While everyone in Broncos Country is busy talking about Snapchats and the quarterback battle, some of the most important work for the Denver Broncos success this upcoming season is going about rather quietly.
It is true that the quarterback and the new coaching staff are far more interesting and obvious storylines so far in OTAs, but it is the unit that John Elway and the front office emphasized the most this offseason that may not only have the biggest impact on a game-to-game basis, but help change the mentality of the Broncos offense going forward. Over the last few months, Elway made it a priority for the Broncos to become bigger, more athletic, stronger, and meaner across the offensive line.
To start this transition towards becoming a team that wins in the trenches on offense, the Broncos decided to let 2016 starting left tackle Russell Okung walk. While Okung did have his ups and downs this past season, he was arguably the second-best player on the Broncos’ offensive line in 2016, behind center Matt Paradis.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1783405-can-we-expect-a-te-renais... Bleacher Reports’ NFL 1000 had Okung ranked as above average at left tackle, with stronger grades as a run blocker than as a pass blocker. While it would have been nice for the Broncos to keep Okung for continuity, his play was not consistent enough for Denver to justify activating his team option, which would have been for four years and $48 million.
Surprisingly, Okung found an even sweeter deal on the open market, signing with the divisional rival Los Angeles Chargers for four-year, $53 million. Given how injured the Chargers players are consistently and Okung’s injury history, this seems to be a risk that competent management would not make. Despite his shortcomings, Okung was average to above average last season, and Denver has no guarantee to have better play from left tackle this season.
After letting Okung walk, Elway turned his attention to former Dallas Cowboys guard Ronald Leary. At the Combine, there were rumors swirling about the Broncos interest in obtaining his services to solidify the interior offensive line. Incumbent starting guards Max Garcia and Michael Schofield had failed to entrench themselves at either guard position the previous season, so signing Leary seemed like an obvious and simple solution to improve the offensive line.
Leary, 28 years old, signed on for a four-year, $35 million contract with Denver. While Leary may have been the fourth best player on the best offensive line in football, he instantly helps the Broncos offense in the run and pass game, as his strength, athleticism, and tenacity, was sorely missing from the Broncos this past season.
The signing should be seen as a solid and no-brainer move for Elway trying to improve the offensive line, but Leary does come with some health risks, specifically a chronic knee injury that caused him to fall to an undrafted free agent when he came out of Memphis. This knee condition could rear at any moment, but obtaining Leary appears to be a smart choice and calculated risk in helping the Broncos win up front.
The other, less celebrated, offensive line signing the Broncos had this past offseason was obtaining former Oakland Raider Menelik Watson to a three-year, $18.3 million deal. Watson, a former Florida State Seminole and native of Manchester, England, never really caught on with the Raiders — despite being a second round selection. Coming out of college, Watson was considered raw as a tackle but with tremendous upside given his athleticism at his size.
At just 28 years old himself and standing at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, with solid length at 34-inch arms, Watson has the makeup to be a starting tackle in the NFL. Despite his upside and talent, Watson always seemed to be dealing with some sort of injury during his tenure in Oakland. While obviously more talented than Austin Howard, every time Watson appeared to take the starting right tackle spot, he would get dinged up and again be pushed back down the depth chart.
Furthermore, Watson has never been able to fully grow as a player, due to spending a decent amount of time in the trainer’s room rehabbing, compared to being on the field. One of the key aspects for Watson coming over to Denver was the allure of the health the Broncos facilities have afforded previously injury-prone players. Watson was attractued to the Broncos ability to keep players healthy..
“That’s why I’m here," Watson said earlier this spring. "[Denver] has the best strength staff in the world. I’ve talked diligently with those guys… for me, it wasn’t about chasing a contract… It’s about going to the situation that’s going to elongate my career.”
Watson is going to have to compete for a starting spot on the Broncos’ offensive line, but if he can stay healthy, there is little reason to believe he won’t be an upgrade to the unit.
The final big shake up the Broncos added to the offensive line this offseason was adding first-round tackle Garett Bolles from the University of Utah. While Bolles is older (25 years old) and more raw (only one year of division one starting experience), he did more than enough to garner a first round selection 2017 NFL Draft.
http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1777865-film-room-garett-bolles-v... Bolles is a nasty big man with athleticism in spades to help add even more talent to the Broncos offensive line. While raw in technique, Bolles has the size, movement-skills, and angry play that makes even the best pancake-maker blush. However, Bolles is still raw in the mental and technical aspects of the game and is going to have to work extremely hard to be an average starting tackle this season, especially in the AFC West which has an embarrassment of talent at edge rusher.
Bolles very likely will play to the level that Okung did last year for Denver given how raw he is as a player and the fact that he is a rookie, but the long-term ceiling for him is extremely high and compares favorably to Tennessee Titans tackle and athletic freak Taylor Lewan. Bolles is going to have to put in the work to earn starting left tackle, but once it clicks for him, the Broncos offensive line should be trending in a positive direction for the first time in a long time.
State of the Incumbents
There is also hope in the facility that younger players on the roster may be finally able to take the next step and be contributors for the O-line. While Michael Schofield and Max Garcia did not ‘wow’ anyone with their play last season, both had flashes that showed solid ability at guard. Garcia started off the year at left guard rather poorly but appeared to improve as the year went on.
He is a mean run blocker. Once he gets his hands on a defender, Garcia can drive them back and out of the play. He will never be the most fleet-of-foot guard, but he should be able to improve his processing speed to better pick up blitzes and stunts and take better angles when engaging at the second level.
Schofield started off the year solidly at right guard but appeared to lose some of his momentum as the year progressed. While a solid pass protector, Schofield struggled in creating any sort of push in the run game and may have his work cut out for him as the offense transitions to a more power-blocking based scheme.
Along with the former starting guards, 2016 draft pick Connor McGovern and waiver wire pick up Billy Turner also add competition and depth to the interior and upside at guard (and potentially center in McGovern’s case). Assuming Leary is the starting left guard, there will be an open competition at right guard throughout training camp.
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Garcia appears to have the leg up right now given as he played his best ball in 2015 at right guard and is a better fit in a power blocking scheme, but talent behind him should push him and maybe even surpass him if he is not careful.
As for tackle, there has been plenty of positive buzz coming from incumbent tackles Donald Stephenson and Ty Sambrailo so far in OTAs. Stephenson is taking reps at left tackle, a position he fared much better at when playing for Kansas City, where his lack of aggression and strength can be better mitigated by his length and athleticism. Stephenson does have the tools to be a starting left tackle, but has lacked the consistency and mentality so far to stick.
Furthermore, the former second-rounder Sambrailo, who by all accounts was the worst offensive lineman on the team last year (see Vic Beasley destroy him in the Week 5 Atlanta game or Justin Houston take his lunch money in the first half against Kansas City in Denver), appears to finally be healthy. Sambrailo has always had the feet and athleticism to play tackle, but with a bum shoulder and lack of core strength, he was consistently out-muscled at the point of attack.
Unable to generate push and unable to sustain blocks, Sambrailo struggled horribly. However, if he was finally able to have a healthy and productive offseason and add strength, he could be a dark horse candidate to start at tackle this season.
The final player to review, who is both the safest and biggest question mark heading into the season, is starting center Matt Paradis. While Paradis was a borderline All-Pro this past season and was, by far, the best player on the offensive line, he does have numerous questions heading into this season.
Most obviously, Paradis is coming off double hip surgery that may have a negative impact on his performance. While he toughed it out last season, often not suiting up for play until gameday, Paradis’ hips are something to monitor going forward as they could hamper his ability to drive block and create force at initial contact.
Furthermore, with the Broncos switching to a scheme heavier with power concepts, Paradis may struggle somewhat in the transition. While Paradis is as technical and smart as it comes at the center position, he will likely be asked to complete less doubles and move blocks this season and instead will be engaged in more man-blocking assignments.
Due to his smaller stature (6-foot-3, 300 pounds), this may be somewhat of a problem for Paradis, as he appears to be a center that is better suited for a zone scheme compared to man concepts. Still, he is savvy and mean enough to continue being a great center if he can stay healthy.
Overall, Elway did about as much as he reasonably could do to help improve the offensive line this offseason. He went out and not only used a decent chunk of cap to bring in athletic and strong free agents in Leary and Watson, but also used the team’s first round pick to bring in another ‘big-ugly’.
These acquisitions, along with a new and (hopefully) improved offensive coaching staff should pay dividends to the team as a whole. If the offensive line can help pass block and open up running lanes better, it will help the quarterback develop better (see David Carr in Houston for what happens to a young quarterback’s development if you don’t protect them) and keep the defense fresh and off the field.
While it is just OTAs and the perceived improvement is just a projection at this point, an improved offensive line is imperative for the team’s success going forward. It not only could make or break Denver’s playoff chances this year, but could be the deciding factor in developing a franchise quarterback and changing the offensive culture going forward.
After all, games are still won in the trenches.
Nick Kendell is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. Follow him on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.