Understanding The Denver Broncos Offensive Line Challenges

Doc Bear knows the football trenches. Today, he breaks down Denver's current situation on the offensive line, to understand where the Broncos must go from here to improve.

Chad Jensen covered a lot of very good ground with his Broncos Draft Rewind article on Connor McGovern recently. A few facts came up in conversation between us that seemed to fill out what he’s already put together, so we’re adding today’s conversation on to that solid beginning.

John Elway has had excellent results in most areas of the draft. The offensive line has, for the most part, been an exception to that rule. Chad noted that beyond Matt Paradis and maybe Orlando Franklin, Elway has struggled to find consistent O-line contributors in the draft. While still on the roster, the jury's still out on Michael SchofieldTy SambrailoMax Garcia and Connor McGovern

Chad was kind enough to leave out 2012 fourth-rounder Philip Blake off the list of dead-end O-line draft picks. After trying with the Broncos and Cardinals, Blake finally found success on the Montreal Alouettes, as of January 2015. All the best to him. I never heard anyone say that he took a play off.

It’s an interesting fact — one of the reasons given for Gary Kubiak over John Fox — was that Kube would play young players Fox would not. Kubiak was also cautious in putting his O-line picks out on gameday, but there is a good reason for that — two, really.

First, a note on young O-linemen. Elway's nearly 50/50 on who he plays and who sits. My own sense is that he's willing to have his coaches go for it with someone who clearly is ready (Orlando Franklin), and they're willing to give some guys reps during the first season (Max Garcia).

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1770638-valuing-draft-position-gr... Others (Matt Paradis, Michael Schofield) are given more time. I'm more than okay with that. Some guys are ready sooner, most coming out of college need 1-2 years on the bench. That’s not going to get better anytime soon.  

Sitting Paradis worked like a charm, in great part to his relationship with Peyton Manning. We've talked about this — few of players come out of college ready to even get a sniff of the NFL.

Paradis works like no one’s business and he learned to be an NFL center from one of the most cerebral QBs of all time. The year he was able to spend learning about NFL defenses from one of the most knowledgeable people in the game has served him well. He was the top center in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Connor McGovern is as strong as a bull, but he was not ready in terms of his technique. This is, as we've noted, pretty common — it's getting to the point where you have to pencil in 2-3 years before a lot of guys are ready to step on the field.

With that in mind, I would expect the Broncos to take a developmental player, probably a tackle, later in the draft. As we’ve seen with the Trevor Siemian situation, being drafted late brings an expectation of things taking longer. It often seems to confuse people when that doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t. Ask Chris Harris, Jr.

On that topic, I don’t recall who it was but a Hall of Fame player was congratulating one of the first-round players on a draft show some years back. After the obligatory (and heartfelt) exchange of happiness, the old bull had some advice for the youngster.

“I’m glad you had that experience, my man,” he said. “But today’s the last time what round you were picked in is going to matter. From here on out, it’s all on how much you drive yourself and how well you perform.

“Don’t make the mistake some guys do of trying to skate on your draft pick,” he continued. “It’s righteous that you got that recognition for what you did in college, but you’re going up against grown men who are feeding their families. Don’t let it go to your head.”  

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More coaches used to nurse high-round picks more carefully. But what that young man was told is advice that many should also consider. Superior play in competition is what earns playing time. Nothing else matters — or should.

The second problem in 2016 was the coaching. Denver now has O-line coach Jeff Davidson — who has developed a tight-knit relationship with OC Mike McCoy — working with the players both as group and one-on-one. An improvement in production is expected by nearly everyone.

Last year’s mess was on the front office and O-line coach Clancy Barone. I noticed that Chad didn't talk about who was coaching the position when certain decisions were made, but I think that it was important, each season.

As an example, Dave Magazu was a heck of a plus for the line. I hated losing him. The year before he came on, there was a broadcast shot of the O-line.

You could see their uneven splits (the distance between the O-line players) and stances. About half way through the next season, with Magazu coaching, an identical shot showed a line that was textbook, straight across. Coaching matters — tremendously.

Sadly, the Rick Dennison/Clancy Barone tandem was a disaster and not for the first time. Chad noted that he couldn't understand the choice of Darrion Weems or Billy Turner for some game reps over McGovern last year. I agreed — a few reps to get the feel of the pros is valuable. I love what Clancy did with Antonio Gates, among others, but his O-line work here has been less fruitful. McCoy/Davidson should be a great deal better.

Michael Schofield is a great example of the issue. He started with Denver as a third round pick in 2014. He wasn't expected to play in 2014 or 2015. He clearly needed the time in development. Due to some bad coaching decisions, his work was required in 2015, although he got his helmet handed to him all year.

Schofield stunk at right tackle until he and the coaches watched all his practice and game tape until two weeks before the AFC Championship Game. They found, and fixed, his weakness in technique.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1770031-broncos-like-a-couple-ot-... He then had good games against New England and Carolina at right tackle — in theory, the elite of the league. Tackles, as every Denver fan has found, are hard to find. Why did they move Schofield to guard?

Because Denver brought in Donald Stephenson. In 2016, Schofield went to RG, while Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo alternately demonstrated how to not play the RT position. It was 2015 all over, in that we didn't really have a RT.

I don't know what they were thinking — Stephenson has a history of poor play, and I was surprised that they took him on. He was awful at RT all season, although he had played somewhat better at LT while in Kansas City. Schofield might have been an upgrade at RT, and he couldn't have been any worse.

It should be fun to see what happens in the next few weeks. Elway has promised a solution of some kind of on the left tackle front, and I’m eager to see what he comes up with.

If all else fails, King Dunlap is still available and both Davidson and McCoy are familiar with him. I’m concerned that drafting a LT and expecting him to be proficient his first season may put the player in a tough position.

Few players at tackle are ready that fast, and it’s not a strong year at the position. There are sleepers in every draft, though. It only takes one, and if Denver has one offensive tackle they want, they have the firepower to move up.

They may need to — the Chargers are picking at 7, and they, too, need a tackle. The Giants are picking at 23, need a tackle and rumors are already spreading regarding their interest in leapfrogging Denver.

I'm hoping that Davidson's relationship with McCoy will also help this area. It seems clear that there's been no solid, overarching approach to building the O-line. We're switching from power to zone to power and back to zone. And, which zone scheme matters a lot.

Outside? Inside? Full stretch? It was mostly outside, but with Stephenson having a 43.6 run block rating and Schofield with a 44.4 (both from PFF; they matched the tape) it was going to stink. Guess what? It did.

Now we're looking at a combo approach, inside and outside zone, plus gap blocking. I think that with Davidson and a specific zone coach — Brad Bedell — working together will help. There’s no question that Davidson is running things.

Guard Ronald Leary is a huge step up — I think Denver will be running a lot of inside zone, just to see him with Paradis blocking that play. Matt had a 90.3 grade on his run blocking last season — while playing with painful hips, bilaterally. He and Leary could have a field day together.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1770700-lynch-siemian-talk-qb-com...Menelik Watson, as I've said before, remains a quandary. It’s definitely a boom/bust situation. I respect him leaving college after his junior season to take care of his family, and NFL coaching is a big step up.

If you just base this on his number of years in the game, he’s currently taking what amounts to a rookie or sophomore year in Denver. With his power and athleticism, he could step up this year or he could be a total bust.

Watson's always had that possibility, even when I was first scouting him in 2013. Davidson will give him all the coaching he can handle — if he doesn't improve substantially under Davidson, he's not likely to. Tackles are tough to find, which is why I was shocked that they gave up on Schofield so quickly.

Watson played college basketball from 2009-2010 at the Marist College sports powerhouse....he blew out an ankle and was told he couldn't play basketball. He attended Saddleback Community College, then Florida State.

Like TE Julius Thomas, he was basketball first and didn't know a lot about the game of football. Unlike Julius, he loves contact. Watson's coming along fine, if you take into account his long road to American football.

I'm hopeful for a big step up this year or next. Otherwise, well, we'll see. Can't have too many tackles. Denver seems to have a whole bunch of guards, though

So, to me, problem No. 1 is the poor level of NCAA offensive line training. What they get in college is mediocre to terrible, and a tendency to use coaching assistants in the NFL makes a bad situation at the O-line positions to a terrible one. Few are ready to play immediately and Max Garcia gives us a good picture of that.

Garcia started at the University of Maryland, and played in two games his freshman year — about normal. He played 12 games at LT his sophomore year, so he was a major talent there.

Then the coaches who recruited him left — Garcia had been drawn to Maryland by former Terrapins head coach Ralph Friedgen and current Penn State coach James Franklin, who was then Maryland’s offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting.

Garcia had offers from Florida, Georgia, Clemson, Ole Miss and SCU, but went with Florida, in great part due to how impressed he was with offensive line coach Tim Davis (there's that aspect again).  

After sitting out his mandatory transfer year, he became a campus celebrity. He moved to center as a senior just because they didn't have one — he could play any college position, although he doesn't seem to have the feet for the NFL tackle position.

Max is a good example of Problem No. 2; developing the players without putting them in too far over their heads. What Max does have is a heck of a bright future, which game him the nickname, 'The Future'. He took downs at both tackle slots in 2015, learning the pro game and how fast it is. He’s still struggling with stunts and twists.

Garcia's numbers improved in the last half of the 2017 season, though, which is encouraging. The issue we’re looking at is to have Leary, McGovern, Garcia, and Schofield all on the roster. One will probably have to go.

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It's likely to be Schofield. If it is, I wouldn't be surprised to see him play well against Denver at some point. His positional versatility will help him stay in the league and develop.

One of the facts of life is that there are relatively few high-quality O-line candidates in the 2017 draft. They’re going to go fast, although there are always quality sleepers.

If Denver wants one of the top-5, they may need to use the first round pick. They can move up if they can find a partner — with 10 picks, they have all the ammunition they need.

In a draft that’s strong and deep in tight ends, Denver needs at least one of them. An upgrade at RB never hurts. It’s also clear that Demaryius Thomas is being asked to step up in 2017 and that Denver could use another receiver.

That person might also be a tight end — there are several high-quality receivers, but only a few who can also block. No matter who plays QB this season,  we’re going to need to keep him on his feet.

There’s nothing like the feeling of going into a draft with 10 picks. It’s like Christmas Eve.

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

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