Russell Okung Left Out At Tackle, But Where Do The Denver Broncos Go From Here?

The Broncos have a gaping hole at left tackle. Doc Bear evaluates the best free agent options available to the Broncos in 2017.

The Denver Broncos have given Russell Okung the news that shouldn’t have shocked anyone; they aren’t going to pay $11.8 million dollars to keep him.

Okung was a very average tackle who had some bad games in 2016. He stayed relatively healthy, and he deserves to be commended for what he did, physically and mentally, to even get back into the game.

Okung was paid $8 million. It was a fair wage, and it probably would be next year as well — but that’s not how the contract was structured. Russell assumed — and worked hard to get there — that he could get back to the $12 million point. It didn’t happen. A lot of people have argued that he shouldn’t have represented himself in his dealings with the Broncos last year; that he didn’t write a ‘good’ contract. I’d respond that a contract in which both parties benefit and in which both have the right to end the next phase before it starts is a very good contract.

The arguments about the relationship between owners vs. players and such, I’ll leave to other folks.

If Okung doesn’t accept a change in salary from his proposed raise, what are the Broncos going to do? I don’t know, but there are a few things that I do know about the issue.

Donald Stephenson had a terrible year. It doesn’t surprise me — he wasn’t in a dissimilar situation in Kansas City. He had plays where he looked like an All-Pro, and seemed to sleep on the next one.

Stepheonson's run blocking numbers were particularly pathetic, and right guard Michael Schofield’s were about the same. Small wonder Denver struggled badly in running the ball.

If there’s a way to do it — and there is — they need to bite the bullet and let him go. Orlando Franklin played far better as a rookie than anyone Denver has placed at right tackle. They can and should go with a different option.

I doubt that I’d get much argument on the play of the tackles, so now there’s the problem of replacing them. There are several options available there.

Denver is in a good place in terms of the cap — with Okung and Stevenson gone, they should be at about $40 million below the cap. They have the cash to pull the trigger on a top free agent if they wish.

There aren’t many, a theme that is repeated when looking at the OT pool in the draft. It’s not a good year to be tackle-shy.

Andrew Whitworth from Cincinnati’s only problem is his age. The 6-foot-7, 330-pound left tackle could return to Cincinnati, who is likely to be happy to have him back. He was a first team All-Pro in 2015 and has been a first team Pro Bowler for the last two years.

But, Whitworth is 36. Tackles of that age — any player, really — often suddenly fall off the field in terms of performance. His numbers last year weren’t that great.

But then I watched his film, and saw that he’s still a force of nature. Should his contract, should Denver be lucky enough to win the bidding pool that every available LT is likely to draw, have injury riders in it? Of course. Performance riders? Sure. Should they grab him if possible? Of course.

Next down on the list is Riley Reiff. In some ways, he’s ‘preferable’ to Whitworth — meaning that he’s only 28. Reiff is 6-foot-6 and 308 pounds. He’s been a very effective player for the Detroit Lions and he’d be a great addition to the Broncos.

He’s been playing right tackle for the Lions, and they’ve made no indication that they want him to return. 2015 seventh round player Corey Robinson replaced him in two games last season, and the Lions may well want to see what he has in a full season. That suggests either a lot of confidence in Robinson or not very much in Reiff. The Broncos will know which.

But Reiff's tape still shows a player who could upgrade Denver’s ailing RT circumstances. Stephenson showed the same issues he had in KC, Ty Sambrailo looked awful in his appearances in 2016 and putting Schofield there is just kicking the can down the same road. Would I take Schofield over Stephenson or Sambrailo, if need be? Probably so, but not happily.

What are the mid-range options? Three come to mind, in particular. Luke Joeckel had a shaky start as a tackle when very young, then as a guard in Jacksonville. How could he fit in Denver?

Joeckel’s an upgrade over Schofield, who I have a soft spot for, and Joeckel is also a potential RT. He’s been at guard, but I’d like to see Denver evaluate him for tackle if possible.  $5.3 mil last season.

Then, there's Ricky Wagner, Baltimore's right tackle. He’s 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds. He’s going to bring a bidding war, at just 27.

Ricky just made $576K for Baltimore last season. He’s a handful at RT, a former road grader for Wisconsin’s yearly run game and could join Matt Paradis in anchoring 2017 for the Broncos. I see him doing what Orlando Franklin did as a rookie in 2011. Wagner’s not an elite RT, but he’s a heck of an improvement, without breaking the bank.

Could he move to LT? Possible, but I’d caution against it. I hope to see Wagner on the right. Why? If he’s not an elite RT and doesn’t show that tendency, why press?

Despite that, Denver could upgrade their pass protection and create a new strength to the running game with a single player. Wagner is going to be courted by multiple teams.

But within reason, he should still be reasonable for what Denver needs and can pay. Mitchell Schwartz is comparable to Wagner, or a bit better. He went to Kansas City and the terms of his contract were $33 million over five years, with $15 million guaranteed. It’s doable.

Kelvin Beachum is a question mark. He’s 28. Beachum is better than Wagner and should bring more. Beachum's not as good as Whitworth was, but he’s eight years younger.

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Beachum tore his ACL two seasons back in 2015 and due to that, was somewhat limited in 2016. That’s unlikely to be problematic moving forward, should he pass a physical, and he is very close to elite.

There will be a bidding war for him and rightfully so. Denver will stay in budget. John Elway knows when to back out, financially speaking. Beachum may be a pipe dream, but he’s an enticing one.  

The final option for Denver? A trade, either before or during the draft. Assuming that even the best of the O-line draft options will be ready to start that year has been a poor-return bet.

Getting a quality player — or players — with pro experience out of draft situations like this is the kind of solution that John Elway might have in store. He has plenty of draft capital, especially with those two third round compensation picks and one more in that round of his own. Five picks in the top 100 should be like raw meat to him and his war room.

Erick Trickel has put in the time and will be talking about most of the draft options on the offensive and defensive lines. I hope to go into the draft with a couple of problems eliminated; both to upgrade Denver's current play and to establish where to focus the strength that the copious picks appear to be coming in the near future.

We have a very young team, with both the problems and advantages of that. Elway has fixed worse problems.

You can’t put all your resources into one position, no matter how important. But Elway could help the offense out with a solid helping of experienced linemen.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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