Breaking Down The Denver Broncos Left Tackle Situation, Including Round One NFL Draft Options

With the first wave of Free Agency Over, where do the Broncos Currently stand at Left Tackle and what options do they have going forward?

With the first wave of free agency under the league’s collective belts, John Elway made well on his promise to add strength, size, and physicality to the trenches. Signing both defensive lineman Zach Kerr and Domata Peko to midlevel deals and giving former Oakland Raiders right tackle Menelik Watson a three-year deal worth $18 million and former Dallas Cowboys left guard Ronald Leary a four-year deal worth $35 million, Elway made sure to answer the question “where’s the beef?” so far this offseaso

While acquiring these players was without question an absolute must in order to start winning up front again, the Broncos may have swung and missed, or perhaps balked is a more appropriate baseball term, at the left tackle market. With Andrew Whitworth joining the Los Angeles Rams, Riley Reiff cashing in with the Minnesota Vikings, Matt Kalil getting an insane contract with the Carolina Panthers, and former Bronco Russell Okung signing with the division rival Los Angeles Chargers, Elway refused to pony up ridiculous amounts of cash on average to above average starting left tackle talent on the market this offseason. Elway was very likely wise not to overspend at the position; it does leave the Broncos at extremely vulnerable on the blind side of the offensive line. After restructuring his contract, it is believed that Donald Stephenson may end up the starting left tackle by default.

It has been rumored that Elway was planning on parting ways with the disappointing tackle before free agency, but new Broncos offensive line coach Jeff Davidson emphatically told his fellow coaches and the front office he could still get quality play out of Stephenson at left tackle, a position he looked better at with his former team the Kansas City Chiefs.

It may be a pipe-dream that Stephenson can play left tackle at all, let alone at a starting quality level. However, there is merit to the argument that right tackle is tougher to play than left due to the absurd edge rush talent on that side of the line. Ranging from oft-injured star Justin Houston current NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, current NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, and the Broncos’ own Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, right tackles in the AFC West likely have it tougher than any left tackles in the NFL going up against elite talent.

Even still, given the level of play seen by Donald Stephenson in his short tenure in Denver, and even worse from the extremely disappointing former second round pick Ty Sambrailo, the Broncos have every right to be concerned about the left tackle position as it currently stands.

Possible Trades

There are other veteran options that the Bronco Brass must surely be looking into to fill the void that is left tackle. Such popular names like Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and Joe Staley of the San Francisco 49ers have been brought up by fans and media members alike to fill the glaring hole at left tackle. While both of these men would be gigantic improvements at the position, the rumored costs just are neither realistic nor feasible for the Broncos to pay.

It is being said that the 49ers are looking for a first and third round pick in this year’s draft for Staley, who is on the wrong side of thirty and beginning the downward slide that comes with a battle against father time. It’s questionable if Joe Thomas is available at all given the incredible amount of money the Browns just spent on their offensive line, extending Joel Bitonio and signing free agents Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter. If the Browns were going to give up Joe Thomas, expect a package greater than what Elway had on the table just two years ago at the trade deadline.

Two other trade options that have been rumored include the Philadelphia EaglesJason Peters and Arizona Cardinals’ Jared Veldheer. While both of these men would be huge improvements on the offensive line, odds of them being moved without a massive overpayment by the Broncos is slim to none.

Free Agent Options

Denver may also look into former Charger left tackle King Dunlap to play the same position for them.

He has experience with both Mike McCoy and Jeff Davidson, but has been injured throughout his tenure in San Diego. Furthermore, Dunlap was arrested this offseason in domestic issue involving his girlfriend. While more information will surely come from this incident, given his mediocre level of play and durability issues alone, Dunlap might hardly be an upgrade over Stephenson at left tackle if at all.

NFL Draft

Another option that the Broncos are surely looking at is adding a starting quality tackle round one in the NFL Draft this April. The current media narrative that has taken hold is that this is a historically horrific tackle class. While there are no blue chip level tackles that are worthy of a top 10 selection this year, which would be the first time that has happened since the 2005 NFL Draft, there are offensive lineman who are worthy of being selected in the second half of the first round.

The player with the highest ceiling and lowest floor is Alabama’s own Cam Robinson. The consensus on Robinson could not be more wide-ranging. Some, such as analyst Mike Mayock have him as a guard at the next level due to mental lapses and inconsistencies on tape to pair with mediocre foot speed.  However, after starting and playing well for four years at Alabama and showing a massive frame a good athleticism for the size and power at the NFL Combine, it would not be surprising to see Robinson the first tackle taken.

Robinson’s raw power and strength in the run game is incredible. He is overpowering at the point of attack and if he gets his hands on a defender and drives them, odds are that defender will end up buried in the turf or 10 yards down the field. He might best serve starting at guard or right tackle given his pitfalls, but there is little doubt Robinson lacks the talent to start at left tackle one day. Robinson also has questions that surround his intelligence and character.

It is rumored that Robinson struggled mightily at picking up blocking schemes and the playbook, so much so that coaches spent extra time each week preparing him. Robinson also had an off-the-field incident this past offseason involving a gun and marijuana in a car, while only those in the interview room and watching him on his whiteboard session can better answer those questions, the physical presence and athleticism Robinson brings is absolutely worth a first round selection.

A second option at tackle round one is Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. Ramczyk, a first year starter after transferring to Madison from Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Ramczyk only has one year of experience under his belt which should be of concern to teams across the league, as the amount of tape available to evaluate him is limited to just one season. With that said, it was a very strong season for Ramczyk and the Badgers’ line in general.

Ramczyk is above all else, a technician. He is very clean and concise from his feet all the way up to his hands. He is rarely caught off balance or fooled by blitzes, and does a very good job at taking proper and efficient angles to the second level to block linebackers and does a good job doing the same out wide beyond the hash marks. Ramczyk is also very technical and balanced in his pass sets. He has a smooth kickstep where he maintains knee bend and uses his hands effectively to jab back edge rushers, while keeping his back end facing the quarterback. He can get caught cheating outside, which can leave him vulnerable to inside moves, but not often enough to be a gigantic problem. Ramczyk is not overly powerful in his run block or pass block sets, which could be a problem against bull rushers and blocking in a power blocking scheme if asked to drive block.

A large issue with Ramczyk is that his athleticism is questionable due to him not partaking in the field drills at the NFL Combine due to surgery on his labrum. While obviously not a horrid athlete, it would have been nice to get his athletic numbers to validate what is seen on film.

Ramczyk was able to answer some questions though, as he showed up with longer than expected arms at 33-¾ inches and put up a respectable 25 bench reps. Finally and perhaps most importantly, there are questions about his love of the game. Ramczyk hopped around a few different schools before settling at Wisconsin because of questionable love of the game. This will need to be answered in interviews, but is absolutely worth noting.

The final tackle in this class that is likely worthy of a first round selection is Utah Utes left tackle Garett Bolles. After watching the Utes decimate the UCLA Bruins defense with 360 rushing yards for an insane 7.3 yards per carry, and going up against and beating on athletic freak edge rusher Takkarist McKinley of the Bruins, Garett Bolles was firmly on the radar of NFL Scouts across the league.

Bolles, also a JUCO transfer and one of the highest rated ones in football, dominated in every sense of the word that game, from run blocking to pass blocking, Bolles helped establish a tone along the offensive line of nastiness that helped propel the Utes to a victory. This was a common theme throughout the season for the Utes as; behind the combo of Bolles and teammate left guard and likely day two pick Isaac Asiata, the Utah offense ran for big play after big play all year.

If one had just watched the UCLA game with no context, Bolles would be much more in the conversation for offensive tackle one in this class, but other games show a player who is still somewhat raw in the mental and physical side of the game. Bolles can take poor angles and show slower mental processing when asked to pull or reach the second level or block out wide. While in college he was able to get away with this because he is an incredible athlete, as was shown at the NFL Combine, he will need to be much cleaner here to make it in the NFL.

Another issue that is apparent on tape is Bolles lacks proper core strength right now. He will likely struggle drive blocking and anchoring against the bull rush year one. These issues would not be as big if it were not for Bolles’ age. As a prospect that will be 25 years old by the start of next season, Bolles is one of the older players in this class and there should be questions about how much better he can become physically as he is already close to his peak age of athleticism.

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Denver was burnt before drafting an older offensive lineman in Philip Blake who was drafted as an older prospect, and hardly ever saw the field and was released very short into his time in the NFL. Still, as offensive lineman's peaks appear to be at round 30 years of age or older, the age may not be as big of a deal for a player with the frame and athleticism that Bolles possess. Bolles shows tremendous movement for a player his size and is a downright nasty blocker who looks for work and punishes defenders every chance he is afforded. His age will knock him down, but it would be surprising if Denver didn't consider him at pick 20.

Elway has always been about selecting the best player available, better known as BPA, in the NFL Draft. However, it is not as simple as just best player available. The proper, and much less concise acronym, for Elway’s round one strategy is BPA@PON/V: best player available at position of need or value.

At The End Of The Day..

The four pillar roster pieces currently in the NFL are quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rusher, and cornerback. One just needs to look at the first wave of free agency to see the value. Mediocre talents such as Kalil, Okung, and Reiff cashed in huge pay days, whereas the low value position of running back has had much smaller contracts handed out with the prominent names of Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles still looking for work.

Furthermore, look at current franchise tag values for these 'core' positions compared to other ones and it is easy to see that these are the four most valued positions in today’s NFL. Elway and company may go elsewhere if the best player available is just too darn ‘BPA’ to pass up selecting, but do not be surprised if Elway takes a tackle round one in what some call a ‘weak’ tackle class this year. Not only would it fill a gigantic hole on the roster, but also it would give Elway a cost-controlled option at a position of insanely inflated value and would further help answer this offseasons' encompassing offseason question; “Where’s the beef?”

Nick Kendell is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle with a focus on the NFL Draft. Follow them on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.

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