A year ago, ears perked up when Russell Okung defected from Seattle to sign a contract with the Denver Broncos. Denver won a Super Bowl with a patchwork offensive line that featured a career right tackle and street free-agent in Ryan Harris, manning the most important spot in the trenches.
Okung seemed to be a logical upgrade.
There were concerns about the former Oklahoma State Cowboy coming in to Denver, notably his inability to complete an entire 16-game season. Those fears were assuaged when Okung started the entire season, even while dealing with a back injury for most of the year.
Those positives didn’t outweigh his pedestrian play, though. With a decision needed quickly to guarantee his sizable contract, GM John Elway decided to let the left tackle test free agency. For the second year in a row, the Broncos will be in the market for a blind-side protector.
In short, with so few tackle prospects on the free-agent market and few quality prospects in the Draft, was it smart for the Broncos to let Okung walk? Let's look at both angles.
The Right Call
Okung was easily the second-best player on the offensive line last season behind Matt Paradis. On the surface, that sounds like win for a guy brought in to solidify the left side of the line. The bad news was that it wasn’t hard to look good with the ineptitude on the right side of the line that Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson embodied.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1757867-compensatory-picks-how-el... For as good as Okung was in Seattle, his first and only season in Denver ended up being a dud. At one point, the tackle had given up the second most quarterback pressures in the league with 38, according to a November Pro Football Focus article. From momentum-killing holding calls to wince-inducing false starts, Okung never found his footing (literally) in his brief time in Denver.
It was also reported that Okung wouldn’t restructure his deal to a friendlier number and with the team looking for ways to free up cash to improve the overall roster, the writing was on the wall for his departure. It was simply too big a risk to invest more money into a player whose age and injury history point to a decline in his play going forward
The Wrong Call
Believe me when I say, for an underwhelming as Okung was, it could have been worse. In a league that is seeing the effects of the college game getting away from giving linemen solid fundamentals to build on heading into the pros, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find quality players up front.
I’m also not 100 percent sure that the Broncos will be able to upgrade Okung's spot in the lineup enough, so that it’s noticeably better this upcoming season. Okung is already the second-highest rated left tackle free agent, according to some sites and the $11 million that is going to be saved probably won’t be enough to lure someone like Andrew Whitworth to Denver.
The draft has a few prospects that Denver could tab at pick 20 but after those initial players, there’s not much else out there. Rookie linemen typically take a bit longer to develop than other positions, so it’s not a stretch to expect the left side of the O-line to continue to be a problem for next year.
Money is always an issue for every NFL team, but at the price Okung was due, it may have been a bit short-sighted to let him walk with few options to upgrade in his absence.
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Denver was truly in a no-win situation with Okung. At the beginning of last season, the deal looked foolhardy on the part of Okung and brilliant on Elway’s part. If the tackle did well, he would be compensated well for the next few years and give the team a chance to upgrade other problem spots on the line. One year later, Denver is still without a blind side blocker and Okung is looking to get paid again in free agency.
Denver’s offensive line will be better next year — 2016 was so bad it would be hard to top that. However, don’t expect a huge turnaround with presumably a first-year player manning the line’s most crucial position.
The potential money tied to Okung proved to be too big of a gamble for the Broncos. Bad contracts are like an albatross teams are forced to beard and the Broncos had to move swiftly.
It’ll hurt for this year and possibly longer but the team needed to move on from Okung. Denver can use the money they will save from his contract to improve other areas on the roster while selecting help in this year’s upcoming draft.
Adam Uribes is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @auribes37.