ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — While selecting assistants for his Broncos’ coaching staff, Sean Payton took different approaches to his two fronts.
Along the defensive line, he retained Marcus Dixon, who along with defensive backs coach Christian Parker were the only two holdovers from Nathaniel Hackett’s staff among Payton’s top 19 position coaching assistants. Ejiro Evero, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator last year, wanted to take both Dixon and Parker with him to Carolina, where he now leads the Panthers’ defense.
But Dixon and Parker were under contract with the Broncos, and the Broncos weren’t about to let talented coaches go to another team.
“It’s an honor,” Dixon said last week of the Broncos retaining him. “I always look at this as a privilege. None of us have a right to be here. It’s all a privilege. For him to keep us here, it says a lot for what we do, but also for, that he trusts us. So I have to give him everything I’ve got.”
Along the offensive line, Payton selected the relatively inexperienced Zach Strief, a 12-year NFL offensive lineman turned radio play-by-play broadcaster who moved to the coaching booth as an offensive line assistant just two years ago.
After struggling to connect with offensive line coach Butch Barry last season, the Broncos’ offensive linemen seem to be all in on Strief to date.
“I understand where they’re at,” Strief said when asked how his vast playing experience with the New Orleans Saints translates to coaching. “I understand the stress and anxiety they play with. And I think that’s one of my strengths as a coach is that I know how you think and feel.
“At the same time, there’s this moment where I’m just pushing you. There’s a conditioning aspect to this game, and I know exactly what you think about what I’m about to tell you, but I don’t care. Because I want to push you harder and I will push you harder and I will push you harder.
“And that for me is probably the biggest balancing act, I want these guys to trust me, but sometimes it’s going to be a leap of faith for them because it doesn’t make sense at the moment or it’s going to be harder than they want have it or I’m going to yell more than they want me to. But I think you can balance that. And I think it’s important to have that side of yourself and also to put your arm around the guy.”
Both Strief, 39, and Dixon, 38, received the team’s most expensive offseason gifts for their units. Strief’s offensive line was bolstered with the signings of free-agent left guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey for a combined $30.5 million per year. Dixon signed Zach Allen, who replaces Dre’Mont Jones, for more than $15 million per
“He brings a lot of effort,” Dixon said of Allen. “A lot of toughness. Run stop and pass rush ability. Smart. He’s been in the system before with (defensive coordinator Vance Joseph). He brings a lot to the room. He comes in, he wants to work. That’s the biggest thing he really wants work. He wants the guys to work and everybody loves him.”
Strief is here in part because Payton has always had a unique connection to him. It started in 2006, Payton’s first season as the Saints’ head coach. He called his old Miami of Ohio head coach Randy Walker for a late-round recommendation. Walker was then the head coach of Northwestern when he recommended Strief. (Two months later, to the shock of the football community, Walker died suddenly of an apparent heart attack, aged 52).
Strief began as a backup guard through his first five NFL seasons, then became a six-year starting offensive tackle for Payton, then had another partial season at guard before retiring. Payton was further impressed that Strief became a play-by-play radio announcer on the Saints’ broadcasts and not a color commentator, which is almost always the job for former players. Two years ago, Payton elevated Strief from one booth to the other, making him an assistant offensive line coach.
Strief also gave strong references to two other Payton assistants in Austin King and Lou Ayeni. King was Strief’s teammate at Northwestern and is now the Broncos’ assistant offensive line coach; Ayeni is the Broncos and former Northwestern running backs coach.
“He’s not bringing in more Northwestern guys, but yeah, Austin, who works with us on the offensive line, also hosted me on my official visit to Northwestern,” Strief said. “He’s been one of my best friends for 20-something years now. Unbelievably bright, talented. He was offensive coordinator at Dayton, No. 1 offense for three years there. He has more background than I do from a schematic standpoint. And the good thing is we think about offensive line play the same way, which is great.
“And then Louis, Louis was kind of a surprise. Sean came to me and said, what do you know about Lou Ayeni, and I said, ‘He’s the best. We’ve got to bring him in. Everybody loves Lou.’ You sell a lot and we were lucky to get him as well. I think the running backs would say the same thing. It’s pretty cool to be here with a lot of familiar faces. But definitely two guys that were just friends from college.”
Dixon stayed here in part because of the impressive development work he did with two defensive rookies last season, fourth-rounder Eyioma Uwazurike and sixth-rounder Matt Henningsen. While Uwazurike only played in the second half of last season, Henningsen played all 17 games.
Those two are expected to get more playing time in 2023 after the Broncos decided not to re-sign veteran defensive end DeShawn Williams.
“It’s very good they got those reps last year,” Dixon said. “They came in and you can tell they’re a little more confident in what they’re doing and in their abilities. And they’re smart. They also want to work. And they understand that it’s a process. We talk about it all the time – it’s all a process and we’re never going to cheat it, we’re never going to rush it and they believed in it. And it’s a credit to them. I’m just a coach. They’ve got to play . And that’s what they’re doing. I’m very happy about that.”
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