “joker.’’
Nikola Jokic, a two-time NBA MVP and reigning NBA Finals MVP, just led the Nuggets to the franchise’s first championship and has the nickname. Of all the words Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton said during the team’s offseason program, when he dropped “joker’’ and tight end Greg Dulcich in the same sentence it may have been one of the most important nuggets of the no-pads season.
“He’s got unique skill set, and he’s got traits in the passing game,’’ Payton said of Dulcich. “We use the term joker, where we can get matchups.’’
Long before the Nuggets made Jokic the 41st pick of the NBA draft during the Taco Bell commercial, Payton has favored a role in his offense for a player with multifaceted skills.
A player who could run a variety of pass routes, stress different parts of the field and run with purpose once he had the ball in his hands. To this point, however, the players who have succeeded the most in that role through the years have been running backs.
Payton has seen the likes of Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush and, most recently, Alvin Kamara, flourish as the joker in the offense. Kamara had four 80-catch seasons for Payton, three seasons with at least 13 total touchdowns and two with at least 18 total touchdowns.
Sproles had at least 71 receptions in all three of years in Payton’s offense while Bush rushed for at least 565 yards and caught at least 73 passes in each of Payton’s first two years as New Orleans Saints coach (2006-2007).
“The joker player for us is not a receiver,’’ Payton said earlier this offseason. “It’s either a running back or a tight end with exceptional ball skills and then you can work matchups. We’ve had that at the running back spot, Reggie Bush was the joker, Darren Sproles and Alvin Kamara. Those were all unique players, not just in the running game, but they had passing game skill sets that allowed you to do multiple things, and I think Greg does too.’’
Dulcich, who was the Broncos’ third-round pick in the 2022 draft, now suddenly has fairly lofty expectations for 2023. His rookie season was equal parts frustration because of recurring hamstring injuries that kept him out of training camp and limited him to 10 games. His first NFL reception was a 39-yard touchdown and he went on to finish third on the team in receptions and yards receiving despite missing seven games.
Dulcich has deflected most any discussion of what his role might evolve into in the new offense, but he has flashed the speed and the route running in the team’s workouts to hint at what could be.
“(The) whole tight end unit (has) really dynamic players, (I’m) excited about what we can do,’’ Dulcich said.
Dulcich has credited tight end Adam Trautman, who the Broncos traded for during the draft, and Chris Manhertz, signed in free agency, with helping the transition to the new playbook. Both played for Payton in New Orleans.
“They’ve brought expertise … they kind of know the ins and outs,’’ Dulcich said. “ … It’s been pretty seamless because of those guys.’’
Payton often talks of “a vision’’ for players on his roster, the specific roles or jobs they can eventually fill. His idea for the joker has it roots with running back named Marshall Faulk, who played for Payton, a 29-year-old running backs coach, at San Diego State.
Payton has called Faulk, an NFL Hall of Famer, the “standard’’ in the role. Payton was also the Giants offensive coordinator when Tiki Barber had two seasons as a 1,000-yard rusher with at least 460 yards receiving.
While Dulcich’s full portfolio remains to be seen when the Broncos return to training camp and in the preseason later this summer, Payton is clearly leaning toward route versatility for the second-year tight end with speed matchups Dulcich can win.
The key will be Dulcich’s ability to leave his hamstring injuries behind. He said during the Broncos’ offseason program he had spent weeks working on his flexibility and taking to heart what the locals in the mile high country have know -- the altitude and dry climate make hydration a vigilance.
“You get dehydrated quick,’’ Dulcich said. “ … I’ve said, I’ve tried to make sure my flexibility is a lot better than it was, just really focusing on making sure I stay on top of those things, it’s been a huge part of my offseason.’’
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who spent seven years on Payton’s New Orleans staff in two different stints, said the May and June work in the offense was mostly “understand what we’re trying to do … who you’re supposed to block, what route you’re supposed to run.’’ A more defined approach is on the horizon in training camp.
"When you get into the season, you really get more specific to who’s running what route,’’ Payton said. “[Dulcich’s] menu is going to be lengthy in the passing game and there’s enough stuff that we can do in the run game. I’ve been lucky enough to -- I’ve had (former Saints tight end Jeremy) Shockey, (former Cowboys tight end Jason) Witten, (former Saints tight end) Jimmy Graham, and I’m probably leaving out a few guys. I’m not saying this young player [will be those players], but he’s got traits that are exciting.’’