Kiszla: Can coach Nathaniel Hackett give tough love Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy needs?

It will take more than a pep talk from a kindergarten cop to turn around the NFL career of Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy.

Nathaniel Hackett, who brings a breathless energy to every coaching task, took big gulps of the thin Colorado air after running sprints with Broncos rookies at the conclusion of practice.

“We’re all in this stuff together. So I want to let them know I’m right there with them, even though it might not be as pretty,” Hackett said Friday. His flush cheeks and heaving chest proved a rookie coach might run with first-year pros, but Hackett can’t hide the fact he’s 42 years old.

In his first head coaching gig, Hackett is determined to paint a smiley face on football. He is the antithesis of grumpy old Uncle Vic Fangio, his predecessor.

Trying to be one of the bruhs while bopping his head to the mixtape at practice, Hackett brings the youthful enthusiasm of a kindergarten cop to the playground. That’s cool. But when this team needs an adult in the room, will he prove to be the right mentor and disciplinarian for the job?

Before having the chance to install his offense, Hackett discovered there’s more to being the head coach in Denver than the ability to quote Justin Timberlake lyrics. He was forced to sit down with Jeudy, a 23-year-old receiver really good at football but struggling with the messy details of life.

Coaching is easy when you get to drop Austin Powers references in the game plan and give attaboys to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The task grows exponentially harder when you have to work the uncertain territory between being a sympathetic confidante to a troubled receiver and a hard-edged boss with no time for the shenanigans of a knucklehead.

“In the end, we’re all people. We’re all on a team together. I think it’s one of those things where you want to be there for each other,” said Hackett, when I asked if his role as head coach required him to bring more gravity to his conversation with Jeudy. “You have to just find out all the information. You have to do it all the right way. And I think that’s what we did here.”

After entering the league as a first-round draft choice with the reputation of running surgically precise routes, Jeudy has drifted off course. He spent a night in the Arapahoe County Jail after a disagreement with the mother of his young child that involved no violence but was handled poorly by all concerned.

Police locked up a sports celebrity and left the nuances of a messy situation to be sorted by a judge after a headline implying domestic violence let imaginations run wild before all the facts could be ascertained.

A relentless 24/7 news churn and the screaming, made-you-look nature of social media encourages a rush to judgment, whether we’re building a marble pedestal or blowing a reputation to smithereens, regarding a pro athlete.

So pardon me for my ambivalence in assessing where Jeudy fits in the highly anticipated return to playoff contention for the Broncos. Heading into his third pro season, he’s at a fork in the road. Jeudy must work to win back trust one catch at a time, rather than regard his status as an entitlement of the 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft.

Yes, having quarterback Russell Wilson throwing the football could reward solid route running in a way neither Drew Lock nor Teddy Bridgewater ever could. There’s no doubt a serious ankle sprain was a setback to his growth during the 2021 season.

But there’s also an annoying “It ain’t me, it’s you” vibe from Jeudy that causes him to waste energy on battles that don’t need to exist. He has scored a meager three touchdowns as a pro, which can’t all be blamed on the bad schemes of former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

Fellow Alabama alum Pat Surtain II showed up in Denver with the savvy of a five-year NFL veteran. By comparison, Jeudy sometimes seems like a kid who can’t quite get a grip on how much is required to turn potential into Pro Bowl production.

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“There’s adversity and it’s how we respond from that adversity. I think that’s so important,” Hackett said after meeting with Jeudy about his arrest. “Things happen and we just have to learn from them.”

From Bradley Roby to Paxton Lynch to Noah Fant, there’s a long list of recent first-round draft picks by the Broncos who never fully lived up to the hype. While disappointment falls at the feet of John Elway for making the picks, shouldn’t it also be shared by the lack of a coherent plan to develop young talent in a league where it’s hard to succeed?

It’s easy for Hackett to draw a smiley face on Jeudy’s future. It’s harder to offer the tough love that will help him develop as both a man and a football player.

Jeudy is a reclamation project. The art is to get him to embrace it.

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