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“Tell me lies,
Tell me lies, tell me,
Tell me lies, tell me”
-Eddie Vedder

“We’re going to run the ball and we’re going to be physical.”
-Gary Kubiak

Ask almost any Broncos’ fan and they’ll tell you the team’s undoing last year was the offensive line. The previous coaching staff, including Head Coach John Fox, Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase and Offensive Line Coach Dave Magazu, began 2014 with the ill-fated assumption that T Chris Clark, who filled in admirably at LT for an injured Ryan Clady in 2013, would also fit nicely at RT in a power running scheme. They were wrong. What ensued was a rather embarrassing revolving door at the RT position and a reshuffling of the offensive line that weakened the team at several other positions in an effort to make up for the lack of a RT.

This offseason the team hired Gary Kubiak, who brings with him the Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) we all so fondly remember as the heart and soul of Denver’s glory days in the late 90s. Many soundbites from Kubiak since the hire have predictably referenced a renewed commitment to running the football, and John Elway has followed suit with his own claims. There’s only one problem. From a personnel perspective, Elway and Kubiak have done very little to improve the talent on the offensive line. LG Orlando Franklin, Denver’s highest graded (plus-12.0) offensive lineman from 2014, was allowed to leave via free agency. Also gone is the Broncos’ second highest graded offensive lineman, C Will Montgomery (plus-4.2). Once the coaching staff finally settled on a starting 5 last year, their most frequent starting offensive line was, from left to right, Clady/Franklin/Montgomery/Ramirez/Vasquez. Of those five, only two players remain: Clady and Vasquez.

Now don’t get me wrong, not all of the offseason departures will have a negative impact on the line. Ramirez is a replacement-level player. An equally productive and much cheaper player could likely be found wandering the 16th Street Mall in LoDo. But the fact remains that there are three starting jobs up for grabs on a line that was already bad before losing its two best linemen from last season.

To offset the losses, Denver added former Ravens’ C Gino Gradkowski and former Dolphins’ G Shelley Smith via free agency. In the draft, they added two more linemen in T Ty Sambrailo and C/G Max Garcia. Gradkowski and Smith were backups on their previous teams. Gradkowski started for Baltimore in 2013, but was the lowest-graded starting C in the NFL, per PFF. Smith wasn’t good enough to start for an offensive line in Miami that was worse than Denver’s. I’m fine with bringing these guys in as affordable backups, but to project either as a starter and, more importantly, as an upgrade over last year’s starters, is mind-boggling. The draft picks have potential, but Sambrailo has a severe lack of functional strength that may take a year or two to overcome. Garcia could push to start at C right away, but he lacks athleticism ideal for the ZBS and may find himself providing depth at G in the short term.

If the Broncos had taken a T in the first round as many (including myself) had expected, they would not have needed to reach for need with the Sambrailo pick in the second, and the entire draft would have had a different flavor. Florida’s D.J. Humphries went to the Cardinals one pick after the Broncos selected pass rusher Shane Ray in the first. Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings, a first round talent by many accounts, slipped to the fourth round because of concerns over a stress fracture in his foot. Denver could have had him in the second or third round. Lastly, they could have had LSU’s La’el Collins with a seventh round pick. If he goes to prison, which seems unlikely at this point, they would be out very little, considering at least two of their three seventh rounders are likely to be cut before the regular season gets underway. The point is that there was plenty of help available in the draft, but Elway and company ignored it in favor of a Best Player Available (BPA) approach in the first round. The problem with selecting the BPA in the first round is that it forces teams to reach for need in subsequent rounds. I believe the Broncos would have been far better off selecting Humphries in the first, which would have allowed them greater flexibility in the second, and they could have come away with more talented players overall. Any of Humphries, Collins and Clemmings (if his foot heals properly) would have been likely to start in week 1 this fall.

No matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, the offensive line additions do not appear to offset the losses of Franklin and Montgomery in the short term, and I keep seeing a line that will be worse in 2015 than it was in 2014.

I know it’s not hopeless. Clady and Vasquez are former All Pros that could regain their previous form. Clady is another year removed from lisfranc surgery, and Vasquez will be back in his natural position of RG. It’s also possible that Michael Schofield has developed nicely and can step in at either RT or LG. Maybe Sambrailo can use his athleticism to overcome his lack of strength and make an immediate impact. And maybe Max Garcia will step in and take charge of the C position for the next decade. Lastly, maybe the ZBS will again prove its value and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, working as one impressive unit as we remember in the days of yore. Maybe we’ll see an opening day lineup of Clady/Schofield/Garcia/Vasquez/Sambrailo, and maybe they’ll open some huge holes for C.J. Anderson et al. Maybe.

To complicate matters, Denver’s 3rd round draft choice in 2015, TE Jeff Heuerman, tore his ACL in the just the third offseason Organized Team Activity (OTA). Heuerman is an excellent blocker, and while many analysts assume he was part of the Broncos’ effort to replace the departed Julius Thomas in the passing game, the reality of the situation is that he projected mostly as a blocker in two-TE sets and as a contributor on Special Teams. Will he eventually contribute in the passing game as well? Sure, but his more immediate impact was likely to come as a blocker, which was something this team sorely needs.

With that in mind, let’s look to some possible help from free agency:

The Tackles:

Rank Name Height Weight Age PFF Grades Snaps Former Team Status
1 Jake Long 607 322 30 -1.5 449 St. Louis Cut
2 Ryan Harris 604 300 30 -1.6 980 Kansas City UFA
3 Joe Barksdale 605 326 27 -5.9 1031 St. Louis UFA
4 Gabe Carimi 607 316 27 -10.7 597 Atlanta UFA
5 Tyler Polumbus 608 305 30 -12.6 491 Washington UFA
6 Anthony Collins 605 315 29 -12.9 643 Tampa Bay Cut

The Guards:

Rank Name Height Weight Age PFF Grades Snaps Former Team Status
1 Mike Pollack 603 300 30 5 450 Cincinnati Cut
2 Justin Blalock 604 326 31 3.8 991 Atlanta Cut
3 Rob Sims 603 312 31 -1 1111 Detroit UFA
4 Fernando Velasco 604 312 30 -2.8 407 Carolina UFA
5 Charlie Johnson 604 305 31 -12.1 886 Minnesota Cut
6 Chad Rinehart 605 321 30 -22.7 1089 San Diego Cut
7 Dan Connolly 604 305 32 -24 848 New England UFA
8 Davin Joseph 603 313 31 -24.6 907 St. Louis UFA
9 Mike McGlynn 604 325 30 -32.6 826 Kansas City UFA

The Centers:

Rank Name Height Weight Age PFF Grades Snaps Former Team Status
1 Brian De la Puente 602 308 30 4.3 501 Chicago UFA
2 Chris Myers 604 286 33 2.3 1124 Houston Cut
3 Roberto Garza 602 310 36 -1.3 770 Chicago Cut
4 Jonathan Goodwin 603 318 36 -6.8 865 New Orleans UFA
5 Rich Ohrnberger 602 300 29 -11 453 San Diego UFA
6 Samson Satele 603 300 30 -11.9 1104 Miami UFA
7 Dominic Raiola 601 295 36 -17.2 1041 Detroit UFA
8 Lyle Sendlein 603 308 31 -29.1 1089 Arizona Cut
9 Scott Wells 602 302 34 -29.7 1014 St. Louis Cut

And for good measure, a couple of Tight Ends:

Rank Name Height Weight Age PFF Grades Snaps Former Team Status
1 Jermaine Gresham 605 260 27 -3.5 900 Cincinnati UFA
2 Niles Paul 601 233 26 -12.9 585 Washington UFA

I included players’ status of “Cut” or “UFA” because UFAs (Unrestricted Free Agents) technically count against Denver in the compensatory pick calculation. If they sign one of the UFAs to a one year, low money offer, however, I think it’s unlikely that they would cancel out UFAs lost by Denver like Thomas, Franklin, Irving, or Moore. Perhaps you could touch on that for us, Nick?

So what do you think, Broncos’ fans? Will we see any of these guys in orange and blue this fall?