Opening Lanes: How The Denver Broncos Free Agent Haul Bolstered The Offensive Trenches

The Broncos committed significant resources in free agency to bolster the offensive trenches. One of Denver's leading O-line analysts, Doc Bear, breaks down the free agent additions, fitting them into the big picture.

The Denver Broncos have made several upgrades to their offensive line in the last two months. The first and the biggest was the hiring of former Chargers O-line coach Jeff Davidson.

Davidson kept a group that was decimated by injuries playing at a competitive level in San Diego. That’s no easy task in the modern NFL, especially with some iffy players.

In a league that’s struggling to find and develop sufficient players for the position, coaching is the best defense against the noticeable drop in overall O-line skills league-wide. But coaches need quality players.

Denver’s made no bones about wanting to move to more power-oriented and drive-blocking plays, but they aren’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Zone blocking will still be part of the repertoire. The ‘zone’ scheme in Denver reputedly will be almost entirely the standard inside and outside zone runs that nearly every team in the league uses. Denver’s first acquisition this offseason was guard Ronald Leary, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have one of the best O-lines in the league, so having an opportunity to sign a young starter like Leary was quite a coup.

Leary is especially fond of run blocking (82.7, PFF run block grade), since it lets him hit the defensemen. He pointed out that the key to an effective offensive line is to decide early on that you’re going to be the bullies on the field.

Once that’s internalized, the rest is comparatively easy. They say leadership comes from within. In this case, look for it to come from the interior of Matt Paradis and Ron Leary.

Denver’s been playing with one elite lineman. Center Matt Paradis was the  top center in the NFL last season, despite playing injured. Matt’s run blocking metric from Pro Football Focus was 90.6, leading the league.

With Leary handling one side, and mentoring the 6-foot-4, 309-pound Max Garcia, a powerful young lineman with a 67.5 PFF run blocking grade, Denver’s interior offensive line should progress over the course of the season.

Denver also recently acquired former Raiders tackle Menelik Watson, who could fit their needs as well. Named after the legendary first King of Ethiopia, Watson is developing as an NFL tackle. He’s only six years into the game, having been focused on soccer in his native Manchester, England.

In theory, that should have put him at about the level you’d expect from a four-year college rookie. That fits with the 48.8 pass, 55.4 run grades from PFF in 2017. He’s been erratic and lets his pad level rise. He was also fighting with injuries. He needs time, hard coaching and good trainers.

You expect a player with his level of experience to have experienced some struggles, and that’s been true for Watson. I recall the year before Dave Magazu came on as a coach in Denver, though, and how many obvious technical errors were commonplace on the line.

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A year later, a broadcast screengrab from behind the QB showed them in perfect alignment. Coaching matters. I think Davidson will help Watson.

Anyone expecting Watson to be completely ready will be disappointed. Those who dismiss his issues as young-player mistakes may end up with egg on their faces. Davidson is the kind of tough coach he needs.

Watson has no shortage of upside. Despite coming very late to the game, he’s highly athletic and just reaching the point where he can easily understand both the lingo and the technical intricacies of his position.

I expect Watson to develop fairly quickly into a high-level player. I reviewed his work back in 2013, and I liked him then. I like him even more now. I’m well aware of his deficiencies, but he’s now in a position to fix them.

In Oakland he heard constantly about Luke Richesson (who trained the Raiders staffer who spoke to Watson). Dealing with multiple smaller (and one Achilles tendon) injuries, Menelik decided to go to Denver.

He headed for where the Guru was, rather than staying with a top student. Modern training can add years to players’ careers. Leary commented on the same draw. The quality and focus of the Broncos franchise is a constant selling point.

Both Watson and Leary have had nagging injuries during the season. Denver looked like home to them, from the amenities at Dove Valley to the attitude in the facility, the oversight of John Elway and the quality of the coaching and trainers. They know this gives them the best chances of low-injury seasons.

Among their other constant efforts to maximize their players’ health, Denver seems to run a research project each year to stay on the cutting edge in athletic training. Last year the players wore sensors during practice to develop data on proper levels of hydration. It’s a small part of the larger picture that shows how the Broncos see, treat and respect their players as athletes and as human beings.

The Broncos have struggled to put a quality rushing attack on the field since Knowshon Moreno came off the scout team to put on a first-round worthy performance in 2013. Willis McGahee was also productive for Denver, but they’ve struggled since then to put together an effective group.

C.J. Anderson’s been solid for half the season, more often than not. Devontae Booker looks like the No. 2 back that Denver needed. What’s needed now is the talent up front.

As far as their rushing scheme, current word out of Dove Valley is that the one-cut system that’s been a Broncos staple for decades may be headed for the scrap heap. Vance Joseph's refrain has been that they are going to design a system that lets the players do what each of them does best.

It’s fair to say that C.J. and Booker run a lot better when the O-line opens lanes for them. The additions of Watson and Leary to the play of Paradis and the developing Garcia should provide a much stronger rushing attack than Denver has seen in recent years.

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Paradis is already the best center in the league (PFF, 2017), and Watson should put new life into whichever tackle position he takes. The rumor right now is that he’ll be on the right side, and that Donald Stephenson will play left tackle, a role he was better at in Kansas City than he was on the right side. Elway recently said they'll "take a peek" at Stephenson there. 

Stephenson came out of Oklahoma in 2012, a third round pick ( No. 74 overall). Watson, at has two years less pro experience; less college and less (no) high school experience. His athleticism, football intellect and competitiveness have him above Stephenson’s level already.

Watson has some issues, sure. He’s also a good option to develop.

Leary is pretty much what Garcia should emulate as he develops. Max has better pass than run blocking skills. If Max adds what Leary can do in the run game to his own skills, he’ll be in high demand.

No matter who starts at quarterback, one thing became crystal last season. Put any first-year QB behind a porous line with a rushing attack that was often stopped behind the line, only two dependable receivers and a tight end position thin enough to see through and you’re going to have trouble.

The Broncos 9-7 record was a tribute to their defense as well as the mental toughness and physical ability of the much-maligned Trevor Siemian. This year, they need the O-line, tight ends and rushing attack to give the QB cover. It’s the only way they’ll find out what they have at QB, regardless of who it is.

When a ‘bad’ season is 9-7, there’s every reason to hope for a return to the playoffs this year. As always, it starts up front. That’s why Denver’s free agent period was dedicated to the trenches. 

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

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