ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—Louis Vasquez was originally drafted in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers out of Texas Tech. Over the next four seasons, he played well but when his rookie contract ran out, the Chargers let him hit free agency.
Denver Broncos General Manager John Elway saw the opportunity to sign one of the league’s best right guards and he did—inking him to a 4-year, $23M deal. Vasquez immediately stepped in, starting 16 games, netting a +34.9 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus.
This performance earned him his first trip to the Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors. Fast forward to 2014—the Broncos were having a difficult time running the ball and protecting quarterback Peyton Manning. In an ill-advised move, Head Coach John Fox moved Vasquez from his natural position at right guard, over to right tackle, where he would go on to start eight games.
Playing out of position, Vasquez held down the fort, but he was nowhere near as dominant as he had been in 2013. He also struggled with back issues. He finished the season with a -1.9 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus.
The juggling that took place on the offensive line is likely one of the points of demarcation between Elway and Fox that led to the “mutual” dismissal and the eventual signing of new Head Coach Gary Kubiak. It’s generally wise to keep All-Pro players where they excel. In Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, Vasquez will move back to right guard—a development he’s happy about.
Vasquez met with the media today, following the Broncos organized team activities. He talked about what it was like to move over to right tackle in the middle of the season.
“Any time you get a shift like that—from guard to tackle for me personally—I had to put my work in because it wasn’t easy,” he said. “It strained us as a unit up front. Having the stability and everybody in the same places, it helps with our gelling together and just becoming a unit as one. That just helps everybody else’s chemistry. We start up front. We get everything get started. Everybody feeds off of our energy and our chemistry, and it just gets to a point later in the season to where we don’t even have to talk. We just know what each other are going to do and what each other are thinking.”
Regarding his move back to right guard, Vasquez was circumspect and spoke to the long and often times arduous process of learning a new blocking system and to what lengths a unit must go to assimilate.
“It’s obviously a full system change, so it’s a learning process,” Vasquez said. “Every day the coaches do a great job. Us as players feel like we’re doing a tremendous job just staying in our books, staying on top of everything and just picking up something different every day to learn this whole new system.”
One thing that many Broncos fans are excited about with the return of Kubiak and the zone running scheme is that he brings a system that plays to the strengths of the Broncos top-two offensive linemen—Vasquez and left tackle Ryan Clady. However, Vasquez points out that it’s a process to not only learn a new system, but to gel and create chemistry therein as a unit.
“Everybody’s in a position to compete, so that’s what this time is for—getting back into the groove of things,” he said. “Once OTAs hit and mini camp, it’s a big part of guys competing for the spots that are available. Having guys competing, it’s going to make us work even harder and make us even better. Through this time we’ll work at it and we’ll get the guys into the right spots. Hopefully they’ll figure it out sooner than later. If we can figure it out sooner, that will just help have more chemistry up front.”
Regarding the zone blocking scheme, which demands offensive linemen to have quick feet, excellent hand technique and lateral agility, Vasquez sees it as a system that plays to his strengths as a player. The Broncos ran a lot of zone in his All-Pro season of 2013 and a return to the same blocking tenets bodes well for the seventh-year pro.
“I just feel like it will compliment what my strengths are,” he said. “Obviously, it’s been successful in the past. We’ll work at it up front. The zone is going to be our bread and butter. With Coach [Offensive Coordinator Rick] Dennison and [Head] Coach [Gary] Kubiak in years past, we’re excited up front to get it going. Any time we get to beat people up front, it just excites us.”
What defines an excellent right guard? Is it a mentality, or does it have more to do with physicality and technique? For Vasquez, playing right guard encompasses both.
“My mentality is that I’m a guard. I would love to stay inside the trenches. That’s how my mentality is. I’m a big strong guy. I like to get physical. Being on the outside, it’s more finesse. The guys want to rush the passer and things of that nature. That’s not my forte.”
With the departure of Orlando Franklin and Will Montgomery, there are many questions swirling aaround the Broncos offensive line. Many believe that the team will have to turn to their young, homegrown players, like Michael Schofield and Ben Garland, to step up and stop the gap. Vasquez looks forward to seeing Schofield’s progress, in particular, in training camp this year.
“He’s [Schofield] really smart,” Vasquez said. “He picked up the system fairly quick last year. He’s a guy where we don’t have to worry if he knows what he’s supposed to do. It’s more of a development deal for him, but he does show some promise. His work ethic is tremendous. We’re excited up front to see what he can do this year.”
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Schofield was the team’s third round pick last season and yet, he didn’t dress for a single game as a rookie. It could have something to do with John Fox’s legendary favoritism of veterans, or it could mean that Schofield still has a long way to go to be a starting contributor up front. If the latter is the case, the Broncos will likely turn to this year’s draft for a talented young tackle. However, Vasquez couldn’t care less about whether the Broncos draft an O-lineman.
“That’s the furthest thing from my mind right now. I’m just focused on getting better every day whether through conditioning or picking up the system. That is for the upstairs management to handle. Our focus is on getting in shape, or in better shape, and picking up the system.”
Vasquez and his brethren in the trenches are getting to know Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison, as the new coaching staff begins to engage with the personnel. So far, Vasquez likes what he sees.
“Coach Dennison has been there first hand and that’s kind of how we’re starting meetings,” he said. “He’s obviously the coordinator, so we’re in there first thing in the morning meeting with him and installing the daily installs. He’s there to answer any questions as well. He quizzes us to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do and doing our part because he’s for sure doing his.”
With a new coaching staff comes excitement, but also uncertainty. For now, Broncos Country can take solace in knowing that these coaches are about putting players in the best position to succeed, scheming to each individual’s strengths. As a result, Louis Vasquez could be one of the biggest beneficiaries in 2015.
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