Per a report from Jeff Legwold of ESPN Denver, the Broncos are looking to find three new starters along the offensive line. From what is said in the article, it seems that the only starters the new coaching staff want moving forward, are left tackle Ryan Clady and right guard Louis Vasquez. This does not bode well for many others already under contract with the Broncos and those set to hit free agency.
The Broncos have four offensive linemen set to hit the open market -- Ben Garland, Paul Cornick, Will Montgomery and Orlando Franklin. Both Garland and Cornick are ERFA (exclusive-rights free agents), which gives the Broncos all of the power, in terms of their future. Both are young and will be cheap, due to the salary restrictions that come with being an ERFA.
Montgomery stepped in towards the middle of the season at center and helped solve some of the issues at that position. His future with the Broncos is up in the air, but he may be retained for depth at the position. Montgomery also is a better fit for the zone blocking scheme the Broncos are set to use moving forward.
The major player on the offensive line is Franklin, who played left guard for the Broncos this past season. He was the best offensive linemen for the Broncos, but being the best of a bad group does not mean much. Franklin is a power guard who does not fit a zone blocking scheme.
It is unlikely that the Broncos bring Franklin back, which makes sense, as they are said to be looking for a new left guard, per the report. With it being unlikely that Franklin would accept a depth role, he will likely be playing for a new team in 2015.
It makes sense for the Broncos to be looking to find new starters at left guard, center and right tackle. Right tackle was a consistent issue all season, with Chris Clark getting benched in favor of Paul Cornick, then Cornick getting benched and right guard Louis Vasquez moving over to right tackle.
Center was a similar issue to start the season, with Manuel Ramirez unable to handle the position, but when the switch was made to Montgomery, the situation was solidfied into something more consistent.
The Broncos have two options under contract already who could fill a couple of those positions in 2014 draft picks, Michael Schofield and Matt Paradis. Per the report, both of them will get a look, with Schofield at right tackle and Paradis at center. Both are unknown and untested, so it is likely that the Broncos will look to bring in others to compete for the starting position.
Garland is also linked to getting a shot, but at left guard. Of these three players, Garland is the most likely to win the job, but also will likely compete with a player who is outside the organization currently.
If Schofield and Paradis can’t win the jobs at their respective positions, it speaks to the comments of Mark Schlereth, when he said, "They need to develop some young players. They're not doing a good enough job drafting and developing at the position. The misnomer is you have to be lighter to play in the offense, all that baloney. Look, you need to have great feet, great hands, and you can play a long time in that offense. They need to find and develop those guys. I mean, the Patriots just won a Super Bowl with a rookie at center -- [Bryan Stork] they got in the fourth round."
Schlereth's comments hit the nail on the head. The Broncos have failed to develop players on the offensive line over the past few years, evidenced by the failures of Philip Blake and Vinston Painter.
The issues in developing players could be laid at the feet of John Fox and the old coaching staff. Under Fox, drafting offensive linemen wasn’t a viable option because of their failures in developing them. Under a new coaching staff, however, the issues of player development could be resolved.
This year, the draft class is middle-of-the-pack, in terms of offensive linemen, but with the pressure to win a Super Bowl, it is better for the Broncos to look to free agency to bring in their three new starters. Outside of re-signing their own, this should be the focal point of the Broncos free agent spending.
For the left guard position, there are not many options available on the open market. However, someone like Clint Boling, from the Cincinnati Bengals, makes sense for the Broncos. He has experience in a zone blocking scheme and was the eighth-highest rated left guard for run blocking per Pro Football Focus. His issues, however, come in terms of pass blocking. He allowed 20 pressures, including two sacks in the 2014 season.
Ronald Leary, from the Dallas Cowboys would also make sense, but he is a ERFA for the Cowboys and there isn’t a scenario where I can see them letting him go. He is a young player and was the fourth rated left guard in run blocking per PFF. He does have issues in pass protection, but not enough for the Cowboys to justify letting a young talent get away.
A very common name to see is Mike Iupati, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers. However, Iupati is a power guard and will come at a high cost. There is not a scenario where I can see Iupati ending up with the Broncos. He is a bad fit for the zone blocking scheme, and the Broncos could just keep Orlando Franklin at a cheaper cost.
As for the center position, the free agent options are not much better. The top option is Kansas City Chiefs center, Rodney Hudson. He has experience in a zone blocking scheme and was also rated as one of the top centers in the NFL for the 2014 season.
He is the top center in free agency this year. Cost is a concern here, as he will be highly sought after. If the Chiefs can solve their cap troubles, they will likely do what it takes to keep him. But, he may be off the market before they get to him, due to their other priorities.
Another option is Brian De La Puente from the Chicago Bears. He was one of the top rated centers, but only played 320 snaps, compared to other centers, most of whom played over a thousand. However, he would be a veteran option to bring in and compete for the starting job.
Right tackle is where the options are plentiful. Set to hit the free agent market are Bryan Bulaga from the Green Bay Packers, Doug Free from the Dallas Cowboys, Derek Newton from the Houston Texans, and Ryan Harris from the Chiefs.
Newton has a connection to the coaching staff, having been a seventh round project pick by Gary Kubiak in Houston back in 2011. He has experience in the zone blocking scheme and was the top rated right tackle in run protection. His pass blocking needs work as he gave up 44 pressures, 36 of which were hurries.
Bulaga and Free are the popular names. I do not see Bulaga being allowed to walk by the Packers, and even if he is, his cost may be out of the Broncos range. Free will be let go by the Cowboys, as they have three starting caliber offensive tackles, one of which is a free agent (Jeremy Parnell).
However, due to age and likely coming at a lower cost, Parnell will be retained and Free allowed to hit the open market. Free is a stable option at right tackle and has played in zone blocking schemes most of his career. His asking price is hard to gauge, but may be just outside the Broncos range.
The dark horse here is Ryan Harris. He has played for the Broncos before, twice actually. He was originally drafted in the third round by the Broncos in 2007 and stayed in Denver until 2010. He was then brought back for a short time in 2012.
After he was released, he then went to Houston, where he played for the current Broncos coaching staff. In 2008, Harris and Ryan Clady formed one of the best offensive tackle pairings in the NFL.
It will be interesting to see what the Broncos do with guard Manuel Ramirez and tackle Chris Clark. Ramirez is not a fit in a zone blocking scheme and has a high cap hit. As for Clark, he was handed the starting right tackle job and failed, ultimately ending up on the bench. He did make it back as the sixth offensive linemen, but only after an injury to Paul Cornick.
With the Broncos looking for three new starters on their offensive line, they have plenty of options, not only in free agency, but in the draft, which we won't get into at this time. With free agency only about a month away, this is a situation worth keeping an eye on.