The Denver Broncos head into the 2015 off-season with a loaded roster with very few holes, especially if Peyton Manning returns. If Manning and John Elway are unable to come to an accord and the Broncos are forced to move into 2015 without a top-5 quarterback, the complexion of the roster will change dramatically.
As we've seen time and time again in the NFL, even the best, most well-constructed rosters are limited to what they can accomplish, if they're missing the most crucial of components--the franchise quarterback. See the 2014 Arizona Cardinals for the most recent case in point.
The Broncos hope that Brock Osweiler, a second round pick in 2012, can become one of the league's elite signal callers, but with only 30 passing attempts in his three-year career, he's as inscrutable as an unknown quantity can be.
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All signs point to Manning returning to the Broncos in 2015. Elway and head coach Gary Kubiak echoed one another at the NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis, that they want the 5-time league MVP back and expect him back. Manning reportedly told Elway a little more than a week ago that he's prepared to play in 2015 at a "significant" level.
It would take a cataclysmic snag for Manning not to return for his 18th season, so we will move forward in our analysis and projections under the assumption that he will be back in orange and blue. Elway has made no bones about the fact that the Broncos need to upgrade their offensive line, as he opined at the Combine earlier this week.
“We are looking at our whole football team right now,” Elway said, “and setting our priorities as far as what we want to go into in free agency as well as the draft. Is the offensive line one of them? Yeah, we would like to get better."
The Broncos are set at left tackle and right guard, with Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez, respectively. The question marks come at left guard, center and right tackle. Orlando Franklin, last year's starting LG, wants to return to the team, but his value on the open market will likely price him out of the Broncos budget.
One player who could step in and immediately upgrade the offensive line is former Cincinnati Bengals left guard, Clint Boling. Boling was selected with the No. 101 pick in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of Georgia.
Although he only started three games as a rookie, Boling has started at left guard for the Bengals for the last three years. For a team like the Broncos, who run the zone blocking scheme, Boling is a perfect fit at LG, and versatile enough to play anywhere on the O-line.
At 6-foot-5, 308 pounds, he is somewhat lighter than the prototypical NFL guard, but he makes up for it with his savvy and high motor. His mobility, vision and awareness qualifies him as arguably the best fit for the Broncos among the entire interior O-line free agent class.
Where he lacks in pure athleticism and strength, he makes up for with technique. In 2014, he started every game for the Bengals (14 at LG and 2 at RT). His performance earned him a +5.8 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus. He was PFF's No. 7 left guard, among players who started at least 14 games at the position.
In his four-year career, Boling has been an above average starter, but has yet to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl, or any other individual accolades. As a first-time free agent, he's definitely looking for a pay increase on the open market, but he can probably be had on a relatively team-friendly deal--probably somewhere in the $2-4M per year average.
Elway and the Broncos approach in roster-building has been to utilize free agency to fill their biggest holes, allowing them to take a more measured approach in the draft, and lean more towards taking the best player available (BPA). Signing Clint Boling would be a big step in solidifying the O-line, with an eye towards acquiring a player with a high zone blocking acumen.